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About Those Ridiculous Textbook Prices....

The burgeoning Open Educational Resources movement tackles textbooks and much else.

As students head back to school, one of the first things they encounter – besides the high tuition costs – are soaring textbook expenses. I blogged about this problem three years ago, but sadly, textbook prices continue to be ridiculous. The average student now spends $700 to $1,000 a year on books – which is about three times more than what students paid in 1986, according to a federal Government Accountability Office report. Many textbooks are deliberately designed to be made obsolete by new editions – a power play by publishers to undercut the used-textbook market and artificially bolster their revenues.

One of the most hopeful developments, however, is the rise of the “open educational resources,” or OER, movement. This fledgling but fast-growing movement seeks to make textbooks, courses, videos, taped lectures, software and other materials available free online, without copyright or technical restrictions.

Most OER projects used to be experiments conducted on the fringe of higher education with little recognition or support. But now, various commons are starting to discover each other and collaborate with each other. Its leaders see themselves not as some marginal effort, but as a movement that is challenging unresponsive markets, improving the quality of educational materials and making learning more affordable for everyone.

Photo by djfoobarmatt , via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC license.

The OER Commons is one of the chief clearinghouses on the Web for this activity. The website provides a single point of online access for educators, students and learners of all types to find, browse and obtain OER materials. It also encourages the re-use and improvement of OER materials. Much credit must go to The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for its steadfast commitment to funding OER initiatives and seeding the movement more generally.

The OER movement is trying to build new bridges among existing projects, many of which are expanding at impressive rates. A brief overview:

  • MIT’s OpenCourseWare project has placed the course materials for more than 1,800 courses in 33 disciplines online. Now more than 120 educational institutions in twenty nations have banded together to form the OpenCourseWare Consortium, to create “a broad and deep body of open educational content using a shared model.”
  • Rice University’s Connexions project is a repository of more than 5,800 “learning modules” in more than 344 “collections,” all of which are open, re-usable and adaptable by teachers and students alike. More than a million people from 194 countries use Connexions materials.
  • Textbooks and educational materials produced by a given discipline can now be shared online and then printed on-demand. QOOP, the print-on-demand publishing partner of Connexions, for example, makes it possible for students to obtain a hardback textbook that normally sells for $125, for only $25.
  • Another textbook alternative is being pioneered by the Foothill De Anza Community College in Silicon Valley. It has banded together with other two-year colleges in California to create open-licensed digital textbooks that can be printed on-demand. This model lets professors update and revise textbooks frequently and easily, and costs much less than conventional print textbooks. This is especially important for community college students, who in 2007-08 spent 60 percent of their educational expenses on textbooks.
    The public-spirited professors are getting into the act by writing their own open-licensed textbooks. One of the most famous instances of this is CalTech professor R. Preston McAfee’s economics textbook, Introduction to Economic Analysis, which has been adopted at NYU and Harvard. McAfee declined to accept a $100,000 advance from a commercial publisher in order to make his textbook freely available online under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. (This means that people are free to use and modify the book without payment or permission so long as they attribute authorship to McAfee, do not sell the textbook, and share any derivative works under the same license terms.)

The student-run Public Interest Research Groups have also become active in promoting open textbooks. Their Make Textbooks Affordable campaign is encouraging professors to use course materials that are as affordable and accessible as possible.

There is a lot of ferment in OER activity, as this quick survey suggests. (For a longer overview, see this excellent 84-page report to the Hewlett Foundation. ) But clearly much more needs to be done to validate the advantages of educational commons and take their activities to a higher level.