The one that got away: Open textbooks

I pulled these paragraphs from my Commission testimony in the interest of time and not blurring my central message (higher education needs to stay in step with society). I submitted this recommendation to the Commission separately, and thought you might enjoy it. I would appreciate comments / thoughts:

Affordability. Part of the rising cost of higher education for students is the ever-increasing cost of textbooks – textbooks can add as much as $1000 per year to the cost of college. The National Association of College Bookstores says prices of college textbooks have risen nearly 40 percent in the past five years. In a survey of textbooks by the California Student Public Interest Research Group, new editions of textbooks cost 58 percent more than previous versions, with an average cost of over $100 per book. (Crane, 2004; Pressler, 2004). The impact of these costs is especially severe on low-income students. According to the General Accounting Office, the costs of textbooks represents 26 percent of the cost of tuition and fees at public four year schools, and almost a full three quarters of the cost of tuition and fees at 2 year public schools where low-income students are more likely to enroll (Bershears, 2005).

Frankly, the textbook situation is wreaking havoc on teaching and learning practices on our campuses, with as many as 43 percent of students foregoing the purchase of required textbooks due to financial considerations (Crane, 2004). When less than three in five students in a class have the materials they need to support their learning, there must be an acute impact on educational effectiveness.

While efforts like the OpenCourseWares are making great strides in providing curriculum materials in an open way, the development of open textbooks that could be voluntarily adopted by university faculty has been very slow to occur.

Recommendation: The Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the NIH, and other entities with a vested interest should create competitive grant programs for the creation of open access textbooks for high enrolling courses and other classes in topics of national interest. Digital copies of these texts should be licensed with an open access license such as a Creative Commons license or simply placed in the public domain. Local copy stores (e.g., Kinko’s) or online print-on-demand publishers (e.g., can print and bind the books if a teacher or students desires. The competitive nature of the grants will insure a high quality of content and great degree of innovativeness in accompanying supplementary materials (like simulations or interactive tutors).

This is the kind of “open infrastructure” for teaching and learning that would greatly speed the pace of teaching and learning innovation.

7 thoughts on “The one that got away: Open textbooks”

  1. While I whole-heartedly applaud and support the idea of open textbooks and open infrastructure, my skeptical nature to your comments comes in light of the amount of money involved on the publishers end, the bookstores surrounding college campuses end, and the textbook authors’ themselves. While the cost for textbooks is arguably astronomical (and perhaps unethical), it will be hard to initiate change until instructors stop assigning these texts. At my uni, I work with the libraries electronic reserves unit to assist instructors in building free & accessible online texts for courses that stay within the bounds of TEACH Act and Fair Use guidelines. It takes a little creativity, time and effort, but the students ultimately win.

    I also know instructors who self publish, have their texts adopted by other institutions, and make a tidy sum. They figured out how to play the system and they are not anxious to make their texts available at little or no cost. Is this a problem? In mind it is. But I am literally “fighting the system.”

  2. Come join the discussion over at wikitextbooks as viable alternatives to textbooks. we’d love to have you. Of course, the next live show is in 38 minutes. But we’d love to have you


  3. Now that the cost of commercial textbooks is approaching $900US/year in developed countries, we need to consider strategies to encourage faculty use of open content as a substitute for commercial textbooks.

    In other words, assuming that faculty can obtain content from a variety of open sources such as:

    – the UKOU’s Open Content Initiative (

    – MIT’s Open CourseWare initiative (

    what can we do to encourage faculty to use these resources as alternatives to commercial textbooks.

    In my initial two articles on creative commons textbooks, I explore a “global model”
    that calls for creating a coalition of schools that would commission the development of content that could be used as a substitute for commercial textbooks.

    The links for these articles are at:

    The Case for Creative Commons Textbooks (2005-08-15)

    The Case for Creative Commons Textbooks (2005-04-07)

    However, in my latest article,

    The Economic Case for Creative Commons Textbooks

    I also discuss three “local models” to encourage faculty
    adoption of open content resources as substitutes for
    commercial textbooks:

    1. the Jawbone – a simple library resource model that assumes that if
    we build it and if we tell them about it (jawbone them) then they will come.

    2. the Stick – an administrative fiat model where we tell faculty they
    have to use open content as a substitute for commercial textbooks.
    This model may be used where students simply cannot afford
    commercial textbooks

    3. the Carrot – a fiancial incentives model that would involve student
    fees and faculty stipends.

    Here are some notes on these local models might play out:

    1. The Jawbone – a Library Resource Model

    a. Open content is made available as a library resource.

    b. Faculty are completely free to “opt-out� and select commercial textbooks.

    c. Problem: What if they build it and nobody comes?

    2. The Stick – an Administrative Fiat Model

    a. How are student in Namibia supposed to pay for $300 textbooks?

    b. In developing countries, administrators may simply require
    the use of creative commons content.

    3. The Carrot – a Financial Incentives Model

    a. A school Identifies 100 large courses that use textbooks
    and that map well to the available open content.

    b. Determine how much students currently spend on
    these courses (e.g. $500/yr for commercial textbooks).

    c. Establish a course material fund with a fee that is some
    percentage of this cost (i.e. a 100% fee would be $500/year).

    – A lower percentage fee would save students money.

    – A higher percentage would give the university more money to work with.

    – So, Ivy League schools may charge a 100% fee

    – Community colleges may charge a small fee.

    – Some schools may charge a 100% fee, but then
    offer patronage refunds to students.

    d. Students would not be required to purchase textbooks
    from the bookstore for the courses covered by the course material fund.

    e. Faculty would be free to assign commercial textbooks,
    and if they do the cost would be covered by the fund.

    f. If faculty use Open content, then the money that would
    otherwise be spent on textbooks could be used to customize
    the content (e.g. faculty stipends).

    g. Unused funds would be returned to students as a “patronage refund.�

    h. The customized content faculty are paid to develop
    would be placed in the creative commons.

  4. I like your ecommendation and I’m going to link to this blog entry at my website,

    I recently started it and it’s basically a democratic, interactive site that mantains a database of all the best places to buy and sell textbooks on the web in addition to textbook alternatives like e-textbooks. Students can vote on which sites that have had the best experiences with, leave reviews, etc. Let me know what you think of it. I also follow all the current news on textbooks and encourage students to post their tips, tricks and opinions on how to save in the sites forum.

    There are some more resources on the site, but you can just check it out and let me know what you think and how you think I could improve it…

  5. I enjoyed reading this. I’m attempting to put together a page with links related to custom textbook publishing (, for which open source would seem to be an item of great interest. i will include yours if thats ok. thanks. matt

  6. I should have added this yesterday. I’m interested in this topic from my experience in custom publishing at the university level. this year at the university ive been associated with for many years, i watched the administration intercede in a textbook selection committee’s choice. the committee had decided to use a book they had written thenselves and would be considered open source. the administration had cut a deal with Thomson on their own to provide digital books, even though -obviously- the committee’s choice would cost much less. the alleged catch was that Thomson was paying the U a “toll” to sell directly through the CMS system. I found this a bizarre twist on the whole textbook cost debate. thats why im creating a site full of references to digital texts. in many cases, they arent what they seem.

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