Imagine you were a student and you had $5000 to spend: What would you choose to spend it on? A vacation? A car? Maybe you’d choose to cover rent, ramen noodles and those pesky phone bills.
Here’s one thing you (most likely) wouldn’t want to spend it on: textbooks. At first glance, you might think that’s not a realistic price for textbooks. And yet, that is exactly how much most of our students are paying.
Rising college tuition is often pointed to as the culprit in students’ financial burden. And it is a problem: Between 2002 and 2012, college tuition increased in United States by an average of 7% per year. However, according to a 2013 report, during that same time, textbook prices also rose substantially, at an average of 6% per year. And what about overall consumer prices? Just 2% per year.
A single textbook can now fetch up to $400, and several student-focused organizations recommend a textbook budget of $1200-1300 each year. Over two or four years, textbooks are now reaching 14% of tuition.
So it’s not surprising that when students returned to campus this fall, they took to social media to complain. They posted their receipts from their campus bookstores, along with photos and messages about how they were going #textbookbroke.
What do students buy when they buy a textbook? Beyond the printing, binding and shipping, students buy the content. Textbook content is almost always factually correct, written by subject matter experts, and sometimes contains diagrams and problem sets. The content of a textbook is sound. But what about if we were to consider the experience of learning from a textbook? Of passively reading through this one-size-fits-all content? Well, we consider that experience to be terrible. And that’s the problem.
At Smart Sparrow, we consider our Learning Designers to be artists. We believe that good learning experiences are personalized and adaptive, that students should always learn by doing. We create interactive, simulative situations that motivate students to learn and can capture student misconceptions and mistakes for just-in-time remediation. And we know that when you focus on creating an active learning experience, you can improve student outcomes.
Creating this kind of courseware requires skills not just from subject matter experts but also draws from many varied domains: curriculum design, user experience and graphic design, video production and 3D animation, and (of course) software engineering.
One of our largest courseware production programs at the moment is creating STEM courseware for the Inspark Science Teaching Network. Building upon the work done in the innovative HabWorlds course, originally developed at ASU, the Inspark project is funded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Courseware Challenge.
Given that textbooks are an increasing financial burden for students, pricing was an important consideration for our courseware. The Inspark project team settled on $25 per student, a price that is minuscule compared to the market for textbooks, but what we consider to be a fair price for students.
Through interviewing teachers and students, we found that price is not the only issue holding students back. At the start of semester, cash flow is a serious issue for many students (even for a relatively small payment of $25). We realized we should be flexible with when students paid for the courseware, allowing students to sign in, begin their lessons and submit assignments before they had to pay for the course.
Our interviews also revealed that if we were going to reach the students we most wanted to reach, we needed to consider how they could purchase our online courseware without a credit card, or even with financial aid. Students with financial aid often receive the aid as a coupon from their institution, which the students can use at their campus bookstore. We realized that to reach students on financial aid, we needed our courseware to be available for purchase in the campus bookstore.
So, this semester, we trialed our first access cards in a few campus bookstores across the US, where students can purchase access to our science courseware. We believe that it’s one important step on our journey—working with teaching partners to build better learning experiences that cost less.