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Open Educational Resources (OER) & Textbook Equity

What are inclusive access & equitable access?

Inclusive access and equitable access are automatic textbook billing models from commercial publishers/vendors. They are different ways to automatically charge students for the cost of textbooks. While these models address some challenges associated with course materials, they also create many new ones. Higher education leaders should fully examine the implications of automatic textbook billing.

Note these programs come by various names, such as ACCESS and First Day Complete, but they generally fall into the categories outlined below. All are primarily digital rentals, not textbook purchases.

Inclusive Access (IA): For courses using IA as selected by faculty, students are automatically billed for the textbook for that course unless they opt out. UNI currently uses this model for some courses. Note this model was formerly called equitable access by some publishers.

Equitable Access (EA): Students are charged a flat fee (usually per credit hour) per semester and receive all their textbooks, unless they opt out. An increasing number of campuses are considering or moving toward this model.

Questions administrators, faculty, and students should ask about automatic billing models

  1. What methodology is used to calculate the advertised student savings/price point? Does it account for used books? Open Educational Resources (OER)? Library-licensed content? If an academic department/ program/pathway commits to a Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) model, will students still pay a textbook fee? Are cost differences by major/discipline taken into account?
  2. Is it possible to permanently purchase content rather than renting temporarily?
  3. Is it possible to guarantee that base prices will not increase faster than inflation?
  4. What steps are necessary to ensure programs are compliant with 20 USC §1015b?
  5. If students exercise their right to opt out, will they be able to purchase the same materials (including courseware) on their own?
  6. Is it possible for the library to receive a copy of the material to place on course reserve? To provide for dual enrolled high school students taking UNI courses? (UNI is required to provide textbooks at no cost to dual enrolled students. Admissions pays this cost, more than $6500 per year and rising.)
  7. How long do students have access to digital content? Can they opt for a print copy without paying for digital first?
  8. What data do programs collect from students and faculty, and how is it used by vendors?
  9. What Digital Rights Management (DRM) is in place for digital content? For example, are there limits on how many devices a student can use to read material? Limits on copy/paste? Printing?
  10. Can students change format to meet learning preferences and accessibility needs? Can institutional accessibility staff do so without publisher intervention/permission?

Benefits to Automatic Textbook Billing from a Textbook Equity Perspective

Some students may save money, especially when comparing with new hardcover textbook prices.

All students who haven't opted out have content on the first day of class.

With some models, campus stores no longer manage textbook access, which may appeal on some campuses.

Drawbacks to Automatic Textbook Billing from a Textbook Equity Perspective

The U.S Department of Education is “concerned that lack of disclosure and transparency limits students' ability to find less expensive materials or assess if their school is offering the most affordable arrangement" (Issue Paper 1). Specific issues students and instructors may experience include:


Cost: Some students may pay more, especially compared with used textbook copies.
May penalize students in some disciplines; those in areas with cheaper texts will be subsidizing the more expensive programs.
Students and departments that have already shifted toward free/affordable options may see costs rise. 
Commercial materials cost more than advertised prices when students use interest-bearing loans or credit cards. 
For students preferring a print copy (the number may be capped), it may be an extra "upgrade" charge, with digital rental payment required in addition.
Automatic billing often lacks limits on price increases, failing to fully disclose discount structures or price points.
Opt-out options might be confusing to students, or not possible at all when courseware is built in & unavailable for individual purchase.
Students who earn an Incomplete in a course may be required to pay for the same materials multiple times.
If charges appear on U-bills at a different time than tuition and room/board charges, more students may face late fees because of unexpected charges.

Academic Implications: Unpaid textbook U-bill charges may prevent students from being allowed to register for future semesters or graduate.
There is currently no campus fund that assists students with outstanding costs for course materials.

Usage Restrictions: Digital rental models don't allow reselling or sharing books.
Access is temporary because students rent not own the content.
Students can't use rental content after the course concludes, such as to prepare for licensure exams or while taking future courses or entering their profession.
Commercial digital materials often limit printing/copying/pasting/downloading of text and use other Digital Rights Management (DRM) measures, including limiting the number of devices a student can use to read content.

Pedagogical Limitations: Faculty can't modify commercial material, which typically falls under traditional all-rights-reserved copyright. This means no opportunity to customize for local needs or creative teaching methods/preferences. Students can't modify materials, which impedes Open Pedagogy.

Accessibility and Inclusion Challenges: Because material isn't licensed for adaptation, it isn't possible to improve representation (such as replacing stock images or case study character names with more inclusive ones).
There may be barriers to changing formats for students who require accessibility accommodations.
Students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and other students from traditionally underrepresented demographics have the most challenges affording textbooks; research indicates students of color are more likely to face financial registration holds, which can result from automatic billing.
Students of color are more likely to skip a meal or trip home to afford digital text access codes.

Collection & Use of Student Data, including Personally Identifiable Information (PII): An example from one vendor's Privacy FAQ: [Vendor name] "is a 'school official' with 'a legitimate educational interest' under FERPA....We collect access rights information and user content including notes, highlights and other digital annotations, among others. We may collect metadata such as browser, device, internet protocol (IP) address, and navigation data, among others." This means every click our students make in commercial digital texts may be recorded and tracked, and this information sold.

Comparing Textbook Models

There is a spectrum of course material affordability, with OER being least expensive to students, library-licensed materials next, and automatic billing/traditional textbooks as typically most expensive. There is also a wide range in terms of usage rights. 

Comparing OER to Alternative Models chart