In the textbook publishing world, the adoption cycle works as follows: big textbook companies try to convince professors to adopt their textbooks for the courses they teach. Once adopted, students must purchase said textbooks, which cost, on average, around $175. In the billion dollar textbook publishing industry, the publishing giants who have investors to please care less about making learning resources available at a low price, and more about their bottom line. So when sales are down, the companies raise prices. Sadly, the burden of these rising costs falls on the students who have to pay the hefty prices of these textbooks. (It’s no wonder seven out of 10 students opt not to purchase the course textbook in any given class.) Needless to say, students are faced with a very real problem when it comes to textbook purchasing.
Enter OpenStax College, the Rice University-based initiative creating open-source (read: absolutely free) and quality textbooks, written by experts and reviewed by professional editors and content developers. We spoke with the non-profit’s founder Rich Baraniuk and editor-in-chief David Harris, who shared insights about the textbook publishing industry and why the time to revolutionize it is now.
The idea of offering free textbooks online to students is not new to Baraniuk, an electrical engineering professor at Rice University, who wrote his own open-source textbook back in 1999. At the time, he was frustrated that he couldn’t find a textbook that suited the needs of his own course, so he decided to make his own. But instead of writing a textbook that would have a limited impact by being available only to the select students who purchased it, he decided to try something different.
“I took a look around at the industry, and even back in 1999 you could see the seeds of what’s going on today were being sown,” said Baraniuk. “Namely, that books were this one-size-fits-all learning experience, increasingly expensive — even back then — and were difficult to keep up-to-date.”
At the time, Baraniuk was learning about open-source software, and the solution became obvious to him. “I thought, what if we un-bundled textbooks?” he said. ”Instead of thinking of them as a thousand pages of pieces of paper glued together, what if we thought of a book as a larger collection of smaller modules like Lego blocks so that you could rapidly build and customize textbooks so that everyone had the perfect book?”
Baraniuk wrote his first textbook and made it available for free online. This spurred the development of a site called Connexions, which is an open, educational content repository that hosts lessons, articles, and full-fledged textbooks for students to access. It’s a completely community-generated enterprise, so thousands of professors have added content to it over the past 11 years since the initiative received funding from the Hewlett Foundation in 2002.
Despite Connexions’ success, Baraniuk was still unsatisfied with the state of student debt and the little textbook publishers were doing to ease their burdens. He decided to create a platform that would make open-source textbooks available to students, and instead of relying on the community to develop those textbooks, they would hire the same professionals the big publishers were hiring to write them. Hence, OpenStax was born.
The nonprofit is funded by foundations such as Hewlett, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and more. So far, they have written 11 textbooks with the goal of ultimately offering 25 for the country’s most-attended college courses across subjects such as biology, precalculus, economics, U.S. history, and more. OpenStax college invests more than $500,000 to develop each textbook, which can then be accessed by students online or on their mobile devices. OpenStax College drives adoptions by partnering with for-profit and nonprofit content developers. It has more than 12 partnerships with companies that provide online homework, assessment and other products and services that are included with OpenStax titles. These partners then promote and market OpenStax textbooks, eliminating OpenStax’s need for their own sales force.
One of the advantages of the open-source model is that the material is not static on a page, but rather can be updated constantly and instantly, as editor-and-chief David Harris pointed out. Harris has a background in publishing, and has worked in commercial publishing with various large textbook companies. Over the years he grew alarmed with publishers’ tactics, who would publish revised editions of textbooks as few as two or three years after an original edition had been published, with only minor updates to the original but the same hefty price tag.
“The beautiful thing about open education resources [OER], and OpenStax in particular, is that we’re not forcing revisions,” Harris said. “The truth of the matter is, basic concepts of physics don’t change. Why should you just scramble the order of problems, maybe add some color, then force students to buy a new book? Some subjects do change — biology, economics — and there you do have a rationale to update. But do the update when it’s pedagogically the reason, and not to eliminate used books.”
OpenStax has a leg up in that when advances in dynamic subjects such as biology and economics occur, they can update their textbooks immediately at no unnecessary fee to the students. This is one of many reasons OpenStax has such a a positive feedback loop with students and professors — they offer competitive high quality textbooks, which happen to be free. Professors are impressed with the excellent content first, choose to adopt an OpenStax textbook, and their students benefit from the lack of price tag as an added benefit. So far, OpenStax textbooks have been adopted in over 170 schools across the country, and downloaded 70,000 times. OpenStax estimates that their textbooks could save students $750 million over five years if they reach their goal of capturing 10 percent of the market for each of the 25 books they plan to publish.
Harris is well aware of the advantages OpenStax has over traditional publishers. “The publishers are in a classic negative feedback loop,” he said. “They’re continuing to raise prices, and as they raise prices, fewer students buy their books. They have to try to make up that revenue, and to do that, they raise prices. They are squeezing themselves out of the market.”
These textbook giants surely don’t intend to jack up prices with the intention of creating financial hardship for students, but it’s a consequence of continuing to use an archaic pricing and adoption model. Large, bureaucratic corporations simply can’t make fundamental changes to their business models quickly, and this is why innovative, nimble publishers such as OpenStax won’t find themselves stuck in such a cycle. In fact, the company announced today that they’ve received a grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which will give them the cash they need to hit their goal of developing 25 open-source textbooks.
“We would welcome more OpenStax-type entities into the OER space, because that would drive innovation,” said Harris. “Since we’re the underdogs in the trade, we don’t need to reiterate what previous publishers have done.”
Readers, do you think publishers like OpenStax college will be successful in revolutionizing the industry? Share your thoughts in the comments section below, or with us on Twitter to @Technapex or @ce_doyle.