A Call for Open Textbooks

Lobbying for cheaper books, a student activist group throws its weight behind an open-source model.
October 1, 2010

Student PIRGs, the activist group and gadfly of the textbook industry, has anointed a savior in its campaign against the high cost of course materials.

Here's a hint: It's not e-books.

In a new report, released Thursday, the group officially throws its weight behind “open textbooks” -- textbooks that are made freely available by their authors and can be chopped up and manipulated by professors who use them. Student PIRGs (short for Public Interest Research Groups) specifically endorsed the model proposed by Flat World Knowledge, a company that puts open textbooks through peer review and then offers them in different formats -- digital, black-and-white soft-cover, color soft-cover -- for different prices.

According to the study, students of professors who adopt open textbooks are likely to spend about $184 per year on their books. That would mark a significant reduction from the amount the average student spends now -- anywhere between $600 and $1,000, depending on whom you ask. (Publishers are liable to point to data from Student Monitor, which has the average at around $600 and trending down.)

Student PIRGs determined this by asking 1,428 students at 10 public institutions which version they would choose if their professor adopted an open text. More than half said they would choose a black-and-white softcover version, which costs $36 on average. A fifth said they would get the digital file in a printable format for $18, and another fifth said they would just read the digital file off their computer screen for free. Less than 10 percent said they would spring for the softcover version with color, which Student PIRGs estimated would cost more than $60.

Altogether, that means that if all of a student’s professors adopted an open text, that student would spend an average of 80 percent less than he or she currently does on textbooks, according to the group’s report.

That scenario is unrealistic right now. While it has seen a bump in adoption this year, Flat World still offers only about 20 titles. And the open-textbook landscape beyond Flat World’s modest catalog is a bit of a wild west. An informal study released earlier this year, commissioned by Student PIRGs and carried out by the University of California at Berkeley, found that faculty members believed “there were no high-quality and reliable open textbooks currently available in their subjects that were comparable to the print/traditional textbooks they used.”

“It is clear,” the Berkeley authors continued, “that there are many, many fields and subfields with no viable and acceptable open textbooks at this time.”

Eric Frank, co-founder of Flat World, told Inside Higher Ed Thursday that he agrees that open textbooks currently constitute “a bit of a caveat emptor market place.” But that is always the way when open-source alternatives challenge entrenched commercial industries, Frank said.

Microsoft disparaged Linux as untrustworthy when it first came along. Blackboard cautioned colleges against Moodle. Once companies emerged to help turn each freewheeling concept into something stable, he said, the open alternatives slowly found their way into the mainstream. That is what Frank thinks Flat World can start to do with open textbooks.

But it is still unrealistic to think that the 80 percent savings cited in Thursday’s Student PIRGs report -- or anything approaching that -- will come to fruition, said Mehdi Maghsoodnia, CEO of BookRenter.com. Maghsoodnia, who is one of many who have capitalized on the recent boom in textbook rentals, says Student PIRGs' pushing for a plurality of professors to adopt open textbooks is like a health care lobbyist pushing for a plurality of doctors to adopt herbal medicine: interesting, maybe even compelling with the right evidence, but ultimately impractical.

Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, made a similar point. It might sound impressive that “1,300 educators” have adopted Flat World, but not when one considers that there are more than 1 million faculty members nationwide, says Hildebrand.

Hildebrand said Student PIRGs' critical assessment ignored various efforts the big publishers have made to reduce the cost of textbook materials, such as selling individual chapters of e-books, licensing electronic course materials directly to colleges at a discount, and wading into the market for print rentals themselves.

The fact that the group is backing a model that is untested at scale and a product type whose quality professors tend to question -- while ignoring the learning benefits of innovative course materials being sold by mainstream publishers -- shows, Hildebrand says, that Student PIRGs is obsessed with price and cares little for value. “Nothing publishers can do is right, according to [Student PIRGs],” he said.

Nicole Allen, the textbooks advocate for Student PIRGs, brushed aside this criticism. “It’s great that publishers are giving students more options, but the change is only incremental,” Allen wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “Prices are lower, but it still perpetuates the same market structure that will continue to allow prices to increase unchecked.”

Flat World, on the other hand, “create[s] a market structure where students have leverage as consumers (since they can opt for the free version if prices get too high),” she wrote, “and that’s where we set the bar for a solution.”


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