Most analysts agree that the $6 billion textbook business in the
US is ripe for a digital makeover. But authors, publishers, and retailers are facing a bigger threat to their long-established business -- free electronic textbooks.
Basically, it’s the Wikipedia effect. There are several “free”
online resources with all the material necessary to compile the same, if not more, information found in any conventional textbook.
So, how do you go from Wikipedia and other free content
sites to a full e-book that matches the $200 textbook used in your Calculus class? Boundless Learning, a Boston company that has been giving away free electronic textbooks for college students, has the answer.
Boundless founder Ariel Diaz found his new business idea
when trying to take a crash course on “Quaternions” for a consulting project. Instead of buying a book on the subject, he used a Wikipedia article,
and found it extremely detailed and accurate. The difference with Boundless is that it uses the content available online to create a free alternative to existing textbooks, pulling freely-available articles from online sites to match the information (not the words) found on the original.
Teachers are also joining the revolution. Many university
professors are beginning to give away free electronic versions of their textbook for individual classes. Instead of trying to make more money selling the book, they want to have more students attending the class. Their classes become popular, and students are happy to not spend more money on textbooks.
It's tempting for schools to embrace this technology. Colleges and K-12 schools are struggling worldwide to get funding, and students are complaining about increasing tuition fees. Saving money on textbooks could ease the pain and help more students afford college. K-12 administrators, especially CIOs charged with bringing new technology and course materials into the classroom, would love to save money and bring in new technology at the same time.
College CIOs should look at the possibilities of new editing platforms, and facilitate the digital transformation of course content for instructors and students.
But there may be an important catch. Publishers (Pearson Education, Inc.; Cengage Learning, Inc.; Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group, LLC, and D/B/A Macmillan Higher Education), are now suing Boundless, claiming that Boundless “generates these 'replacement textbooks' by hiring individuals to copy and paraphrase from Plaintiffs’ textbooks." Boundless refutes the charges, saying it uses sophisticated algorithms and human editors to compile the books from copyright-free online sources.
With legal issues pending, it might not be the best time to invest in bringing these e-books into the classroom. And some would certainly question the potential value of a textbook made by a computer, edited on the cheap, and given for free. But, ultimately, something has to be done.
As Dr. Mark J. Perry, Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan says, “The cost of college textbooks has been rising at almost twice the rate of general CPI inflation for at least the last thirty years.” He claims that textbook publishers operate a “cartel-style” model.
What do you think? Are free textbooks made in this manner the best way to break up the cartel? Comment below.