OpenStax College, the nonprofit, open-access publisher  out of Rice University, announced the launch of its first iBook text  Monday, becoming the latest publisher to try to make the free-with-paid-options model sustainable. The interactive, iPad-based version of OpenStax’s free-to-read online College Physics text is available through iTunes for $4.99.
OpenStax, which launched earlier this year, is one of several publishers trying to combat the “access gap,” as founder and director Richard Baraniuk calls it. “In part of because of rapidly rising textbook costs, student debt is at an all-time high, and students in some cases are having to drop out of college because the combined effect of the learning materials’ cost and tuition is becoming prohibitive,” Baraniuk said. OpenStax draws from expert-generated, peer-reviewed content to create its free online texts, which cover a variety of introductory college courses. Two online-only textbooks have been published so far, with three more on the way, and the goal is to eventually offer texts for the 25 most popular college courses.
Though access to the online text is free to students, OpenStax also offers extras that students or universities can purchase, such as online tutorial programs, like Sapling Learning and WebAssign, or web-based tutoring services. An instructor could, for example, assign OpenStax’s free textbook and then ask students to submit homework through WebAssign, which charges  between $20 and $25 per student per semester – still cheaper than the cost of an average physics textbook, which runs from about $80 to more than $200.
The iBook version is designed to be another “extra,” according to Baraniuk. If students buy the College Physics iBook, the iPad edition of OpenStax’s introductory physics text, they get access to added videos , interactive graphics, quizzes, and demonstrations, many of which were created especially for the iBook. OpenStax hopes to eventually offer its books on a variety of platforms, but Baraniuk said the iPad made sense as a place to start because of the relative ease of converting a text into the iBook format and the popularity of iBooks.
Although there is extra content available with the purchase of the iBook version of College Physics, Baraniuk emphasized that it’s not meant to put students who don’t want to pay for the book – or who don’t have an iPad – at a disadvantage. “Our commitment is always to not just lower costs for students but also to improve overall learning outcomes. We have a moral obligation to ensure that the free version has what it takes for students to really excel in a class,” Baraniuk said.
Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Group, which supports affordable textbooks, said offering paid, premium options of a free text does not undermine the idea of free, open textbooks. “Our view is as long as they still distribute a free online version they should find as many other outlets for it too,” she said. “It’s all about making sure students have affordable access to their textbooks.”
Still, Baraniuk is hoping students will buy the iBook, in part because OpenStax plans to use revenue from iPad purchases to sustain its program.
Since its launch in June, the online version of College Physics has been picked up by about 60 institutions; it is used by about 7,000 students, according to Baraniuk. He does not have a guess as to how many of those students will purchase the iBook, but he’s convinced there’s a market. He also noted that iBooks are so well-known that there might be a market beyond students.
“Because the books are so accessible and beautiful on the iPad we think there’s a real potential for a substantial amount of sales not just to students using the book for a course, but also to people out in the community who want to have a physics book,” Baraniuk said.
OpenStax is not the first to try offering a free textbook with a premium option, but Baraniuk believes it is uniquely positioned to succeed in that market. Several publishers of traditional textbooks did not return request for comment Monday.
Flat World Knowledge, another company dedicated to access, offered free online texts for years – with the option to purchase enhanced versions with features similar to OpenStax’s – but it announced last month  that it will eliminate free texts beginning in January. Part of the reason, a Flat World co-founder said, was the diminishing number of students choosing the premium option.
Unlike Flat World, however, OpenStax is a donor-funded nonprofit, and because of this Baraniuk said he is not discouraged by Flat World’s reversal on its free textbooks. “We’re absolutely committed to this business model,” he said. “The reason we feel we can succeed where Flat World didn’t is that we’re a nonprofit organization. We’re accepting venture philanthropic dollars to develop and market our texts. The way we’re paying back our funders is in student savings.”
OpenStax currently has funding for eight textbooks, and is looking for money to produce 17 more. The ultimate goal is for each book to have at least 10 percent of the market share, which Baraniuk views as a tipping point.