Viewpoint: The Economic Case for Creative Commons Textbooks
Fred M. Beshears
University of California at Berkeley
Talk to virtually any student about the cost of textbooks and you will likely
hear loud complaints about the expense associated with course texts. According
to a recent General Accounting Office report:
"... the average estimated cost of books and supplies per first-time,
full-time student for academic year 2003-2004 was $898 at 4-year public institutions,
or about 26 percent of the cost of tuition and fees. At 2-year public institutions,
where low-income students are more likely to pursue a degree program and tuition
and fees are lower, the average estimated cost of books and supplies per first-time,
full-time student was $886 in academic year 2003-2004, representing almost three-quarters
of the cost of tuition and fees."
While there are explanations that attempt to justify textbook prices in the
report, there are few suggestions to contain or reduce the cost to students.
Recently, however, proposals have been advanced that might significantly reduce
the cost of textbooks benefiting students as well as faculty, colleges and universities.
One significant proposal put forward by Ira Fuchs, Vice President for Research
at the Mellon Foundation, called for the creation of Educore - an organization
dedicated to the development of open source educational software. The Educore
proposal envisions a consortium of 1,000 colleges and universities around the
world where each member institution would be asked to contribute between $5,000
and $25,000 per year, based on size.
Inspired by Fuchs's vision, it is possible to conceive of a similar approach
to 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. We call this approach OpenTextbook.
OpenTextbook's business model 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 (UKOU). OpenTextbook would
not develop the content; it would purchase content in bulk. In this sense, OpenTextbook
would be similar to consumer cooperatives and buying clubs that pool member
resources to gain purchasing power in the market.
To get an idea of how much high quality content costs, the UKOU spends on average
$3 million dollars (U.S.) per course on content development, and they have more
than 200 undergraduate courses in their inventory, which comes to a total investment
of $600 million. They also keep their content updated on a regular basis, which,
among other things, means replacing each course from scratch after eight years.
In other words, the UKOU currently spends around $75 million per year on content
development for these courses.
If the OpenTextbook coalition distributed this cost evenly to each of its members,
the annual membership would come to $75,000 a year per campus. For a school
with an enrollment of 25,000 first-time, full-year students, this comes out
to three dollars per student per year: a bargain compared to the current $898
per year cost of textbooks.
For its part, the UKOU may see a partnership with OpenTextbook to be in its
long-term interest. For starters, the coalition would be covering a large percentage
of the UKOU's current operating costs (around 40 percent). Of course, some in
the UKOU may believe that they would be giving up a strategic asset by placing
their content in the creative commons. However, if the UKOU chooses not to partner
with the coalition, the coalition may find another partner with similar capabilities.
In which case, the UKOU may not only lose the competitive advantage it has now
with its proprietary content, but it would also miss out on the revenue stream
offered by the coalition. On a more positive note, the goal of providing low
cost (virtually free), high quality learning resources to the world would seem
to align well with the overall mission of an open university.
In addition to saving money, OpenTextbook's objective would also be to give
faculty the freedom to customize creative commons content, and use it as a substitute
for mass-produced commercial textbooks. It is also possible for campuses to
encourage instructors to use open textbook content by providing faculty stipends
as well as paid student and staff support to help customize course content.
Some schools might support these costs by establishing a course material customization
fee that could be far less than the current cost of commercial textbooks.
To the extent faculty choose to substitute OpenTextbook content, the cost savings
for students could be substantial. Even when allowing for the extra expense
of customized content, course materials could be substantially less expensive
than the traditional textbook model.
Unlike MIT's Open Courseware initiative, this approach 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. To put
this in perspective, at Berkeley approximately 120 courses represent nearly
half of the undergraduate enrollment.
According to our discussions with faculty, we find that a fair number of those
who teach large introductory courses would be willing and able to substitute
open content for the commercial textbooks currently in use, especially if the
university could support their need to customize the content.
Some argue that faculty might be resistant to losing the potential revenue
from authoring textbooks. 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 customization fee.
For discussion purposes, here is an outline of how a residential university
could establish a course material fee to pay for commercial textbooks and/or
to pay to customize the OpenTextbook content.
1. Identify 100 target courses (e.g. 100 large courses that use textbooks and
that map out well to the course material provided by the OpenTextbook consortium).
2. Do a study to determine how much undergraduates currently spend per year
on average for these courses. Let's say students spend $500/year on average
for these courses.
4. The institution establishes a course material fee for these courses, which
is some percentage of the current textbook cost (e.g. a 100% fee would be $500/year
for first-time, full-year students). Obviously, a lower percentage fee would
save students money; a higher percentage would give the university more money
to work with. Schools with different financial models and objectives could set
their fees accordingly. For example, Ivy League schools may want to add value
for their students, and for their students a 100% fee would be a small part
of the overall cost of their education. On the other hand, community colleges
may want to have a 0% fee to hold down costs for their students.
5. Students would not be required to purchase textbooks for the 100 courses
covered by the fee.
6. Faculty are free to assign commercial textbooks for these courses, but if
they do the cost will be covered with revenue from the course material fee.
7. If faculty use OpenTextbook content, then the money that would otherwise
be spent on textbooks could go towards customizing the OpenTextbook content
(e.g. it could go for faculty stipends, student support, and paid staff support,
8. Some schools may also want to establish a policy where the materials developed
with the fee would also go into the creative commons. If schools do this, then
the content developers back at the Open University would be able to select from
the locally developed materials to upgrade the course materials they create/manage
on an on going basis.
OpenTextbook has yet to take hold as a formal consortium. Rather, we are in
an exploratory phase, introducing the concept 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.
Others may want to provide faculty with financial incentives and resources to
customize the coalition's content. 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