The open-education platform Connexions, based at Rice University in Houston, Texas, wants to shake up the US$4 billion college textbook industry. It plans to build a library of free online publisher-quality textbooks for five of the country's most-attended college courses.
Connexions recently launched its OpenStax College textbook initiative, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the 20 Million Minds Foundation, and the Maxfield Foundation. Connexions published its first two books—' in physics and sociology—in March. Three more books, including two in biology and one in anatomy and physiology, are in production and slated to go online 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," says Rice's Richard Baraniuk, the founder and director of Connexions. The textbooks will be competitive with texts that retail for $150 or more, according to the organization. Students can access the texts for free online or order low-cost printed color copies for about $30.
At a time when publishers have kept the prices for even digital textbooks fairly high, OpenStax is just one of many initiatives designed to bring the cost of textbooks down through technological means. In 2011, for example, Temple University provided 11 faculty members with grants of $1,000 each to help them "ditch the textbook and build their own mix of learning materials," says Steven Bell, associate university librarian. The professors responded by using a combination of mostly free online materials, as well as Web sites and e-textbooks they created themselves.
Last year, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst did the same, providing eight faculty members with ten grants—$1,000 per course—to develop alternatives to textbooks. The school estimates that the $10,000 investment saved students $72,000 in textbook costs. Administrators plan to fund 20 more such grants for the 2012– 2013 academic year.
MIT OpenCourseWare, which houses MIT's collection of free online course materials, is now working with textbook publisher Flat World Knowledge to provide free textbooks to those accessing OCW Scholar courses. This marks the first time OCW has worked with an open-source textbook publisher. The first three OCW courses to use Flat World Knowledge textbooks include Principles in Microeconomics, Introduction to Psychology, and Solid State Chemistry.
So far, these efforts have affected courses mainly in the arts and sciences, but business schools could follow suit. On its Web site, OpenStax invites faculty from all disciplines to contribute to textbooks in all core under BizEd May/June 2012 73 graduate subjects. And in January, BizEd reported on the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore School of Business' pilot program that evaluated the effectiveness of using only a digital textbook in its Introduction to Business course.
Some universities have tried to break away from the traditional textbook model in the past—and failed, due to a lack of feasible alternatives. But some professors are finding that the online materials now available allow them to teach entire courses without textbooks, with no negative consequences to student learning. In some cases, digital materials may be even better than traditional texts because of their variety and timeliness, says Temple's Keith Quesenberry.
Quesenberry, an advertising professor, received one of the school's $1,000 grants for his course "Morality, Law, and Advertising." He used the grant to gather court case briefs, journal articles, and codes and ethical standards published by bodies such as the Federal Trade Commission.
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"It seemed like students were more engaged and less burdened, getting to and completing assignments earlier," Quesenberry says. "The textbook was this thing they hated. This removed a barrier for them."
Other schools are joining forces to convince publishers to offer volume discounts for e-textbooks. Cornell University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Minnesota, the University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin are working together to negotiate bulk purchasing agreements of e-textbooks with publishers. The effort was led by Internet2, a networking consortium for the higher education community that supports development of Internet technologies and applications.
In response, McGraw-Hill and software company Courseload is offering an eText Pilot Trial Pack to students for free at those five universities for the spring 2012 semester. The pack includes e-textbooks and the Courseload reader and annotation platform. Students can also opt to pay $28 to print an e-textbook on demand.
This pilot is based on Indiana University's eText model, which also seeks to make digital textbooks available to a greater number of students at reduced cost. (See "IU Strikes E-Book Agreements" on page 58 of BizEd's January/February issue.) In February, IU announced that Harvard Business Publishing had agreed to create eTexts for students on IU's campuses.
"Efficient markets have informed buyers and sellers, and this multi-university pilot is a big leap forward for institutions to better understand how they can shape the market during the transition to digital," says Brad Wheeler, vice president for information technology and chief information officer at Indiana University.
As initiatives such as those mentioned above are expanded, they just might be catalysts for growth in the market for low-cost or free digital textbooks. And as far as the educators who've created their own digital alternatives are concerned, these efforts have the potential to replace textbooks altogether.