General Question

phaedryx's avatar

Why aren't all of the states doing open textbooks?

Asked by phaedryx (6104 points ) May 22nd, 2012

Utah is moving to an “open textbook” model for secondary education. More information is available here: http://utahopentextbooks.org/

From a state press release:
“Open textbooks are textbooks written and synthesized by experts, vetted by peers, and made available online for free access, downloading, and use by anyone. Open textbooks can also be printed through print-on-demand or other printing services for settings in which online use is impossible or impractical. In earlier pilot programs, open textbooks have been printed and provided to more than 3,800 Utah high school science students at a cost of about $5 per book, compared to an average cost of about $80 for a typical high school science textbook.”

They did studies that demonstrated that students learned as well from open textbooks as from traditional textbooks.

Are there drawbacks to this approach? Is the state overstepping? Is this a sign of things to come?

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13 Answers

zenvelo's avatar

Because then the Texas State Board of Education can’t control the facts, such as the errors in evolution as opposed to the true explanation in Intelligent Design.

This is actually a great idea, as long as the anti-intellectual politics is kept out of it.

elbanditoroso's avatar

For profit publishers have a large and influential lobby. They stand to lose business if Open textbooks become prevalent.

It’s always about money.

majorrich's avatar

Very often professors try out texts they are working on publishing will use photocopied copies (yes you have to buy them) to work out kinks before they go to the publishers to be made into books. Of course the professor gets a cut, and then if their text is adopted by someone else, they get paid for a percentage of the sales. To keep their tenure, they are required to publish and get grants and stuff for research for the university. From a tenured professors point of view it’s kind of a pain until they get full professorship then they don’t have to do it as much. The good part of that is you are getting the information presented as the teacher is intimately familiar with so get a stronger dose of whatever the text is about.

6rant6's avatar

Two things for sure.
1. Ideological control as @zenvelo wrote.
2. Effective marketing (including lobbying as @elbanditoroso wrote)

A third possibility is that people making the decisions hope to profit from their relationship with the sellers.

phaedryx's avatar

I looked into it a bit more:
It is the Utah state education board who is paying professional authors to write the open textbooks which gives them more control of the content (for better or worse).

The books are cheap enough that every student will get a new book that they can highlight, take notes in, etc. They don’t need to be reused by future students.

JLeslie's avatar

Because education is done on the local level in America not national, and each state, county, district, does whatever the hell they want pretty much. Books are big business. If they leave books and go to internet or kindles or whatever they wind up choosing, whoever is sellig those things are looking for that business. Money money money.

Jeruba's avatar

Several additional points come to mind:

•  It costs something to develop textbooks. A lot goes into creating them. (Note, I am not making an argument concerning pricing and overpricing, just stating a fact.) A decent textbook has one or more subject-matter-expert authors, needs qualified peer reviewers, may require a lot of editorial help if the authors aren’t really writers, and needs a lot of proofing and checking, not to mention photo and illustration searches, page composition, indexing, fact checking, etc. Can that be done for $5 per book? What corners are being cut? How much of a sacrifice of quality can we afford when we consider the value of education?

•  Is anything more than “prettiness” lost when books are printed on cheap 8½×11” Xerox-quality paper instead of durable, nicely composed, well-bound pages that will withstand generations of use? How many $5 books will one $80 book outlast? How about the subtle effects of student respect for the substance and the content and the implicit message of worth?

•  As a student, would you prefer to buy one or more (expensive) 3” looseleaf binders to lug around, with pages that tear and easily come loose, or would you prefer to have your 800-page textbook (complete with supportive use of color and pages that don’t bleed through) neatly bound in a sturdy cover?

•  What are the less obvious, secondary, or hidden costs of letting traditional publishers go out of business?

phaedryx's avatar

@Jeruba

Very interesting points. I did some more research:

* What would you say it costs to write a book? Their claim is that it is written by professionals. They did pilot programs and students learned as well from the open textbooks as the traditional textbooks. Wolfram Alpha says that there are over 217,000 high-school-student-aged people in Utah. Suppose you are saving $75 for a class they all have to take. That is $16,275,000 in savings. Could you get a professional author and a staff to write a textbook for, I dunno, a couple of million dollars? The state would still save a lot of money.

* These aren’t 8½×11 pages printed by a printer, they are “printed on demand” by createspace and shipped to the school. Google tells me this is what they look like.

The beauty is that you don’t have to lug around anything. You could leave your book at school and download it if you need it at home or just opt out of using the paper version and just use an ipad/kindle/laptop/whatever instead.

* It’s probably the same shift as in the music industry where musicians can produce music and sell directly to fans without signing to labels. The authors could hire editors, proofreaders, and fact-checkers and be their own publishers.

LostInParadise's avatar

The primary cost of a textbook is not due to the cost of the paper, but of the time and effort that go into writing it. What I do not understand is why experts would write these textbooks for free. The same experts could go through the same process for written textbooks, self-published, and just charge the cost of printing and binding the books. Something is not making sense here.

phaedryx's avatar

I just realized this is for all “secondary education” which is grades 6–12 in Utah, roughly 275,000 students.

@LostInParadise I assumed the authors were paid. Where did you see that they are writing for free?

Aethelflaed's avatar

@Jeruba Is anything more than “prettiness” lost when books are printed on cheap 8½×11” Xerox-quality paper instead of durable, nicely composed, well-bound pages that will withstand generations of use? How many $5 books will one $80 book outlast? How about the subtle effects of student respect for the substance and the content and the implicit message of worth? But there is also something to be gained. Information is always being updated, revised, and maybe if we weren’t aiming for textbooks to last for generations, students would be able to find out about information more recent than 1982. And I’d rather a student question the material of a book that tells them mind-boggling false, misleading, and incomplete information than assume that if the book has a nice sturdy binding, it must be correct when it says that everyone before Columbus thought the world was flat.

As a student, would you prefer to buy one or more (expensive) 3” looseleaf binders to lug around, with pages that tear and easily come loose, or would you prefer to have your 800-page textbook (complete with supportive use of color and pages that don’t bleed through) neatly bound in a sturdy cover? As a student, I’d rather have an electronic copy that allow me to use searching functions and copy/paste quotes, and then simply print out whatever pages I needed right then. (Heck, I’ve even ripped the covers off of textbooks so that I could scan them in and then have a searchable copy).

And I agree with you on money, that creating a textbook isn’t cheap, and does have to be paid for. But while a decent textbook has relevant experts writing the material, most textbooks – especially the big ones – aren’t exactly decent with respect to actually being familiar with the material. We have to do better, in a huge, massive way, and it doesn’t seem like we can do that while sticking with the current system.

LostInParadise's avatar

@phaedryx , My misinterpretation. I took “available online for free” to mean that they were written for free.

I think that eventually all textbooks will be available in digital format, and not just textbooks. There will also be lectures and interactive programs. There are so many possibilities. There has so far been rather limited educational software. There is a revolution waiting to happen.

6rant6's avatar

Another vote for open texts here. Where my SO teaches, the books are often more than ten years old, which for science and social studies is pathetic. The reason – cost. State standards have moved on, and although the State was the one to chose these books, they no longer respond to what the kids are supposed to learn. Fluthermore, there are times when there are not enough texts for the kids in a classroom. ( I remember reading a report that this happens in struggling high schools, too.)

Lastly, having the material readily available on line would relieve many kids from carrying around 60 pounds of books – which has been linked to medical issues. It wouldn’t help my SO’s kids – few of them have internet at home. Although maybe they could do their homework on smart phones…

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