Inside one librarian's quest to provide free textbooks
As the cost of higher education skyrockets, the price of textbooks has increased at an even faster clip. According to the American Enterprise Institute, the cost of textbooks in 2012 was 812 percent higher now than it was three decades ago while tuition rose 559 percent over the same time span.
The average student spends roughly $1,000 a year on textbooks, often at the profit-making college bookstore, which doesn't as a rule offer significant discounts. Some popular titles include "Chemistry: A Molecular Approach" (hardcover: $205.98 / Kindle: $129.50), "Management: Leading & Collaborating in the Competitive World" (hardcover: $202.48), and "A Writer's Reference" (hardcover: $70.17). Two hernia-inducing tomes, "Encyclopedia of International Media and Communications" ($1,215) and "Acta Philosophorum: The First Journal of Philosophy" ($1,450) head a list of the highest priced textbooks of all time, although I assume they don't sell many of them.
To meet this challenge, textbook rental services like Chegg and one operated by Amazon have popped up, and Barnes and Noble in New York City had, for years, allowed students to sell back (at a fraction of the sale price) new and used textbooks, although sometimes these books weren't re-sellable because publishers continuously churn out new editions. But one project from a State University of New York (SUNY) library has come up with another way to tackle textbook sticker shock by using its network of teachers as authors.
The SUNY Open Textbooks project sprouted from an idea by SUNY Geneseo's library director Cyril Oberlander. He noticed waning sales of textbooks at his school, and how students were discovering new, cheaper ways to access the material. His library provided reserves for students to borrow required texts for a finite amount of hours, but many found this too restrictive. "We [didn't] have a solution that serves all of the needs," Oberlander says.
He talked with colleagues and formulated a grant application for a free textbook program funded by the SUNY library system. The idea was simple: The program would put out a call to professors to write their own textbooks that would be peer-reviewed by other faculty. If a manuscript made the cut, it would be published by the school and students would get free access to it.
Oberlander received a $25,000 grant to start the project and publish four textbooks. Other libraries in the SUNY system caught wind and donated an additional $40,000, which increased the number of textbooks to 15.
A call went out to professors and after two weeks Oberlander received 38 proposals. "This really took us by surprise," he says. Not only were libraries interested in providing free textbooks, so too were professors who wished to ease their students' costs.
In its first year the project has published four textbooks, and the rest are due to be released by June. The response, he says has been tremendous, and not just within the SUNY system. "We've seen almost every country in the world download our textbooks," he says.
He has received a second grant application for an additional $60,000 in funding, and this latest call was even more popular with professors, with 46 manuscripts proposed. So many, in fact, that he's had to delay the decision for which will be chosen so that he and others can evaluate the proposals.
This new batch will also see a new take on the peer review process. Professors across the SUNY system will be given blind abstracts and asked to evaluate and make recommendations. What's being evaluated, however, isn't whether or not the content is strong. The professors weigh in on whether they believe the text could be used throughout the entire SUNY system, with each educator providing a "market analysis" of whether entire disciplines would take up the text.
Oberlander's effort, while still a modest undertaking, is a shot over the bow against textbook publishing monopolists like Pearson, which have for decades sold textbooks at ridiculous markups.
"Everyone is trying to figure out how to reduce the cost of textbooks and still have a viable future," Oberlander says. He is mulling ideas for integrating texts with students' learning styles -- perhaps embedding audio in electronic versions, adding multiple choice questions, maybe even crunching learning analytics so professors can track in real time how well students are absorbing the material.
From there, maybe this will be lead to a revolution in not only how much these books cost, but what we can do with them. That's Oberlander long-term view. He says he wants "to create a new learning environment" and this seems a good start.
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