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New open-source strategy would drop textbook costs to $0


Still, open-source textbooks, which have been around for several years, face challenges and have not caught on broadly.

“I don’t know if it’s transforming higher-ed yet,” said Craig R. Vasey, a member of the American Association of University Professors who uses open-source materials in his logic class at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. “I think the textbook publishing business is still doing very, very well.”

In fact, the textbook industry is also working to offer cheaper alternatives to hardcover textbooks and even partnering with open-source textbook providers.

And although the open-source textbook concept has been embraced by student groups such as the Student Government Association in College Park, university officials say the challenges include connecting professors with the materials they need for the textbooks and creating a system to assess the quality of the books.

Another complication: Many universities are bound to contracts with private companies to run campus bookstores, where many students purchase their textbooks. University System of Maryland financial records show that the bookstore contracts are not always lucrative, however — last year the system lost about $1 million.

Some students and a growing number of professors and university administrators say the cost of printed textbooks outweighs their usefulness. Textbook prices have risen an average of 82 percent between 2002 and 2012, about three times faster than the rate of inflation, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

High textbook prices are “quite ridiculous,” said Jesse Fox, president of the University System of Maryland Student Council, which lobbied system officials to study open-source textbooks. Fox, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, added, “The only reason this is the case is textbook companies can do this. There’s no check and balance.”

The College Board estimates that the average college student spends $1,200 a year on textbooks, and the costs are often higher in fields like science or mathematics. The costs strain budgets as families struggle to pay for higher education, and sometimes students opt not to buy textbooks or put off purchases until late in the semester, which can jeopardize their grades, according to student groups, advocates and administrators.

“The traditional model of textbook is like a game of ‘Survivor,’” said Meenu Singh, a College Park student coordinating the textbook cost awareness campaign for the Student Government Association. “It becomes a game of outwit and outlast: Let’s see how long we can last the semester without having to buy the textbook, or outwit by trying to buy cheaper editions.”

(Next page: How UMD designed their open-source program)

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