Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Student PIRGs report on open textbooks

A new report regarding open textbooks has been released by The Student PIRGs. The report titled “How Open Textbooks are the Path to Textbook Affordability” concludes that “the next step toward textbook affordability is to promote the creation and adoption of open textbooks.” It says that rentals, e-textbooks, and e-readers are limited in the ability to reduce costs and address student preferences because they only match the preferences of some students. However, open textbooks can reduce costs substantially and accommodate the full spectrum of students.

Some of the Student PIRG data that contributed to this conclusion matches data from the NACS Student Watch study however, there are some differences. For example, in regards to student preferences, the Student PIRGs data shows that 75 percent of students prefer print while 25 percent prefer digital. The NACS study found a similar statistic but when students were subsequently asked the primary reason for purchasing print over digital only 42 percent indicated that their preference for print was the primary reason for their purchase choice. The next two reasons were: lack of inventory (19 percent) and that the professor used the print copy (13 percent). This shows that while a majority of students may prefer print to digital, that preference is decreasing in its relevance as a reason not to purchase digital -- suggesting that the preference for print over digital may be lessening in significance. If the content is available and if the faculty chooses digital more students may be ready to switch. Preference for print may have been definitive before but it is more marginal now.

The Student PIRGs report also estimates that students would spend an average of 80 percent less on textbooks each year if they moved to all open textbooks. This compares to 61 percent less for rentals, 52 percent less for e-textbooks, and 39 percent less for e-reader textbooks. While open textbooks may be more affordable now, the model may not be sustainable over the long term. As more faculty adopt open course materials, it may have an impact on overall educational affordability because revenue that goes to support financial aid, tuition sustainability, and other institutional expenses will be lost. This is not an argument against seeking lower cost course materials. Rather, it is an argument that open source still presents enough shortcomings that it is not yet a panacea for the textbook affordability problem.

While open textbooks will certainly play a part in the future, the associated limitations need to be worked out before they can be widely adopted. College Stores should be thinking about ways to incorporate open textbooks into their offerings. College Stores have an opportunity to provide access to the digital versions and offer printed versions through print-on-demand so that the store remains the primary source for student content needs, regardless of format or source.

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