Earlier this month, there was a posting at the California State Library blog that said that, according to a Dayton College study, the savings for students using electronic textbooks was only a dollar: "Despite the promise that digital textbooks can lead to huge cost savings for students, a new study at Daytona State College has found that many who tried e-textbooks saved only one dollar, compared with their counterparts who purchased traditional printed material." This came as no surprise to me. Electronic textbooks in themselves, especially those sold by businesses, solve the problem of distribution and printing costs to the commercial publisher, but not the problem of cost to the students and schools (or as the commercial publishers refer to them "the customers"). The study show that there are some cost saving in many circumstances but the cost of education and textbooks is currently rising faster than inflation or health care manifold over.
Image by Getty Images via @daylifeThe real solution to this problem is not just electronic textbooks, but textbooks that are also openly licensed. That means the textbooks are licensed in such a way that they are available to students and schools for free (such as the alternative to traditional copyright "Creative Commons"). These textbooks tend to be created by teachers for teachers and students in a particular context. They are then fully editable by other teachers to adapt to the particular needs of their students. According to the Dayton College study, nearly 1/4 of students who responded said they took fewer classes in a semester because of the cost of textbooks, and 29% of the students avoided purchasing a textbook because of its high cost at least once. Again, from the study, "During three of the project’s four semesters, students enrolled in some of the e-text pilot sections paid only $1 less for rental of their e-texts than students who bought a printed book due to publisher pricing decisions. These students were also unable to recoup a portion of expenses by selling the textbooks back to the on-campus bookstore when the course ended, which increased their disappointment."
The study, described at the CSL blog, was "conducted over four semesters, compared four different means of textbook distribution: traditional print purchase, print rental, e-textbook rental, and e-textbook rental with an e-reader device. It found that e-textbooks still face several hurdles as universities mull the switch to a digital textbook distribution model." None of this solves the problems for the students or schools. Electronic textbooks are a real temptation now for commercial enterprises because when you eliminate printing, storage and distribution, textbooks become very profitable. I am not excited when any corporation gets involved in the textbook business, even if the model is even sort of open. The whole point of business is to make a profit. I understand that, but there are appropriate and sustainable business models and old and broken ones. We do not privatize the police and generally the military (yes, there is Blackwater, but you see the problems that arise when you do it!). Our education should not be left in the hands of the profiteers. Even the somewhat more open than most publishers, like Flatworld Knowledge have a bottom line.
I can show numerous examples of outstanding open textbooks that are outstanding not just because they are "cool," have a great interface, and come with expensive supplements, but because they are incredibly effective. And no one can sell you that textbook even if they wanted to because the ones I am thinking about were created by a local community (our math department at College of the Redwoods for instance), meant to tackle problems in local schools, and address the needs of the local students. I can't sell you that book, but what I am willing to do is to talk to any educator, anywhere, who is interested in building that kind of community in your own school. This is a different philosophy than the commercial model (and no, that doesn't make me a "red") - it is a philosophy that says that learning and knowledge exist in the community and can't be commodified.