Textbooks, the coming future?

Here it comes:

The Rice University-based open-education platform Connexions today unveiled a bold plan to shake up the $4 billion college textbook industry by providing free online publisher-quality textbooks for five of the country’s most-attended college courses.

The OpenStax College textbook initiative, which is funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the 20 Million Minds Foundation and the Maxfield Foundation, will publish its first two books — College Physics and Introduction to Sociology — in March. Two biology textbooks — one for majors and one for non-majors — and a textbook for introductory anatomy and physiology will be published this fall.

“If we capture just 10 percent of the market with these first five textbooks, an estimated 1 million college students in the United States could save $90 million over the next five years,” said Rice’s Richard Baraniuk, the founder and director of Connexions.


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  • There are many of us who would write even if we didn’t get any money from it–hey, we’re bloggers aren’t we. And there are clearly musicians and artists who do it just for love of the art and music. But clearly the vast majority of music, books, etc currently are made for profit in a competitive environment. If writers and creators can’t make money off their creations, very few will create.

    In short, one possible trajectory for the future is a “communistic” world where knowledge and art is free to the public… and perhaps quite impoverished like Eastern Europe forty years ago. It’s could be a University of Phoenix type world were experts are paid a stipend to create content which then belongs to the institutions, allowing the institutions then to throw away their experts in lieu of cheaper adjuncts whose specialty is facilitating discussion.

  • I think it is unlikely that free textbooks will create East Germany.

    I think a more likely option for initiatives like this is that the technology will be explored, then for profit textbook companies will figure out ways to monetize it.

    Or a group of schools will get together an produce a series of textbooks that will be included in the price of class.

  • scotmcknight

    Ken, it will perhaps become more like Wikipedia than Eastern Europe.

  • I’m all for it. I can remember not being able to afford textbooks my first two years of undergrad. I would have fainted had the Connexions platform been available to me then.

  • DRT

    Wikipedia would be a good model, particularly since you would still have a Prof that could tell fact from fiction.

    The problem seems to be an arbitrage problem where the cost of an item is different in different markets simply due to a lack of knowledge and information flow resistance. Without resistance to information flow, …..the arbitrage opportunity goes away.

    But there are secondary effects. Wikipedia brings with it the doubt as to the validity of its content. I suppose that publishing houses mitigate this, but with a Prof in the picture, we have an arbitrator of fact.

    Great topic. What is the real value of publishing?

  • DRT

    Ken said “It’s could be a University of Phoenix type world were experts are paid a stipend to create content which then belongs to the institutions, allowing the institutions then to throw away their experts in lieu of cheaper adjuncts whose specialty is facilitating discussion.”

    What do they pay?

  • Fish

    There is a difference between making a profit and ripping people off.

    When my kid’s 10th grade textbooks cost north of $500, I am not crying for the poor struggling authors who revised the algebra we discovered centuries ago into a new edition.

    If that is the free market, then serve me up some communism.

  • I have mixed feelings. I understand the need for writers and professors to be paid for their thoughts, ideas, collections. I sincerely doubt they are getting rich for their textbooks, however.

    On the other hand, textbook companies increase profits publishing frequent new editions. This makes it difficult to keep costs down by purchasing used textbooks or to sell back no longer needed textbooks.

    I am teaching three different college courses, using three different textbooks, two of which already have updated versions. I really feel for the students.

    Writingspaces.org publishes an open source rhetoric for us composition classes. I regularly assign readings from this rhetoric and frequently bypass the textbook cost by giving students links to other readings they can find online.

    In the past, I have put together my own course packets. I get copyrights, but the smaller collection costs the students significantly less than a regular textbook. This probably wouldn’t work for many of the sciences.

  • I hope everyone knows I was throwing out pictures, not to take any one image too specifically. I actually admire the Phoenix model in many respects, and IWU where I am at largely followed that model in its distance education. I don’t know the specifics of Phoenix’s pay.

    The fear that occasionally surfaces is that the system might eventually throw away its experts in order to maximize profits. If you can pay me, say, 3000 dollars (I’ve deliberately changed the actual numbers here) to provide my expertise to write an online NT Survey course, you don’t really need me any more. Actually, what do we need a self-standing textbook for anymore at all, have me generate the material as part of the course writing, owned of course by my employer.

    In fact, maybe I’m a horrible teacher. So you get the best from me to help write the course and pay me once. Then you hire someone with a masters degree and pay them $3000 (more likely less) to adjunct it (since let’s face it, there are no jobs out there–you might easily get a PhD at an adjunct rate and not have to pay health insurance or benefits). At a 24 credit hour a year load with salary and benefits around &100,000 (again I’m making it up), you’re saving more than a $1000 a course to adjunct the course out.

    I’m sorry if I’m way off topic, but this is one trajectory education could take…

  • DRT

    Ken, I know that you are making the numbers up, but in this case I think it is all about the numbers, all about supply and demand. I also think the pendulum is going to swing a few times on this one.

  • RJS

    This is an interesting idea – and I think more such resources are in the works. The text is simply an information source – and there are many better ways to provide this material. Although I still see value in a reasonably priced textbook.

    College isn’t about accumulating information however – it is about learning to think, and about learning to think deeply about a discipline. A good instructor teaches students how to think and tailors the class to the people in the room in new ways every year.

  • CK

    Well put, RJS.

    Thanks for the website tip, Erin! I also teach writing and try to keep costs down for my students.

    I wonder, however, about one corollary of online textbooks: the distractions associated with students having tablets or laptops in the classroom. My students admit that they can’t resist the temptation of Facebook and the like when they bring a laptop to class. It’s appalling but true.

  • I wanted to add one more tidbit. I’m primarily fussing here about authors/creators. I’m not defending publishers or institutions. As an example, I wrote a NT Survey book that most of the undergraduate classes use at IWU where I work. If everyone used it, that would be over 500 sales on campus a year. I doubt they sell more than 30 because of used and rentals. In effect, I get nothing at all from the almost pervasive use of my text on campus.

    DRT, my numbers were based on real numbers, but I skewed them up. In other words, institutions make more off of adjuncts than my rough draft above.