Can publishers compete with open-source textbooks?

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This month, Pearson announced that it is cutting the prices of its ebook rentals and is rolling out a pilot rental program for paper textbooks.

We have been inundated with stats in the past few years about how textbook costs have risen more than 1000% in the past few decades. Most student union groups have campaigns to push faculty to adopt open resources in their classrooms. It is so easy for students to type in their textbook name into Google and have numerous resources available for leaked textbooks. Pearson is hoping that by reducing the cost that more students will go the ethical route and rent the book.

The publishers have realized that theirs is a dying market and have been working overtime to come up with solutions to keep students, and faculty, dependent on their products. The publishers all have some solution that allows students to complete homework online and it is instantly graded. From a faculty perspective, anything that will allow us to spend less time grading and more time with students is welcome. I personally use a publisher’s homework site in my class and always struggle with that decision as I am pro open-learning. Each semester I ask my students if the cost is worth it for the online system and each semester the class is divided. Some students make the decision to forego homework marks because they cannot afford the online system (don’t worry, these students are allowed to submit assignments directly to me).

However, there are now open-source homework sites for some subjects too. MyOpenMath is an online math homework site that is completely free to use. They also share open source texts and resources.

So where do the publishers go from here? Some have been working on developing videos for content explanations, tutorials and integrated examples but we already get that with a quick search of YouTube. Pearson is on the right track – the answer is not to offer students things they can already get, for free, elsewhere. It is to reduce costs. In general, no one wins in a race to the bottom for price but that race has already been won by open-source educational resources. Its true that these open resources don’t have reps knocking on faculty doors trying to encourage them to adopt their products, but they do have a student voice screaming for reform. The question for the publishers is whether they can figure out how to make their profits and keep the shareholders happy while passing the costs on to someone other than the students.

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