Can Open Education Save Students From Expensive Textbooks?

As part of Open Education Week, attended a webinar on textbook costs presented by the Student PIRGs. This eye-opening presentation shed a harsh light on the rising problem of out-of-control textbook costs and proposed an open education solution that could stop the insanity.

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By Sarah Wright

save money on textbooks with open education

The Textbook Cost Crisis

Any student with a budget can tell you that the cost of textbooks is a hidden nuisance that can make a huge dent in the wallet. Everyone knows that costs like tuition and living expenses are a normal part of college life, but the high cost of textbooks can be shocking. And since the cost isn't factored into tuition, it's an out-of-pocket expense for most students, meaning it won't be covered by financial aid.

Some new textbooks for a single class can be in the $250 range, and since new editions are often released, buying used isn't always an option. As Student PIRGs representative Nicole Allen explained during the webinar, a single book can cost a full couple weeks' salary for students who work part-time. The high cost of textbooks and other supplies is on the rise, and can cost as much as tuition in some cases. Unfortunately, the rate of inflation for textbook costs can be as much as four times higher than the normal rate of inflation. But is there a way to turn this around?

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How Open Education Strategies Can Help

In her talk, Ms. Allen focused on open licensing as a solution to the problem of rising textbook costs. Open licensure provides a level of copyright protection that sits between standard 'All Rights Reserved' copyright and public domain. Some rights are released to the public, such as the right to alter the licensed material. But copyright holders do get some legal protection from certain types of use, and this should be appealing to publishers.

Open textbooks are a great solution to the problem of rising textbook costs, since they sidestep the strategies publishing companies use to keep costs high, like releasing unnecessary new editions and bundling software along with the book. And this open education solution can result in a finished product that is just as good, if not better, than the traditional options. Ms. Allen identified three main criteria for effective open textbooks. They are:

1. Quality

Open texts need to cover material similar to traditional textbooks, and need to have similar quality control, including being written and reviewed by reputable experts.

2. Cost

In addition to being freely available online in HTML and other in-browser formats, open textbooks should be available for download or print at affordable price points (less than $100).

3. Fit

The benefit of an openly licensed textbook is that it will allow professors to tailor the book to suit their needs. Traditional textbooks can't be altered, so students end up paying for sections they don't use, and professors end up having to find supplemental materials to teach lessons that aren't in the book. An open text can be altered to suit the specific needs of each individual assigner.

It seems that one of the best ways to make open textbooks more popular is to increase awareness of their existence. The more professors assign open textbooks, the more students will have access to this affordable resource. Students can help get their professors involved by arming themselves with knowledge and making the case for open textbooks on their campuses. If you're interested in learning more about open textbooks, check out these links:

A great source for all kinds of news, information and tools to learn and spread the word about textbook costs and open textbooks.

This open textbook publisher is a great resource for students and professors alike. Flat World Knowledge is a great example of how the open textbook model can be made into a successful business venture.

An initiative of Rice University, OpenStax College is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making open textbooks widely available.

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