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The Present

What if education were engaging for every student?

OpenStax reimagined textbooks and saved students $1 billion. Now is a moment to reimagine even more. How can education help students learn more, better, and faster?

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Key Takeaways
  • In 2012, I founded OpenStax as a then-radical solution to the Great Recession: Why not make college textbooks free for students? And why not make them open-licensed?
  • Now we are faced with COVID-19, another crisis of enormous scale—and one that is once again underscoring the harsh inequities in our communities and accelerating the existing gap between the haves and the have-nots.
  • Student engagement and open education are the next frontiers that innovators must address if we want education to live up to its promise as the great equalizer.

I still cannot get over how much the world has changed in the past few months. We have seen an upheaval in education across our nation and around the globe with tremendous impacts on students, teachers, and our workforce. School and college closures have sent millions of students home to study remotely in hastily prepared online courses. And unemployment is reaching Great Depression levels, with millions of workers looking to upskill and re-enter the now rapidly changing job market. Education is supposed to be the “great equalizer.” Yet, COVID-19 has underscored the harsh inequities in our communities and accelerated the existing gap between the haves and the have-nots. I expect that things will never quite be the same.

I founded OpenStax in 2012 as a then-radical solution: Why not make college textbooks free for students? And why not make them open-licensed so that faculty could easily customize them to create the perfect course?

The economic impacts of the current crisis remind me of the Great Recession that followed the financial collapse of 2008. Then, as now, students were looking to our nation’s colleges to rebuild their lives. But their situation was aggravated by skyrocketing college textbook prices, which by 2012 had risen more than 800% over the previous three decades to hundreds of dollars. It is not an exaggeration that college students were having to decide between buying a textbook or groceries.

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In response to this crisis, I founded OpenStax in 2012 as a then-radical solution: Why not make college textbooks free for students? And why not make them open-licensed so that faculty could easily customize them to create the perfect course? Leveraging the Connexions digital textbook publishing platform I had been developing at Rice University since 1999 and building an editorial team comprising leading college educators funded by forward-thinking philanthropists, we published our first five textbooks.

Today, OpenStax’s library of 40 textbooks covers most of the introductory college courses and has saved students nearly $1 billion. This past school year, 3.4 million students used these texts across 60 per cent of all US degree-granting institutions and many high school classrooms. We have seen true market disruption, as prices dropped for the first time in history starting in 2017, which has largely been attributed to OpenStax and the open education movement. Free and open texts have gone mainstream, they’re no longer radical; they simply make sense for students.

Digital versions of OpenStax textbooks.Photo: Jemel Agulto, OpenStax

In the face of COVID-19, OpenStax is experiencing an unprecedented demand for free resources and a first-of-its-kind experiment in online education. OpenStax’s students and instructors have doubled during the pandemic as compared to the same period last year. Instructors have rapidly transitioned online, restructuring courses and learning new technologies and practices. In response, we are focused on meeting faculty and students where they are at this moment, creating an express lane to quickly and easily integrate our resources into their online learning platforms. Additionally, we are partnering with the Association of College and University Educators to infuse our materials with research-based best practices around engagement to support teaching and learning for the benefit of all students, rather than just a few. The real test will come down to impacting student engagement at a time when there are rising gaps in equitable opportunities.

Students don’t learn if they’re not engaged. In a traditional course, we may lose a student’s attention in 15 minutes; online this narrows to mere seconds. We need to develop interactions that better reflect a new reality in which learning takes place in shorter cycles and in which bursts of activity break the monotony. Brief activities, videos, peer review, dynamic discussions, and rapid review need to be used in a consistent and predictable manner for students. The implementation of these engaging experiences will vary from class to class. So we need highly modularized solutions that work globally to scale but act locally to meet the unique needs of instructors and deepen engagement for their students.

As the nation now faces increased tensions, changes, and anxieties, it is hard to see bright spots ahead. Yet, perhaps now more than ever, this is a moment to reimagine education. What if students could better understand themselves as learners—could that spark curiosity and motivation? What if teachers were supported in using data to personalize experiences and interventions for all their students, rather than just a few? These would be huge advances. If we want education to be the great equalizer, then it’s time to double-down on open education models that drive toward student engagement.

Image: Courtesy of OpenStax


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