This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
The high cost of textbooks isn’t a technological problem to be solved by digital distribution; it’s a business model problem. With students as a captive market, textbooks are the last big cash cow for conventional publishers. It’s no coincidence that Pearson, the largest educational publisher, is the largest English language publisher, period.
How to deal with “the Hummer of higher education.”
But textbooks, with or without the bundled DVDs, are what Judy Baker, of the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources, calls “The Hummer of higher education.”
Why should we be content with static, rapidly outdated, heavy print textbooks that can cost community college students as much as their tuition, when professors and students can work together to create dynamic, rich-media learning environments instead using free and open source software tools?
Teaching without textbooks means teaching students to think critically, evaluate various sources of information, and draw their own conclusions — critical 21st century liberal arts skills. Good professors could put together stellar college courses from the material on Wikipedia and YouTube, but they don’t have to. Learners can draw on a growing trove of materials like TED Talks, the Internet Archive, Europeana, and of course those created expressly for education at the Open Courseware Consortium or the Open Learning Initiative. These are all high quality, of known provenance, and did I mention free?
Some professors are rushing to teach without textbooks, while others are less eager or simply like the convenience of a basic written guide to a topic. Luckily, there is a great transitional model: Flatworld Knowledge. Flatworld Knowledge commissions expert authors to produce textbooks that are free to read online and available in a variety of formats for costs that average just $18 per student per semester, 82 percent cheaper than traditional textbooks.
Most important, because they’re Creative Commons-licensed, educators and potentially students can customize the texts for each class in which they’re adopted–cutting, adding, or remixing material to use only what they need. Goodbye, Hummer — hello, hybrid Zipcar.
Anya Kamenetz is the author of DIY U, Edupunks Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, available in our bookstore.