The Internet has had a dramatic impact on publishing,Â on one hand, allowing anyone to “speak” their mind, but on the other, decimating newspaper subscriptions and sending profits plummeting. Last month, Amazon announced that it had sold more downloadable electronic books than print copies. Yet for educational publishers, still one of the most profitable sectors of the publishing industry, things have hardly changed at all.Â In fact textbooks now cost more than ever, with some nearing $200. At public schools across the country, it's taxpayers that foot the bill, but at least the books can be reused each year, until states' Boards of Education adopt new ones.
For perennially cash-strapped public schools, the open source textbook movement offers the hope of textbook liberation. Backed by Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems, the goal is to make educational content freely available online. Just as open source software allows anyone to tinker with the computer code, the same concept applies to textbooks. School districts and teachers can use the content according to their needs. McNealy supports Curriki, which sports a long list of K-12 instructional content available on its website under a Creative Commons license.
Another promising development comes from the folks that brought you Wikipedia. Wikibooks, “the open-content textbooks collection that anyone can edit,” may have the same effect on textbook publishers that it had on the Encyclopedia Britannica. In partnership with the California Open Source Textbook Project, a world history textbook is now under development as a pilot project.
“COSTP's aim is to use California State K-12 Standards to develop printed, open source textbooks that will be approved for adoption by California's State Board of Education for use in California public schools at far less cost than current commercial textbook offerings, thus helping the State of California save money (more than $200M per year) while providing more robust content for its public schools.”
With California's current budget deficit pegged at over $26 billion, $200 million will cover a lot of teachers' salaries. Since California standards are often adopted by other states, this strategy may help other beleaguered school districts as well.
For college students, it's another story. According to a 2005 study by the General Accounting Office, textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation, rising 7.5% in the last two years alone. Books now average almost $1,000 per academic year. What's a starving student to do?
Internet-savvy students (is that redundant?) can save money by obtaining free books, buying books online, renting books by the semester, swapping with other students, and downloading eTextbooks. The New York Times has a timelyÂ article that describes each of these options, along with links to useful sites.