Saturday, October 08, 2005

Fred Beshears

The Economic Case for Creative Commons Textbooks

Fred Beshears, University of California at Berkeley
Friday, September 30, 2005, 10:00-10:45 am

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According to a recent survey, University of California students now spend 40 percent more on textbooks than they did six years ago. This presentation examines how colleges and universities may be able to significantly reduce these costs by creating a coalition for the acquisition and distribution of electronic textbooks. We begin by noting that although the textbook market seems rather tranquil at present, the same cannot be said for vendors of Learning Management Systems. One significant proposal that could disrupt the learning software market has been put forward by Ira Fuchs, Vice President for Research at the Mellon Foundation. In a recent article, he proposes the creation of Educore—an organization dedicated to the development of open source educational software. According to Fuchs, Educore would be made up of more than 1,000 colleges and universities around the world. And, to pay for the cost of software development, each member institution would be asked to contribute between $5,000 and $25,000 per year, based on size.

Inspired by Fuchs’s vision, this presentation explores the idea of establishing a global coalition of similar size that would acquire and distribute high-quality creative commons content that could be used in any of the following combinations: (a) as the basis of an online course, (b) as an electronic textbook, or (c) as a customized printed textbook for use in a traditional college course.

Unlike MIT’s Open Courseware initiative, this presentation focuses on content for the big introductory courses that account for a large percentage of student eyeballs and a substantial portion of the textbook market. The business model for the coalition would be simple: traditional colleges and universities would agree to pay membership dues to purchase content from one or more open universities such as the British Open University. The coalition would not develop the content; it would purchase content in bulk. In addition to saving money, this presentation also looks at how open textbook content could give faculty the freedom to customize course materials.

We examine the economically feasibility of an open textbook initiative by reviewing how such open universities now spend on content development. We then look at how much it would cost to buy this content on an ongoing basis. Finally, we divide the cost of purchasing the content by the number of students in the coalition to see how this cost compares with the current cost of textbooks.

According to our discussions with faculty, we find that a fair number of those who teach Berkeley’s large introductory courses would be willing and able to substitute open content for the commercial textbooks currently in use. But even if most instructors continued to use commercial textbooks, we believe that the figures show that it may still be that enough students will be able to use the initiative’s content to justify the small per-student cost. We also look at how schools may encourage instructors to use open textbook content by providing faculty stipends as well as paid student and staff support to help customize course content. We outline how some schools could support these costs by establishing a course material customization fee that could be far less than the current cost of commercial textbooks. Also, in our discussions with faculty we identify textbook selectors and authors to assess their stake in the textbook industry. Our initial findings are that only a very small percentage of faculty actually write textbooks. We also find that of this number only a small percentage report that they make a significant amount of money from their textbooks. On the other hand, we find that faculty who select textbooks for large survey courses are interested in the money that would be generated from a course material fee.

In summary, it should be noted that this presentation is not a specific business proposal. Instead, the main purpose of this presentation is to stimulate discussion of a number of different but interrelated cost savings issues, each representing a different lever that policy makers could move separately or together. Some schools, for example, may want to treat the open textbook content simply as a library resource. Other schools, however, may want to provide faculty with financial incentives and resources to customize the coalition’s open content. If these costs were substantial, then policy makers might need to consider a course material fee, which students might accept if it’s less than what they currently pay for comparable commercial textbooks. Also, any specific policy proposal would need to address licensing issues governing how said customized content would be owned. And, finally, different means of distribution (electronic vs. print) would entail different costs that would have to be addressed. The main point, however, is that a creative commons textbook initiative may not only save students money, it could also give faculty more freedom to customize the content of their courses.

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