Friday, March 11, 2011

Trend: Affordability--Etextbooks at University

John Levi Hilton and David Wiley discuss in their First Monday article "A Sustainable Future for Open Textbooks?" the viability and sustainability of one model of etext delivery--Flat World Knowledge.

Key Points:

1. In 2008 the average price of textbooks was US$702 and 5.5 billion nation wide.
2. Textbook companies and professors have come in for a raft of criticism over the last ten years over the cost and waste in texts for classrooms.
3. E-books have proved a cheaper alternative but their cost, readability, and resale ability have proven to be stumbling blocks to adoption.
4. Free e-textbooks have been proposed as an answer by non-commercial groups like CourseSmart, Connexions, and Wikipedia as well as commercial efforts like Flat World Knowledge (FWK) and Textbook Media.
5. Flat World Knowledge's business model is the subject of this essay.
6. Benefits of FWK:
a. Older texts will not be discontinued even if revisions are available.
b. Texts are allowed to be freely customized.
c. Full text online version of etext is free.
d. Audio, pdf, and print version available for sale.
e. Higher royalty rate paid to authors (15%)
7. Alpha testing indicated that the business model was looked up favorably by both faculty and students compared to traditional texts.
8. Beta testing indicated that the majority of students were likely to buy the text instead of reading it only online.


Making college more affordable may depend on efforts like these to reduce costs. The authors suggest that this model might become the rule for K-12 which also is in desperate economic straits. One-to-one laptop initiatives would be well-advised to look at this freemium model and load up textbooks onto this hardware. The model might provide a counterbalance to the out-of-control costs in traditional textbook publishing.

Implications for the library's role in etextbooks has not been thought through. Amazon already sells more ebooks than paper books and access to these etexts through smartphones, tablets, and e-readers is becoming nearly universal; therefore, barriers to access are lower than ever before. In other words the textbook market is suffering severe dislocations as it tries to adjust to the 'textonic' forces shifting beneath them. Or maybe not. There does not appear to be a rush by faculty and students to adopt. Some have suggested that a new model (already used by the University of Phoenix) be used where stukdents woiuld pay a materials fee which would be lumped together to get e-books for all.


We really could see the end of the 'paper and binding' textbook in five years. Western needs to have a pilot program running now to make this happen because the present system is effectively broken. But I am concerned that universities will not effectively contain costs considering how poorly they have fared keeping a lid on digital subscriptions at libraries. And...what exactly would the consequences be for existing campus bookstores? Lost revenue and lost jobs? No, this is disruptive stuff here and not all tea and skittles.  That the law of unintended consequences will have powerful sway here, there is little doubt.

Hilton III, J. L., & Wiley, D. A. (2010). A sustainable future for open textbooks? The Flat World Knowledge story. First Monday, 15(8). Retrieved from

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