Inclusive access is not as inclusive as it seems

Tanya Chen

This spring, UT is rolling out a pilot version of the “inclusive access” digital textbooks program it plans to fully implement by fall 2021. Although the program offers some benefits, it will ultimately create more problems than it solves. UT’s version of “inclusive access” is not something students will benefit from in the long run. 

On the other hand, open educational resources, such as free digital textbooks created by faculty, are a viable option that will ultimately benefit students. 

Instead of introducing an “inclusive access” program, UT administration should invest in systems that encourage faculty to implement open education resources into their curriculum as a way to permanently minimize student costs.

The name “inclusive access” is a misnomer, as the program isn’t quite as accessible as it sounds. It will provide students with free, temporary access to digital textbooks assigned by their professors, but only until official enrollment is recorded on the 12th day of classes. 

After that point, students will be automatically enrolled in a discounted payment plan for said textbooks. This way, publishers also benefit from the arrangement by receiving a guaranteed set of subscribers.

“In (my) statistics class, we have textbooks that we can read but aren’t necessary,” Derek Dreibrodt, a management information systems sophomore, said. “You might intimidate students by autoenrolling them in textbooks they don’t technically need, which would result in them paying a lot for something they won’t really use.”

The inclusive access program is marketed as being able to provide students with digital textbooks at a slightly lower cost, as well as providing students access to textbooks on the first day of class without having to pay upfront. 

However, despite the benefits of inclusive access, advocates for open educational resources have raised several concerns about the practicality of such programs. Inclusive access programs would hinder the implementation of open educational resources, said Daniel Williamson, managing director of OpenStax, a leading provider of free digital textbooks. 

“If a student isn’t buying a textbook because that means making the trade-off of sacrificing their groceries or rent, a $10 discount isn’t going to make a difference,” Williamson said. “Aspects of the program — like automatic enrollment — could potentially even worsen the situation.”

Open educational resources are a better solution for the problems inclusive access is being brought in to combat. In classes where textbooks are treated more as supplemental reading, students wouldn’t feel pressured to buy a textbook they might never use if it was already free. 

Instead of having to deal with finicky one-time use codes, students will have free, unlimited access to textbooks at any time — even before they start their first day of classes. Open educational resources don’t expire either, so if a student wanted to reference a past textbook, they would have the opportunity to do so. 

The only problem is that open educational resources have been slow to catch on with faculty, as it can take a lot of effort to restructure curriculum around a new textbook. A lack of established administrative incentives doesn’t encourage faculty to independently incorporate open educational resources into their curriculum, either.

“Maybe in the long run, (open educational resources are) going to get better and inclusive access won’t matter as much,” said David Platt, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs and head of inclusive access adoption. “But I wouldn’t want to rely on that without considering how we can benefit students in the short run.” 

However, if UT administration isn’t fully investing in open educational resources as a viable alternative to traditional for-profit textbooks, how can they expect faculty members to muster up the confidence to switch on their own? 

Any lasting changes to our current system of textbook enrollment must be unilateral, and that starts by rejecting inclusive access in favor of increasing implementation of open educational resources.

Chen is a finance and Plan II sophomore from Austin, Texas.