What happens if the cost of textbooks drops to zero?

By Erin Griffith , written on February 8, 2013

From The News Desk

Last week, Dan Mitchell's ponderings on the state of music licensing had me wondering if the same question couldn't be applied to textbooks. Similar to the music industry, textbooks are controlled by a small but powerful group of companies that have fought hard to preserve their oligopoly.

If textbooks are losing their relevance, it won't be the rise of e-books that kills them. That will merely change the shape of the industry. Physical textbooks will remain in the picture because of the hardware problem -- schools need a default device that is available to every student before they can truly kill hardcover books.

And still, publishers have adapted there. Many of them lease to their digital books for a monthly fee, which costs much less to the publisher but can end up costing the student as much as the printed book over the course of a semester. And -- bonus! -- it is a timebomb that can't be shared or accessed after the course is over. Not a terrible deal for publishers.

But that doesn't mean textbooks get out of the digital transformation unharmed.

No, the real issue comes when we realize we don't even need that e-book subscription. Open Educational Resources (OER) -- a network of freely available content -- is becoming a huge disruption for textbook companies. While any significant change in entrenched school systems will take a long time to actually be implemented, the book publishers' days of minting a profit selling commodity educational content at premium prices may be waning.

Evidence of the seachange, and these companies' scramble to adapt, is everywhere. See the way Pearson, Cengage, and Macmillan have sued Boundless, a startup that's using open educational resources to create free equivalents of expensive college textbooks.

See the way Macmillan has given Troy Williams, former CEO of e-book company Questia Media, more than $100 million to build a business within Macmillan that undermine the business as a whole.

See the way Pearson's Learning Solutions group aims to transition the company from, as the company says, "a printed textbook provider to a learning company."

They all seem to believe their future is in providing not the textbook, but services around the textbook. And yet. And yet! They will still fight protect their existing business for as long as they possibly can. Ah, the Innovator's Dilemma.

Even the SVP of Pearson Learning Solutions, Clancy Marshall, admits that, for some subject areas, physical textbooks will be gone in five years. Certain subjects like humanities have a high demand for printed books. But subjects like math and science, where students mostly only use the textbook as a reference and focus more on homework, have little use for expensive textbooks, she says.

Marshall is in a strange position. Like Williams of Macmillan, she's trying to execute against the innovator's dilemma within a large company. She's tasked with shepherding Project BlueSky, Pearson's attempt at blending freely available Open Educational Resources (OER) with Pearson's not-so-free books and services. The company partnered with Gooru, an OER search engine, for the project. Thirteen schools are currently piloting Project Blue Sky.

The goal of the project is to show that, even as Pearson sues a startup focused on open educational resources, the choice between free educational content and expensive educational content doesn't have to be so black and white. There is a gray middle ground (or, in this case, blue sky?) that allows faculty members to choose the "best of both worlds." With Project BlueSky, teachers can choose to use OER content alongside Pearson content. It's a way for publishers to stop educators from switching wholesale to OER content and preserve a little book-related revenue.

While touting these new innovations, Pearson and its publishing peers warn of the dangers of OER content. Similar to the reputation YouTube has for crappy user-generated cat videos, OER gets accused of being noisy, low quality and difficult to sort through. If something is free, it must be garbage, the thinking goes. "Faculty members don't have time to vet a resource in their classroom," Marshall says. "It's difficult to know that they are giving accurate information to their students with OER because often you don;t even know who created the resource or if its been reviewed."

The OER community has responded to these concerns hiring professors and textbook providers to build professional-grade textbooks out of OER content. The books are constantly being peer-reviewed, modified and updated -- an OER Intro to Statistics book has 60,000 students using it and is on its 11th version, says Cable Green, Director of Global Learning at Creative Commons. More than 3000 teachers are using open textbooks in the US.

Open source software had a similar reputation for much of its life. When first introduced, the idea that communally-written free software could evolve into a threat for enterprise mega-giants was laughable. Then IBM and startups like RedHat and MySQL made them professionally palatable for large companies. Now it's hard to find any company that doesn't use open source software somewhere in its stack.

Its not surprising that the most cash-strapped education consumers are embracing OER first: Governments. And considering taxpayers are footing the bill for K-12 books, they probably should. The State of California, British Columbia, Brazil and Poland are using state funds to commission the development of open textbooks. Part of Green's work at Creative Commons works is to enrure that content and research developed with aid from US government grants must have a creative commons license on the end product. The idea is that if the government is paying for something to be developed, taxpayers should be able to access the results.

Green agrees with what many believe the textbook industry will eventually become: The publishers will offer all of their content -- a mix of OER and copyrighted content -- to the universities and schools for free. And on top of it, the universities can pay for the data and services that come with it. It's not unlike the way IBM got its start building computer mainframes. When the hardware business became commoditized, the company transitioned into a provider of business services and software. And the innovation cycle rolls on.

Image by Hallie Bateman