Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 10 October 2007   Friday, October 19, 2007

ISSN 1748-3603

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Faculty and publishers advance e-learning
A view from the USA
by Jim Farmer

In January 2004 Merriah Fairchild wrote in RipOff 101, "The high cost [of textbooks] is primarily due to publishers producing new editions like clockwork, regardless of how much new educational content exists, and including expensive bells and whistles, such as CD-ROMs, that professors rarely find useful" (Fairchild 2004: 5) [1].

Despite opinions such as this, there is evidence to suggest extensive and rapidly growing faculty use of digital learning materials from commercial publishers. Statistics suggest publishers are beginning to dominate e-learning in US colleges and universities and that the costs are being borne by students through increased textbook prices. US faculty are choosing publisher materials and services because of availability, effectiveness, and low technical barriers to implementation and use.

The UK could experience a similar evolution if government and institutions fail, as government and higher education in the USA failed, to find alternative methods of financing, authoring and distributing e-learning materials.

Student textbook costs
It was students in California and Oregon that brought the issue of textbook costs to the attention of the media, the public, and subsequently the U.S. Congress [2]:

Students will spend an average of $898 [£564 in 2003; £442 in 2007] per year on textbooks in 2003-04, based on surveys of University of California (UC) students in the fall of 2003. This represents almost 20 percent of the average tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year colleges nationwide. In contrast, a 1997 UC survey found that students spent an average of $642 [£413 then, £316 now] on textbooks in 1996-97. (Fairfield, 2004: 4)

The US Government Accounting Office (GAO) - with a mission similar to the UK's National Audit Office - was asked to prepare a report on textbook prices. The GAO data presented in Figure 1 shows that the price of textbooks had increased by 174% between 1986 and 2003-04; tuition and required fees has increased by 216%; while prices overall - the "Consumer Price Index" - had increased by only 67% [3].


Figure 1: Textbook price increases 1987 to 2004 (Reproduced from USGAO, 2005)

The GAO report summarized the impact of textbook prices on low-income students:

At 2-year public institutions, where low-income students are more likely to pursue a degree program and tuition and fees are lower, the average estimated cost of books and supplies per first-time, full-time student was $886 [£557 then, £437 now] in academic year 2003-2004, representing almost three-quarters of the cost of tuition and fees. (USGAO, 2005: 2-3)  

Because part-time students do not receive federal financial aid, from the student perspective 'textbooks' were a significant expenditure sometimes exceeding tuition and required fees.
The GAO report also identified the publisher’s investment in supplementary materials, but this observation was not referenced in testimony:

While there are many factors that affect textbook pricing, the price of textbooks has increased in recent years, according to experts we spoke with, as a result of the increase in costs associated with new features, such as Web sites and other instructional supplements. ... Publishers say they have increased their investments in the development of supplements to meet the demands of a changing postsecondary market. For example, publishers we spoke with cited increases in part-time faculty who need additional teaching support as a key factor that has increased demand for instructional supplements. Publishers also said instructors are requesting more supplements, such as Web-based tutorials and self-assessment tools, to enhance student learning. (USGAO, 2005: 0)

Faculty use of online services
The Association of American Publishers (AAP) routinely surveys faculty practices and made the detailed data available to researchers [4]. The results of the AAP's 2006 survey on the frequency of use of "supplementary materials" are shown in Table 1 (Zogby, 2006). A review of financial presentations made by publishers confirm at least 5 million student enrolments on publisher online services, more than a quarter of the USA's enrolments in higher education: Pearson reports 3.6 million online enrolments (Pearson, 2006c), while Thomson Learning reports 1.5 millions enrolments (Thomson, 2006).

Type of Supplementary

Learning Material


of Use

Study guides


Online homework systems


Reading lists


Online quizzes


Online assignments


Journal articles


Study groups




Solutions manual


Writing aids


Lecture notes


In-class activities


Research in current events


Case studies


Grammar help




Independent websites [of related content]


Table 1: Use of supplementary materials (Reproduced from Zogby, 2006)

According to the AAP survey , 86% of faculty - up by 11% since 2004 - require or recommend supplementary materials (Farmer, 2006d). The use of publisher services - somewhere between 30 and 48% of staff - shows that faculty have found convenient and effective online materials useful in their teaching. But such use may be limited by availability rather than faculty commitment to e-learning.
A typical "3 unit course" in the USA has three "fifty minute" hours of lecture or discussion for each of the 15 to 18 weeks of a semester term: much less than a typical year-long course in the U.K. About 40 courses must be completed for a baccalaureate degree. The typical US college or university offers 1,500 to 3,000 different courses. Collectively publishers appear to have supplementary materials available for less than 600 courses, and have more than 1,000 under development. The current lack of online materials for a course limits faculty use.
One alternative to a publisher's online site is to make the digital content associated with a textbook available as a 'cartridge' - a specially formatted collection of files and descriptions of content - for use in the university’s learning management system. Since a Blackboard learning management system is available in 76% of US colleges and universities, a significant number of faculty were expected to be using Blackboard cartridges. However, only 2% of faculty said they use Blackboard cartridges (Zogby, 2006). Blackboard's Jan Posten Day commented:

I also suspect that many people - even if they use a Blackboard Course Cartridge or WebCT ePack - don't think of it as 'Blackboard' or 'WebCT' material because it isn't branded as such. Instead they think of it as their 'electronic textbook materials' and associate it with the publisher who provided it. Both of these factors would lead me to think they would be less likely to report it in a survey as 'Blackboard’ Cartridge.
(Farmer, 2006c: 20).

Another explanation for the low use is the effort required to identify, import, and implement a cartridge. The different versions and formats of cartridges - McGraw Hill reported supporting 24 versions two years ago - often require technical support from both the publisher and the local information technology staff. The IMS Global Learning Consortium has developed a 'Common Cartridge' specification that could ensure future interoperability [5].
What is a 'textbook'?
For most college graduates (including members of the US Congress, education lobbyists and analysts clamouring about the price of textbooks) the textbook is a paper object purchased at the campus bookstore and assumed to be nothing more. Current students assume a textbook has 'supplementary materials' available from the publisher which they are expected to use. They expect and use online services, read digital documents, and listen to audio and watch video media. 
This difference in perception influenced all of the textbook pricing discussions in the US, even though the available data showed how faculty have widely adopted and used the 'bundled' supplementary materials. One of the objectives of the authors of  RipOff 101 was to force publishers to 'unbundle' textbooks. For the faculty member this creates a dilemma: it means that some of the students in class may not have access to the online services or documents.  This makes instruction more difficult and suggests those unable to 'purchase' these supplements would be less likely to successfully complete the course.

Do students benefit from e-learning materials?

77% of faculty responding to the AAP survey expressed the view that most of their students benefit from using the supplemental course materials available. 65% said that supplemental materials help retain students who might otherwise be in danger of failing. 65% also agree that supplemental materials save students time by helping them learn the course material more efficiently. Finally, 57% agree that most students would be more successful in the course work if instructors required supplemental materials (Farmer, 2006d).
Only limited data on the effectiveness of learning materials is available. In the USA basic mathematics is an often cited example where online learning significantly improved learning effectiveness. Examples are listed in Figure 2. Pearson Education's MyMathLab is shown in green. Plato Learning in blue. And, for comparisons, the prior year or semester is shown in brown. The criterion used for evaluation is given for each example. A, B, and C refer to students who received one of three grades; D would not be satisfactory completion (Farmer, 2006d; Pearson, 2006a; Pearson, 2006b; Quinn, 2003; Speckler, 2005).


Figure 2: Examples of successful e-learning (Zogby, 2006)

The impact on student attainment is significant, especially for the less prepared student.  As shown in Table 2, a student entering a two-year college (which is increasingly the route toward a baccalaureate degree) has only a 38.4% chance of completing a degree or certificate in six years; entering a four-year college, a student has a 65.1% chance.

1995 Entering Students Six Years Later

2-year colleges
4-year colleges
Associates degree



Bachelor's degree



Other degree or certificate



Any degree



Still enrolled



Not enrolled



Table 2: Student attainment (Zogby, 2006)

In Europe there is a tradition of testing to determine if a student is prepared for college. This is not public policy in the USA. For this reason supplemental materials that improve instructional effectiveness for a diverse student population are important for student success. The AAP faculty survey and US Department of Education studies indicate more than half of US students are 'unprepared' for college work on entry to college. This is a challenge for colleges and universities than can be met, in part, by use of effective e-learning materials.
The costs of e-learning materials
In the USA it has been the practice of colleges and universities to expect faculty to create course materials. Generally only the large enrolment colleges such as Coastline, Rio Salado, Miami Dade and Dallas County (that also developed telecourses in the 1980s and 1990s) are able to devote the necessary resources to related course development. These early distance learning colleges could build their Internet-based courses upon their existing library of lesson plans, text, slides, and television recordings. They were also high enrolment colleges or districts with lower unit costs [6].

The Open University (OU) in the UK may have been the earliest developer of rich e-learning materials. Partnering with the British Broadcasting Corporation, the OU developed the materials for a complete three-year baccalaureate programme. A 1998 review of authoring and producing these course materials for the baccalaureate programme estimated the cost at US$500 million [£296 million then]. OU officials subsequently said the actual costs were US$1 billion [£593 million then] which is approximately what publishers expect to invest in the next two or three years in US course development.
These materials are authored by teams of knowledge specialists, writers, multimedia specialists, learning technologists, web content developers and sometimes computer programmers. It is unreasonable to expect a faculty member to develop course materials, though there are some who have done so through personal sacrifice. Although development costs can vary widely, costs of US$1 million are considered reasonable for a US course of 45 classroom hours or the equivalent. Based on information extrapolated from some publisher websites, the publishers now have 1,000 courses under development. This represents an industry investment of about US$1 billion. Some, noting examples such as an engineering text from Rice University, believe e-learning materials can be developed and made available under free licensing. They cite MIT’s Open CourseWare, but often fail to include the costs to MIT of US$30,000 [£14,787] per course to obtain copyright clearance or redesign charts and diagrams, and to reformat existing course materials used by faculty. Based on these data, MIT will have invested more than US$51 million [£25.1 million] for the 1,700 existing courses.

Some course materials from the OU are now being made available to colleges and universities under the OpenLearn project with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The first IMS-compliant Common Cartridges of these materials have been developed and are now being tested. The publisher's current business model is simple: those who purchase new textbooks bear the cost of authoring and distribution of supplementary materials. The instructor can make these materials available to anyone: no student is denied access. A publisher's online services usually require either the purchase of a new textbook or access to the online service.

The US Department of Education notes the costs of the online services to be about US$15 [£7.39] with a range of US$7 to $30 [£3.45 to £14.79] per course enrolment per term. For publishers the breakeven point would be about 66,000 to 286,000 course enrolments (assuming 50% of the Department’s estimated fees can amortize course development with no interest).  Typically course materials are refreshed every 3 to 5 years so, even using the same materials for several years, it would  require very large institutions, consortia, or the large user base that publishers can create to produce a positive return on investment (Dynarski, 2007). The first courses to be developed will have large enrolments; later courses would have lower enrolments and unit costs can be expected to increase.
Some publishers may believe they will not be able to continue to include the costs of online course materials in the textbook prices. Cenage (then as Thomson Learning) began offering assessments for US$9.95 a term directly to students. The effectiveness of assessment for learning has been demonstrated and Cenage keyed responses to chapters in several different textbooks. Making assessments offered directly to students is a new business model independent of faculty textbook choice or recommendations.

Publisher Strategy
Given the cost of course development, it is unlikely colleges or universities will be able, individually or collectively, to make the investment publishers are making. In the US, colleges and universities added technology fees which now average US$349 [£172] per student to support information technology (Hawkins, 2005; Farmer, 2006c). It is unlikely the fee would be increased to include education technology as long as the cost can be borne by students through textbook pricing or by a student purchasing e-learning services directly from a publisher.
The publishers have two alternatives. One is to use the campus learning system as a vehicle for delivering learning services. Another is to deliver the services directly. The investment being made by publishers, and exemplified by the purchase of eCollege or Pearson’s expansion using uPortal, suggests that publishers have the capability to deliver learning services directly to the student, with or without faculty involvement.
At the Advisory Committee’s June 2007 hearing, John Sargent, CEO of Holtzbrinck Publishers in the US commented:

We [publishers] are spending an enormous amount of time and energy now training faculty in this [technology]. As we put these [learning] systems together our sales reps are becoming consultants .. sitting down with the faculty and saying here is what the technology can do and literally training faculty individually how to use it and why it would be useful to your student
(ACFSA, 2007b). 

Publishers have developed a business model to support a large investment in the development of course materials, have created a direct and productive relationship with faculty, and have focused on learning how students learn. This seems to be model where faculty, students, and publishers all benefit at least in the short term and in the absence of any more creative approach within higher education.

Advisory Committee for Student Financial Assistance. (ACSFA 2007a, ) Turn the page: making college textbooks more affordable. Washington DC USA. U.S. Department of Education.  [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07]

Advisory Committee for Student Financial Assistance (ACSFA) (2007b) The Advisory Committee’s Hearing, Holiday Inn on the Hill, Washington, DC, 5 June 2007 (Audio recording mp3 01:34;03). Washington DC USA. U.S. Department of Education [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07]
Dynarski, M. et al (2007) Effectiveness of reading and mathematics software products: findings from the first student cohort. Washington, DC USA. Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education (NCEE 2007-4005) [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07]

Fairchild, M. (2004) Ripoff 101: How the current practices of the textbook industry drive up the cost of college textbooks. Sacramento, California USA. California Public Interest Research Group [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07]

Farmer, J. (1996) Using technology (pp. 476-495) in Gaff, Jerry G. and James L. Ratcliff and Associates (Ed.)  Handbook of the undergraduate curriculum. San Francisco, California USA. Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Farmer, J. (2004) Financing instructional technology and distance education: reviewing costs and outcomes (pp. 186-212). In St. John, Edward P. and Michael D. Parsons (Ed.) Public funding of higher education: changing contexts and new rationales. Baltimore, Maryland USA. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Farmer, J. and Tilton, J. (2006) The use of virtual learning environment software in UK universities 2001-2005. Washington, DC USA. instructional media + magic, inc. [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07]
Farmer, J. (2006b) E-Learning. In Priest, Douglas M. and Edward P. St. John, (Ed.). Privatization and public universities (pp. 228-243). Bloomington, Indiana USA. Indiana University Press.
Farmer, J. (2006c)  Software trends in higher education: 2002-2004. Washington, DC USA. instructional media + magic, inc [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07]

Farmer, J. (2006d)  Faculty selection and use of publisher-provided textbooks and supplementary materials in the United States. Washington, DC USA. Instructional media + magic, inc. [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07]

Hawkins, B., Rudy, J. and Nicolich, R. (2005) EDUCAUSE core data service: fiscal year 2004 summary report. Boulder Colorado USA. EDUCAUSE [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07]
Pearson Education (2006a) MyMathLab MathXL Student Results. Saddle River, New Jersey USA [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07]

Pearson Education (2006b) What is MyMathLab? Unprecedented Student Results. Saddle River, New Jersey USA [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07]
Pearson Education (2006c)  Live and Learn: Pearson Annual Review 2005. London, U.K [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07] 
Speckler, M. (2005) Making the grade: a report on the success of MyMathLab in higher education math instruction. Saddle River, New Jersey USA. Pearson Education [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07] 

State Public Interest Research Groups (2005)  Ripoff 101 2nd edition: how the publishing industry’s practice needlessly drive up textbook costs. Washington, DC USA. U.S. Public Research Interest Group [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07] 

Thomson plc. (2006) Thomson Investor Day, October 4, 2006. (Presentation slides). Toronto, Canada [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07] 
U.S. Government Accountability Office (2005) College textbooks: enhanced offerings appear to drive recent price increases. Washington, DC USA. U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO-05-806) [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07] 

U.S. Government Accountability Office (2005) College textbooks: enhanced offerings appear to drive recent price increases. Washington, DC USA. U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO-05-806). [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07] 

Zogby, J. Bruce, J. and Wittman., R. (2004, December). The attitudes of college faculty on the textbooks used in their course. Utica, New York USA. Zogby International. [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07] 

Zogby, J. Bruce, J. and Wittman., R. (2006) Survey of college instructors regarding the use of supplemental materials in the classroom, Utica, New York USA. Zogby International [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/10/07] 

[1] This led to Congressional interest and a May 2007 report: "Turn the Page: Making College Textbooks More Affordable" by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. (See ACSFA 2007a). The Advisory Committee was established in 1986 to advise Congress and the Secretary of Education on federal financial aid. Committee members are appointed by the Secretary of Education (5), the House of Representatives (3), and the Senate (3).
[2] The original document was published in California (Fairfield, 2004), A revised version was published by the national office in 2005 - a year later (State Public, 2005) - when it became apparent Congress would respond to lobbying. Congressman David Wu from the First District in Oregon led Congressional interest in this issue testifying at Advisory Committee hearings and issuing press releases
[3] Data taken from USGAO (2005) and re-plotted.
[4] See Zogby (2004) for the 2004 survey and Zogby (2006) for the 2006 survey. The data are summarized in Farmer 2006d and corroborating evidence is provided.
[5] In a recent demonstration by ANGEL Learning’s Kallen Wampler showed that the effort required to download and import the Common Cartridge is similar to the effort to download and read a scholarly paper.  This will be documented in a forthcoming post to the eLiterate blog “Common Cartridge: eLearning Made Easy” and subsequent publication as an instructional media + magic, inc. TechBrief.
[6] Data on the cost of development can be found in Farmer 1996, Farmer 2004, and Farmer 2006b. Coastline Community College, a major source of telecourses and now online courses, teaming with a textbook publisher, estimated $1 million per course. This estimate was given to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation staff in an informal discussion of course development in 2005. The estimate from Open University was given in a presentation to the National Council of Higher Education Loan Programs at one of their conferences in the late 1990s.

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