For decades, a leading complaint among college students has been the price of textbooks. If they purchase all of their required books brand new, the bill each full-time semester generally hovers somewhere around $500-600, or roughly $80 to $100 for each required book given a course load of four or five classes. Paired with continually rising tuition costs, the cost of books represents a serious burden on students who are often struggling just to cover their basic cost of living each academic year.

The use of open source textbooks has begun to emerge in fits and starts, more often in individual classrooms than as a formal policy adopted by a university system or a particular department at a school. The open textbook movement saw a flurry of support in 2010, when a number of different states fielded successful initiatives to explore the idea of formally adopting open textbooks in state universities. A number of these initiatives resulted in exploratory committees making strong recommendations in favor of adopting open textbooks, citing not just savings to students but the ability to more quickly update in response to changes in scientific fields and industries.

However, six years later, there still isn’t any one particular college or university you can point to that has adapted open source textbooks on a broad scale. A number of schools leave their instructors free to do so if they choose to; however, it seems not many are making that choice.

Educators do have some legitimate concerns about the model. The first, and most obvious, is quality. Open textbooks each adopt their own publishing standards with some created by many hands, though not all of those hands have verifiable experience. Open textbooks also generally do not come packed with the ancillary materials instructors usually provide with their traditional textbooks, such as homework assignments, quizzes and tests with answer keys, and slideshow presentations.

Some open-source textbooks have anticipated these concerns. The most successful among them are primarily authored and supervised by one qualified professor, who then simply chooses to distribute their work for free. One of the best examples of this is Introduction to Economic Analysis by Professor R. Preston McAfee, an economics instructor at Caltech. The book has been so successful at Caltech it has been picked up by courses at other schools such as Harvard, Claremont-McKenna and The University of Toronto. McAfee has since stopped updating his own book, but has given his approval to updates and modifications made by others to produce newer versions that are still freely available.

While this makes for a nice story, if the open-source textbook movement had to rely solely on the somewhat heroic efforts of individual professors, it would undoubtedly stall out for good. To that end, certain nonprofit organizations have developed to bring greater resources to bear in generating similar texts that are freely available and that are of a level of quality acceptable to be used in a university course. Flat World Knowledge is one such group, a partner distributor of McAfee’s book as well as a catalog of 110 others. OpenStax is a nonprofit that has formed to develop a set of 25 textbooks in core education subjects that aim to be a standard for university students everywhere in its initial two years. In both cases, these groups distribute PDF versions of their books through their websites, and ask a fee of about $25-30 to print color versions.

Large-scale organized efforts like Flat World and OpenStax are primarily reliant on private charitable donations, at least initially. They hope to self-fund in the long run through a model of selling add-ons like flash cards and audiobook versions. Ultimately, their ability to convince instructors that they provide high-quality and comprehensive materials will be the deciding factor in widespread adoption of affordable alternative texts for students.

In the meantime, both students and instructors can peruse the existing open-source text options at catalog sites such as The Assayer.

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