OER, Publishers, and a True Market (That Might Not Happen)

It’s widely understood that while faculty select the textbooks their students use, faculty neither pay for nor use textbooks. The fact that faculty don’t have to pay for the books they select is reflected by the data in the recent Babson survey showing that less than 3% of faculty feel that cost is an important factor to consider when selecting instructional materials. The fact that faculty don’t use (or even read) the textbooks they assign students is reflected in the countless student comments on end of course review forms each year complaining that the content of faculty lectures are frequently unrelated to the content of assigned textbook readings. But – while faculty frequently don’t use the textbooks, they almost always use the materials that publishers give them (for free) when they adopt a textbook – test item banks, presentation slides, video clips, etc.

Although I’m not yet persuaded that this will happen, there is an interesting future possibility here. As more and more faculty adopt OER, publishers will lose their ability to subsidize the creation of free faculty materials (like test item banks) through profits from textbook sales to students. This creates the interesting possibility that, as increasing proportions of students use OER, publishers might scale back their creation of textbooks and scale up their production of supplementary materials which they sell directly to faculty. This would create a true “market” in materials where the people who are choosing the product are also the ones who are paying for and using the product. There would be competition, and market forces, and a reason for publishers to innovate. Imagine if publishers had to change from persuading faculty to make a choice, to convincing faculty to make a purchase. Ah yes, an actual market. That would be interesting indeed.

It probably won’t happen, but it’s interesting to think about.