Free Textbooks — Pipe Dream or Impending Reality?

In arguably one of the most awkward episodes of the popular TV series The Office, the main character, Michael Scott, must face the fallout of the worst thing he’s ever done. Watch his terrible deed:

The episode unfolds painfully as Michael breaks the news to Scott’s Tots — now high school seniors — that he cannot, in fact, afford to pay for their college educations. Chaos ensues and the students are justifiably furious and disappointed. However, Michael manages to redeem himself in a very small way at the end of the episode. He promises one of the students that he’ll pay for all of his college textbooks. “How much will they cost?” he asks.

“A thousand,” replies the student.

“Okay, one check for a thousand dollars–”

“No,” interrupts the student. “A thousand dollars a year.”

“What are you studying, nuclear physics?” Michael mutters. He begrudgingly writes four checks of $1000 each for the four years’ worth of textbooks, asking the kid to call him before he cashes any of the checks.

The Office is meant to be funny, but the price of textbooks is no joke for college students. Students do pay an average of about $1000 a year for textbooks, a quarter of the average cost of tuition and fees. A survey by the National Association of College Stores found that nearly 60 percent of students choose not to purchase all their course materials. In recent years when tuition has been higher than ever, the ridiculously high prices of college textbooks seem to add insult to injury.

Flat World Knowledge hopes to change things. Flat World is a college textbook publisher that’s on a mission to create free and open textbooks in order to cut costs for students. The company works with authors and scholars to create textbooks that students can access online free of charge. Flat World aims to align itself with the traditional textbook model in its commitment to create only high quality content, and aims to diverge from the model in that they want their textbooks to be shared among students and educators. Flat World publishes textbooks under an open license, which allows professors to revise and redistribute content — in essence, a professor can tailor the textbook to fit the needs of his own syllabus.

Critics of Flat World wonder if the quality of the textbooks will be compromised if students and teachers are allowed to edit them, and many authors wonder how they’ll make money when their textbooks are being distributed for free. However, as a proponent of Flat World, I would argue that these concerns are not valid. Collaboration is an incredibly effective learning method among students, and as long as Flat World monitors the  textbooks closely, who’s to say that the quality will suffer?  Also, textbook authors generally make only 15 percent in royalties — Flat World pays its authors a flat 20 percent royalty no matter how well the book does.

If the rates of college textbooks continue to rise as they have over the last 10 years, students won’t be able to afford them. The current system of buying and selling textbooks is broken. I think if companies such as Flat World  are working to reduce textbook rates and are successful in doing so, more power to them. That way, Michael Scott — or any parent or student buying textbooks — won’t have to shell out a grand for a year’s supply of books.

What are your thoughts on these companies? Sound off in the comments below!

Caity Doyle

Caity is a former English teacher and the editor of Technapex. Caity is extremely passionate about education and is TriplePoint PR's resident edtech expert. When not researching education policy and edtech, she enjoys running along the Bay Trail while blaring the Boss through her headphones, watching the Giants beat the Dodgers, and meeting fellow Italians in North Beach.

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About Caity Doyle

Caity is a former English teacher and the editor of Technapex. Caity is extremely passionate about education and is TriplePoint PR's resident edtech expert. When not researching education policy and edtech, she enjoys running along the Bay Trail while blaring the Boss through her headphones, watching the Giants beat the Dodgers, and meeting fellow Italians in North Beach.
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  • CC

    Flatworld is slowly (very slowly) creeping into the market. They don’t have the resources to compete with the larger publishers – they can’t market as effectively, support their authors as effectively, build as many ancillary resources as the publishers can, etc. – but more and more instructors are starting to question whether those things are worth forcing their students to purchase a text they will (frankly) not even read. So it may not be FW that does it, but the time for open or free educational resources is coming soon enough.

    • CaityDoyle

      Couldn’t agree more. The current textbook system is seriously flawed, and if Flatworld isn’t the company to disrupt it, there are others following closely on their heels. What do you think of companies such as Boundless?