I learned yesterday about a new federal regulation that will require electronic course schedules, generally posted before students register for classes, to list the textbooks that the class will require. Its purpose is to make college textbook buying cheaper for students, since they will know which books they need well before the semester begins and can get them online.
The announcement of this regulation met with some groans at a meeting I was attending. Since generally faculty don't select books anywhere near that early, the conversation went, the college will have to figure out a way to change faculty behavior. Or, we'll have to figure out how to comply with the regulation without "inconveniencing" faculty.
Sine the meeting I've been thinking about the cost/quality issue as it plays out with this regulation. We're spending a lot of time trying to change the typical relationship between cost and quality, which is that as cost goes up, quality goes up as well. So the question here is this: does this regulation, whose purpose is to reduce cost, have the potential to improve the quality of learning?
The answer is maybe. It certainly has the potential not to improve quality. It could simply have no effect on student learning. It could also have a negative effect, since by requiring faculty to select textbooks so far in advance it forces them to put content considerations will ahead of pedagogy, objectives, or student learning. The result would be a quiet shift towards instruction and away from learning.
But it might improve quality. Here is how. Let's say faculty balk at selecting textbooks 6 to 8 months before a course is taught. This natural reluctance could be the way to nudge them away from textbooks altogether. Instead of building classes around a list of books, deans, administrators, faculty developers, and other faculty could use this regulation as an incentive to build courses around problems, or open source learning, or service-learning, or any of the other activities that shift the focus away from instruction towards learning (without requiring a textbook to do it).
The result would be the creation of the right relationship between cost and quality. Cost would go down for students as they bought fewer textbooks. And quality would go up, as faculty worried less about providing canned content and more about providing a rich environment in which students can learn.