Textbooks built to fit student budgets

Schools, nonprofits, and publishers go digital in an effort to create less-expensive textbooks.

John Kehe/Staff

Kevin Hegarty knows firsthand about the high cost of textbooks.

His older son, now in law school at the University of Texas, paid almost $600 for books this semester. His younger son, a junior at Texas majoring in business, paid nearly $900.

College students have long complained about the high cost of books, but recently they’ve had good reason: The cost has risen twice as fast as inflation, nearly tripling in the two decades from 1996 to 2005, according to a US government study.

To be fair, textbooks today are more elaborate than in the past, often containing workbooks and CDs with additional content. Publishers also are testing the waters of digital delivery, creating products that can be accessed online, including videos, simulated laboratory experiments, and other materials that stretch the meaning of the word “textbook.”

In addition, colleges are beginning to experiment with what’s possible in a digital age. Beginning next semester, the University of Texas will provide 1,000 students with free digital textbooks for up to two years in a partnership with publisher John Wiley & Sons Inc. Students will be able to access the books online or as files downloaded to their laptops, says Mr. Hegarty, a vice president and chief financial officer at the university, who spearheaded the agreement.

If all goes well, digital textbooks eventually will be offered to all of the school’s roughly 50,000 students for a nominal fee. Many printed textbooks today cost more than $100 apiece. Even at $40 or $45 per digital copy, Hegarty says, students could see substantial savings. For those who prefer to read (and take notes) on paper, the school expects to offer inexpensive printed versions, perhaps loose-leaf and spiral bound.

More than cost is involved in the transition to digital texts. Not only do they save on paper, printing, and shipping (an environmental plus), they can be more up-to-date. “Anything digital can be updated on the fly based on what the researcher who wrote the book learned yesterday in the lab,” Hegarty says.

While going digital creates a new set of opportunities, it has also led to new challenges. Once a book is in digital form, it becomes easy to copy and move. Illegal textbook swapping online, Napster style, has gained the attention of publishers, who are vigorously trying to stamp it out. The textbook-sharing site of one online Robin Hood was just put out of business for the fifth and final time. (See interview, below.)

Others are thinking even more radically about textbooks. Richard Baraniuk, a professor of electrical engineering at Rice University in Houston, has founded Connexions, a nonprofit website featuring free “open source” textbooks. Their authors ask for no payment, only that they be given credit for their writings and that the material remain free of charge. A 300-page textbook on the fundamentals of electrical engineering, for example, can cost $120 from a textbook publisher, Professor Baraniuk says. To print out a similar free Connexions textbook would cost about $20.

Baraniuk started with his own textbook on signal processing, which has been accessed at Connexions (cnx.org) more than 2.8 million times.

“Basically the whole system is broken, the system by which we conceive of writing books,” he says. The material in Connexions is divided into chapter-like modules of information, some 6,500 so far, that can be accessed individually or combined to form about 350 full textbooks.

Giving students traditional textbooks is like taking them to a clothing store and giving them all the same suit off the rack, despite their obvious differences. “In the future, each individual book is going to be customized to each individual child ...  and that’s hard to do with the traditional model,” he says.

The CK-12 Foundation, in Palo Alto, Calif., is trying to do something similar for younger students. CK-12 (ck12.org) already has created 15 free open-source textbooks that it calls “flexbooks” for use in high school classrooms – and hopes to have more on the way. The foundation uses high school student interns, as well as classroom teachers and experts, to vet the content of books. Students or teachers can easily search and customize the content for their own purposes, making flexbooks “the next evolution of the textbook,” says Neeru Khosla, who founded CK-12 last year.

She envisions, for example, that students might print out only the material that they will need for the next week or two and carry it bound as a single book in their backpacks.

Traditional textbook providers are also responding in a variety of ways, including a project called CourseSmart, founded and run by five of the largest publishers. Thousands of books, about one-third of the most popular college texts, can be accessed or downloaded at about half the cost of traditional texts, according to information on the website (coursesmart.com).

Hegarty says he talked with several textbook publishers in the course of setting up the new program at the University of Texas.

“All of them admit that their former model for publishing textbooks is changing before their eyes,” he says. “This is all in its infancy, which is probably one of the most exciting parts.”

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