Are Open Access Textbooks the Answer?

Students complain to us most about the cost of textbooks. Who can blame them, really? When I was in school, I could count on spending perhaps as much as $100 additional dollars on textbooks. By the time I enrolled in my first graduate degree, the cost had soared to about $250, and by the time I began my second one, textbooks cost me more than the cost of one additional class.

Today’s students are lucky to get out of the bookstore without spending more than $1,000. The College Board, which tracks such things, argues that it may be as high as $1,200 annually. When you figure in tuition and other costs, one begins to see why many students—or should I say the parents of students—are questioning the cost of college. After four years and a sizable debt facing them as they enter what will almost surely be an entry level position, some students and parents are now viewing college as a luxury, not a requirement.  That spells sure danger for our electorate.

It’s true that until recently, college and universities were not doing very much to hold these costs down. Amenities caused costs to soar, and specialization caused courses to multiply.  A four-year degree that once cost about $5,000, now exceeds the cost of two new cars.

Yet one place that colleges and universities can carve out immediate savings for students is in the very place that students complain about most: those expensive textbooks. It’s taken more than a decade to iron out cheaper alternatives–textbooks are after all, a cash-cow for most textbook publishers—cheaper textbooks are now already here via open educational resources, or OER.

One such example is OpenStax College. OpenStax College (OSC) is an online repository of dozens of peer-reviewed textbook in Physics, Biology, Anatomy, Algebra, Calculus, Economics, Chemistry, Social Sciences, History and Psychology. Begun as an open access initiative of Rice University, it became OSC with the help of numerous foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Bill and Stephanie Sick Fund. College and universities that adopt OCS textbooks help students save millions.

OCS relies upon open education resources, or books that are published in the Creative Commons, bypassing current U.S. copyright laws. Once expensive textbooks can now be accessed electronically through entities like OCS.  It’s a win-win for everyone.

Open educational resources are also an initiative that many libraries are pushing (and Dacus is very much involved in) in an effort to secure scholarly materials at little or no cost.Scholarly communication is also currently one of the largest costs that libraries have to bear. Because most scholarly communication is esoteric in nature, its appeal is limited to narrowly focused audiences, such as other scholars or students studying those areas. Libraries become the revenue generator for these materials with access to commercially produced scholarly communication in the form of electronic databases costing five figures or more. Open access reduces that burden substantially and guarantees its creators copyright ownership in perpetuity.

OCS isn’t the only textbook player in this game, of course. There are several. Not all open access is equal, however, and this is one reason why faculties at many colleges and universities have been slow to adopt open access textbooks. But many of those problems have been addressed or are being addressed, and each faculty member teaching a course should make every effort to find an open access text.

It may well be a pipe-dream since the current model of charging hundreds of dollars for textbooks has been in place for decades. Changing all that is going to take time.

But if not now, when; if not us, then who?