• July 28, 2014

Pay Nothing? Easier Said Than Done

Can Textbooks Ever Really Be Free? 1

Holly Gressley for The Chronicle

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Holly Gressley for The Chronicle

Providing college students with free textbooks is no easy task.

That seems to be the major lesson from several efforts to produce e-books that are low-cost or free to help reduce students' costs. Money pressures, slow adoption by professors, and quality concerns stand in the way as these projects hope to rival traditional publishing.

Take Flat World Knowledge Inc., an upstart publisher that had been a key proponent of a so-called freemium model of giving away electronic copies of textbooks and asking students to pay for extras like flash cards or printed copies. The company announced a sudden move away from that model in November, stating that its free-content option will no longer be available starting in January. The reason for the change: Students weren't buying as many printed copies as predicted because those who wanted one got a used copy rather than buy a new one from Flat World, said Jeff Shelstad, one of the company's founders. Flat World will still offer textbooks at lower prices than traditional publishers do, he added, but nothing will be free. The company's basic online books cost about $20 each.

Flat World Knowledge is also pursuing a sponsored-licensing model with some colleges, where an outside company or foundation would enter into an agreement with Flat World Knowledge or the college to help pay for the cost of content.

The e-book company will be able to judge the impact of its "free to fair" pricing transition by next year, Mr. Shelstad said. "We will see whether the growth in faculty adoption continues," he said. "There are a lot of moving pieces to our business."

Some see Flat World Knowledge's move away from the freemium model as a warning for other open-access textbook projects.

But Nicole Allen, an affordable-textbooks advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Groups, argues that business still looks promising for free or cheap textbooks. Flat World's freemium model "lasted five years with over 500 high-quality textbooks—they proved it could work," she said.

Finding ways to support the production of free textbooks is not the only unresolved issue for open-textbook proponents. Another challenge is getting buy-in from instructors, who must be persuaded to adopt the textbooks. And when books are written by volunteers, keeping quality high can be more difficult than in the traditional model, where authors are paid by publishers.

Producing free textbooks may sound like a good idea, but it's turning out to be easier said than done. "It's like the college library," said Tim Tirrell, director of partnerships and strategic planning for Merlot, a free online resource for college learning materials supported chiefly by the California State University system. "Everybody agrees that it should be there—it should be free to access and free to everyone. But somewhere behind the scenes, you need a sustainable business model and partners."

Projects Seek Backers

Several colleges and universities have used the backing of nonprofit groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support their free-textbook projects. The projects usually provide free texts online and charge a small fee for print to bring in some revenue. Rice University's OpenStax College, for example, has published two textbooks this year and is developing three more with money from four different foundations.

OpenStax is also trying to expand outside its traditional audience. The iPad version of its physics textbooks, released in December on iTunes for $4.99, should could win sales from people who aren't even taking a course, said Richard Baraniuk, director of the project and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University.

Mr. Baraniuk worries that some free-textbook projects are not thinking enough about long-term financial stability and quality. "Too many projects are just focused on sort of informal sharing of material by instructors, which is great, but is not necessarily sustainable," he said. "There hasn't been enough focus on generating content which is truly high quality, that can stand on its own and compete in a world marketplace and be free."

But since producing the textbooks is so expensive, some proponents argue that aggregating free online content is a more-realistic method than building their own texts for some projects. One example of that approach is the Open Textbook Catalog at the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development. Such aggregation is far cheaper than publishing, said David Ernst, director of academic and information technology for the college.

Instructors can adopt free digital textbooks from the catalog or buy the printed versions. The college offers a stipend to faculty members who peer-review the texts, and over half of the professors who review the open-source books adopt them later, Mr. Ernst said. "One of the barriers to faculty adoption is that they don't know where to find them," he added. "Even if they are interested, they just don't know where to go."

Providing free textbooks for every college student—the six leading publishers now produce about 13,000 titles—is "theoretically possible," argued Albert N. Greco, a professor at Fordham University's business school who studies academic publishing. Such an endeavor, backed by a "phenomenal amount of money," would take at least three to four years, require authors to write textbooks for little to no compensation, and compete with sales representatives from major publishers.

"You would have to find someone or a team and convince them that they should do this for free, when an existing higher-education textbook publisher might be willing to pay them money—maybe six figures—to write the book," Mr. Greco said. "The economics of publishing are harsh and unforgiving."

A State Steps In

Could a state government pull off the kind of large-scale project Mr. Greco describes? Jerry Brown, California's governor, signed two bills in September to set up an open-textbook project that appears very similar to projects like OpenStax College. The plan is to develop textbooks with the help of nonprofit groups, charge for printed copies, and provide online texts free.

The laws require the creation of an online library of open-source textbooks for 50 undergraduate courses, overseen by a council of nine professors from the state's three higher-education systems. The group will choose the courses, set up a way for authors to apply for funds to develop the textbooks, and create a review system for submitted textbooks.

The legislature appropriated $5-million to the project, though it needs to be matched by private funds. The council will most likely approach the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or a similar organization, said John Yoder, chair of the University of California's Committee on Educational Policy and a professor of plant sciences at the Davis campus.

The state's decision to support open textbooks could give a boost to other textbook projects, Ms. Allen said. "As we're seeing more public investment in open-access resources from states like California, that provides more capital that new start-ups could use in the market," she said.

Since the council has not yet been organized, details like the criteria for choosing textbooks and involving authors remain unclear. "The incentives to write the typical copyright textbook can be quite lucrative for faculty," Mr. Yoder said. "I just don't know what the incentive will be for open-source books." Institutions may need to develop new incentives like stipends or career-advancement opportunities.

And professors are not always willing to switch to an open-source book because of time constraints and the effort required. "For both writers and adopters, if you're a teacher, the issue is time," said Jacky Hood, co-director of the Open Doors Group and College Open Textbooks, a collection of organizations supporting open textbooks at two-year colleges. "You're going to need a term off to either author or adopt a textbook, and that requires some kind of funding."

Some professors who write free textbooks "almost become celebrities in their own field" with books that are widely used, said Mr. Ernst, of the University of Minnesota. But writing open textbooks does not usually factor into tenure and promotion decisions, said John Gallaugher, an associate professor of information systems in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and the author of a widely used open textbook called Information Systems.

"By giving my text away, I had an enormous impact on the field," he said. "But that isn't going to move me from tenured associate professor to tenured full professor. If there's no career incentive and no financial incentive, then it real­ly relies on faculty altruism."

Professors will begin adopting cheap or free textbooks with greater speed once the texts become better-produced and convenient, said Mr. Baraniuk, of OpenStax College. "For the movement to hit the mainstream, you have to look at open-access resources and say, 'This is just as good as expensive content offered by publishers,'" he said. "We're not there yet."

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