Online college texts are free, but not free from ads
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Professor Puri's decision to use a free textbook in his finance class was a "natural option," he says, since he already provides free lecture notes and slides on his website. The fact that the textbooks contained ads was of less concern, he says, "because the students are bombarded by ads everywhere." A stroll through the cafeteria, using e-mail, or watching TV attests to this fact, he adds. "People learn to filter out what they don't want to see."Skip to next paragraph
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In Nizami's case, he "filtered" out the ads in his free textbook by printing out the PDF version and discarding the pages with ads. He also did a side-by-side comparison with similar books at the campus bookstore to reassure himself that the free textbook was up to par. "I didn't see any need for [the ads], I was never going to buy anything [from the advertisers], I just needed the book."
In order for publishers of such books to succeed, they must emphasize the content and quality of their textbooks, not price, says Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School For Communication and the author of a forthcoming book, "Niche Envy: Marketing Discrimination in the Digital Age." "Professors are to some extent in the dark about the prices of the textbooks they order," he says.
Professor Puri says that he was comfortable with the content and quality of the textbook, especially since it was initially issued by Harper Collins. It was picked up by Freeload after a merger forced the previous publisher to drop the book. It was this "extensive editorial review process," among other reasons, that convinced the professor to reassign the book for the fall semester.
Lynne Pastor, a professor at Carnegie Mellon's Heinz School of Public Policy and Management in Pittsburgh, decided to use a Freeload book on cost accounting this summer after she was assured that student information from the required online surveys wouldn't be sold to third parties. "My only other concern was obviously the quality and content of the book," which she found to be comparable with other textbooks.
Freeload isn't proposing to replace traditional textbooks, Mr. Doran insists, but it is offering an alternative in the vein of "academic freedom." Freeload ads are pedagogically appropriate and won't interrupt the learning process, Doran says, because they are placed at the beginning or end of chapters. The business model will never interfere with the educational one, he adds.
Freeload only has about a dozen "seasoned academic authors" under contract, says Doran, so the model still has a way to go before its books become widely adopted. Doran hopes to attract authors beyond those who write on business and finance. The company is also interested rolling out in a "payload model," in which students would pay a small price for the e-books they download.
While Ruskin agrees that the cost of a college education is too high, he says that ad-funded textbooks are not the solution. "The answer is not to degrade the editorial integrity of our textbooks, the answer is to provide more financial aid and to do a thorough antitrust investigation of the textbook industry."
For the time being, however, educators and industry analysts agree that professors wield the greatest influence on whether the free textbooks will be recommended and used in classes.