Bebeto Matthews, Associated Press
In this Oct. 22, 2010 photo, student textbooks for rent sit on the shelves at the City College Bookstore in New York.

SALT LAKE CITY — Will it take an act of Congress to address the skyrocketing costs of college textbooks?

Well, that could be one solution, and to that end a group of U.S. senators and representatives reintroduced the Affordable College Textbook Act earlier this month, an effort aiming to find a way to mitigate textbook prices that have increased at more than four times the rate of inflation over the last decade.

In the meantime, a new Salt Lake City tech company just launched a product intended to disrupt the multibillion-dollar textbook market and elevate college math instruction with a new math homework platform that company founders say will save students money and give teachers more options, and better outcomes.

Derivita is the brainchild of Instructure co-founder Devlin Daley and former Google Cloud platform engineer Ryan Brown. Under development for the past two years, Derivita was built to create and assess math homework and give personalized feedback to students based on their responses. It has also been designed, according to Daley, to dovetail with any college math textbook, opening the door for both substantial cost savings for students and academic freedom for instructors.

"This has long been the exclusive domain of the big textbook publishers," Daley said. "During my time at (Utah education tech company) Instructure, I was able to see behind the curtains a little bit and it's terrible.

"(The software) was old, wasn't really designed for the way it's being used, doesn't work on mobile, has scaling issues … and is overpriced."

Daley said big textbook publishers got into bundling homework software with printed textbooks as a method, in part, to disrupt the used textbook market for students. The bundled software typically comes with term-limited password access that only works for the original purchaser. And, since the software isn't available outside the "bundle," it kills the resell value of the textbook, even though the content may not be at all dated.

In its 2018 report, "Open 101," the Student Public Interest Research Groups found that when publishers bundle a textbook with a software access code "it eliminates most opportunities for students to cut costs with the used book market" and that nearly half of required text/software bundles were only available from a single source, which "eliminated students' ability to shop around and meant that they were forced to pay full price for these materials."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes those prices rose nearly 90 percent from 2006-16, outpacing inflation by over a 4-to-1 margin and, when coupled with the costs of tuition and fees outpacing inflation over the same time period, 3-to-1, have helped contribute to an environment in which more and more students are graduating with crippling levels of student loan debt. The Student Public Interest Research Groups report indicated that every year, $3 billion in student financial aid goes toward paying for books.

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the federal textbook legislation he is co-sponsoring will help defray costs he said are putting students' academic success at risk.

“One of the most basic higher education costs to students is often overlooked: textbooks,” Durbin said. “In Illinois, we know federal support for open textbooks can be successful. Expanding this program to more states will mean lower costs for students to incur. This bill will help prevent the high cost of textbooks from putting students’ academic success at risk.”

Besides the goal of cutting costs, Daley said Derivita's math platform goes beyond just a way to automate the homework process.

The software's ability to help students get to correct answers through learning the process of problem solving, Daley said, is what distinguishes Derivita, and advances it far past the simple "right" or "wrong" responses that are hallmarks of homework software that currently comes bundled with college textbooks.

"These programs are so simple they can't assess what, if anything, the students are learning at all," Daley said. "These systems aren't even reaching what many textbooks are able to accomplish today."

Glendale Community College professor Laura Watkins said she used the software in her math courses in Arizona last year as part of a Derivita pilot program and came away very impressed with how the system worked.

"I've been talking to other instructors about the program and saying, 'Hey, I really like this. It was easy to use and very low cost,'" Watkins said. "I think my students liked the software as well … and the fact that there's feedback for the students is extremely helpful."

Watkins said while her department selects preferred textbooks for math courses, she chooses to use an "open education resource" text that works for her curriculum and is available to students for free. As a Derivita pilot participant, her students were also able to use the software without charge last school year and had a net zero cash outlay for the text and courseware for Watkins' classes.

While Derivita will likely be priced at about $40 per semester as a live product, Watkins noted the cost is still well below the typical text/software bundle used by many teachers. As a teacher who is cognizant of doing her part to make earning a college degree as affordable as possible, having access to effective coursework software like Derivita's may upend the lock that big publishers have had on the textbook market.

"When I was hired back in 2002, math textbooks were being updated about every five years," Watkins said. "That has now shrank to something like every three years. What Derivita allows teachers to do is, for instance, say someone has a favorite calculus text. They can direct students to get the latest edition, or even a previous edition, that is available for $10 to $20 used whereas a new book is going to run $150 to $200."

"If faculty members can be a little bit out of the box, it can make a big difference."

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Watkins also noted how seamlessly Derivita worked with Canvas, the learning management system used at her school and the popular platform that Daley helped develop while he was at Instructure. Watkins said Canvas and Derivita together help lay the groundwork for a wider adoption of no-cost, or low-cost open education resources. And this is exactly the outcome Daley and his Derivita team are shooting for.

“Math is the No. 1 predictor of student success when it comes to completing a college degree, but universities are still delivering math courses with outdated technology because they haven’t had any better options,” Daley said. “What’s worse is that students are paying a premium for it. Derivita is a much more functional and affordable resource for math students and teachers — we don't know of any other tool like it.”

For more on Derivita, visit derivita.com.