Rentals, buybacks and used textbooks are part of the solution, but they still involve textbooks from the three major publishers that control the market. Experts say the next disruptive force in the textbook market could cut out these “big three” altogether.
Instead of traditional bound textbooks, some schools and educators are assigning open textbooks, or digital course materials accessible online free of charge or at significantly cheaper rates. The idea was inspired by the open-source movement, which favors free software that’s available for anybody to use or modify.
The first decade of open-source textbooks was focused on creating content and getting it online under a Creative Commons license so anyone could use it as they wished. Now that the material is out there, the focus has shifted to encouraging schools to use open-source books on a widespread basis, says David Wiley, co-founder of Lumen Learning, which helps schools adopt open educational resources.
Some educators build their own course materials from scratch from articles and videos available on the Web. The most common open textbooks are developed by digital publishers that make them available to individuals and schools for free or comparably low prices.
OpenStax, one of those publishers, makes nine introductory level textbooks used by about 140,000 students at more than 850 institutions. OpenStax is funded by grants, which allow it to offer digital books that students can download and print for free. Students also have the option of requesting a hardcopy ($30 to $50) or an iBooks version for $4.99.
“Students really are looking for ways to get better access to high-quality learning materials,” says OpenStax creator Richard Baraniuk.
This year OpenStax launched partnerships with libraries at Virginia Tech, Ohio State, Auburn, the University of Oklahoma and UMass Amherst. The schools make the texts available for review to students so they can share them with professors and request them for their courses.
Boundless is another major open textbook publisher that offers intro-level textbooks in more than 20 subjects, from algebra to world history. Art history textbooks often retail for more than $100, for example, but Boundless sells its open-source versions for $20.
Like OpenStax, the Boundless platform allows educators to edit and customize material to suit their course needs.
After all, educators are the ones who choose course materials. And research shows they often make those decisions without cost in mind.
“We want educators to feel comfortable using Boundless because they’re the ones who set the agenda,” says Boundless creator Ariel Diaz. “They’re the ones who can help students drive down their costs.”