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Free Textbooks: Are They Worth the Price?

by Jocelyn Rubin | University of Maryland- College Park

F Posted in: College P Posted on: February 16, 2012

Free textbooks. Pure fantasy to the average college student, but now a reality for the students of Rice University.

According to an article by Inside Higher Ed, OpenStax College, in conjunction with Rice University, will be launching a new open source introductory physics textbook next month. The textbook will be available online for students whose instructors request access, and students will not be required to pay anything for its use.

OpenStax has five introductory textbooks in the works, one for college physics, one for sociology, two for biology, and one for anatomy and physiology. The textbooks are created based on a compilation of scholarly works, gathered through Rice University’s Connexions website. The website allows anyone to contribute content. It is then reviewed by “trusted and knowledgeable vetters”who review and endorse it.  Content seekers then use those reviews and endorsements to judge the accuracy and validity of the material.

When works are sought out to be included in one of the open source textbooks, an additional vetting process occurs, by educators who peer review the content “to ensure they are readable, accurate, and meet the scope and sequence requirements of your course,” according to the Connexions website.

Since the material is not printed and there is no single author, there is no cost to those students who want to use the textbook for class.

Peter Kamel, a junior at Rice University said that for as long as he has been in college, he has paid as much as $400 in textbook costs each semester, and while he doesn’t think he is entitled to free textbooks, he believes students at his school will be receptive to the new plan.

“It is just very frustrating when publishers charge high prices for a new edition of a textbook that doesn’t have a lot of new material, but students are still required to buy it for the course,” Kamel said.

Connexions director Richard Baraniuk was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “If we capture just 10 percent of the market with these first five textbooks,” then the program could save students $90 million over the course of five years.

Taylor Procida, a junior at the University of Maryland, said she knows of many people who don’t buy their required textbooks “because they are so expensive.” Last semester University of Maryland students went even further, staging a protest on the campus mall in order to encourage faculty and administrators to consider cheaper alternatives.

Lucy Qian, a junior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania also feels that the cost of college textbooks are “ridiculous,” and adds that she once paid $157 for a “piece of paper that gave me access to all online content.”

“If it’s online, it didn’t really cost them anything to print it,” she said, and therefore, she feels that her $157 access code should have been free.

Michaela Kornberg, however, a freshman at Towson University, said she doesn’t agree with the format of an online textbook. “You can’t really highlight it or take notes in the book,” she said.”When I try to read, I can’t concentrate. I need to be taking notes or highlighting or something like that.”

Students like Kornberg would have the option to pay for a paper edition, but it would be sold only for the cost of printing. The discount would be a tremendous reduction from that of leading textbook publishers.

Then there is the argument that, “You get what you pay for,” a common opposition stance to open source textbooks in which people feel the amount of money they are putting down for their textbook is equivalent to the value of the knowledge inside. Free source textbooks, some argue, are a guarantee that you are not getting quality information. Inside Higher Ed quoted the executive director for higher education of the Association of American Publishers J. Bruce Hildebrand, as saying, “Free would appear to be difficult to compete with. The issue always, however, is the quality of the materials and whether they enable students to learn, pass their course and get their degree. Nothing else really counts.”

“In this day and age I feel like that kind of argument is the most obsolete,” says Qian, “because we have the Internet, and that is free, and that is like a wealth of information right there.”

Kamel believes that the quality of open source material might even be better than that of commercial publishers, “particularly when the content is reviewed by a large number of contributors and authors,” he added.

Procida is a bit more hesitant. “I would worry about the credibility of the information about as much as I worry about that of Wikipedia,” she said. “No textbook, open source or otherwise, should be considered to be absolutely true. People need to verify facts that they receive from any source, not just open source textbooks or the Internet.”

And Chris Arble, a senior at Towson University, feels the debate is as simple as leaving it up to the instructor.  “I would assume that the teacher who has assigned this free textbook would have read the textbook,” he said. His feeling is that only teachers who feel the material is accurate and relevant enough for their class would use it and therefore, students would not have to worry about vetting the material themselves.

“I’ve had classes where the teacher couldn’t find a book that they felt encompassed everything,” he adds, “so they had a compilation of books in a packet.”

Jocelyn Rubin Jocelyn Rubin Jocelyn Rubin is a student at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is majoring in broadcast journalism with a concentration in American Studies. She hopes to work one day in the field of entertainment journalism.

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