Sunday, December 12, 2010

Inside Higher Ed > A Call for Open Textbooks

October 1, 2010  / Steve Kolowich


In a new report, released Thursday, the group officially throws its weight behind “open textbooks” -- textbooks that are made freely available by their authors and can be chopped up and manipulated by professors who use them. Student PIRGs (short for Public Interest Research Groups) specifically endorsed the model proposed by Flat World Knowledge, a company that puts open textbooks through peer review and then offers them in different formats -- digital, black-and-white soft-cover, color soft-cover -- for different prices.

According to the study, students of professors who adopt open textbooks are likely to spend about $184 per year on their books. That would mark a significant reduction from the amount the average student spends now -- anywhere between $600 and $1,000, ... .


Altogether, that means that if all of a student’s professors adopted an open text, that student would spend an average of 80 percent less than he or she currently does on textbooks, according to the group’s report.

That scenario is unrealistic right now. While it has seen a bump in adoption this year, Flat World still offers only about 20 titles. And the open-textbook landscape beyond Flat World’s modest catalog is a bit of a wild west. [snip].

“It is clear,” the Berkeley authors continued, “that there are many, many fields and subfields with no viable and acceptable open textbooks at this time.”

Eric Frank, co-founder of Flat World, told Inside Higher Ed Thursday that he agrees that open textbooks currently constitute “a bit of a caveat emptor market place.” But that is always the way when open-source alternatives challenge entrenched commercial industries, Frank said.


Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, made a similar point. It might sound impressive that “1,300 educators” have adopted Flat World, but not when one considers that there are more than 1 million faculty members nationwide, says Hildebrand.


The fact that the group is backing a model that is untested at scale and a product type whose quality professors tend to question -- while ignoring the learning benefits of innovative course materials being sold by mainstream publishers -- shows, Hildebrand says, that Student PIRGs is obsessed with price and cares little for value. “Nothing publishers can do is right, according to [Student PIRGs],” he said.

Nicole Allen, the textbooks advocate for Student PIRGs, brushed aside this criticism. “It’s great that publishers are giving students more options, but the change is only incremental,” Allen wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “Prices are lower, but it still perpetuates the same market structure that will continue to allow prices to increase unchecked.”

Flat World, on the other hand, “create[s] a market structure where students have leverage as consumers (since they can opt for the free version if prices get too high),” she wrote, “and that’s where we set the bar for a solution.”



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