Free Textbooks for College?

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Another school year is about to start, and students are scrambling to keep their debt load low and their college experience as positive and marketable as possible. With plenty of textbooks costing $200, $300, and more, the extra $1,000 or so for books is a formidable burden to many.

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Good news comes in many flavors, and textbooks for less is one example. A very quick search turned up four sources for textbooks that are either free or very inexpensive.

Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The future of each is uncertain, but now is the time to take advantage of great opportunities. Ideally, you should have a free online version of the textbook assigned by your professor. I am a former professor and know that professors often do not spend lots of time making textbook decisions and frequently don’t bother to check the cost to the students. Sometimes, your book was written by your professor and so adds to his or her bank account every time one is sold.

My field is chemistry. So, I naturally checked out the chemistry titles from the above providers. College Open Textbooks has 45 chemistry titles, all for free. The problem you’ll encounter is that none may match your instructor’s choice. Go see your instructor a year before the course if you’d like to influence the choices. 

Boundless has a different model. It bundles open educational resources (OER) into textbooks that match the most popular textbooks chapter by chapter. Their online books are free. The publishers are suing them for copying the order of chapters. My sources suggest that this suit cannot succeed, but the burden it places on a small start-up company can drive it out of business, which may be what the textbook companies are after.

Coursera is the well-known MOOC provider and has partnered with the famous used textbook reseller and textbook renter, Chegg, to provide you with online textbooks for free. This is the real thing. Why give away textbooks? The publishers, it would seem, would like demographic data and the chance to sell the full-price version to students. I’m not sure why they will buy the full-price hardcover textbook, but this is what they’re saying publicly.

Textbook Media provides inexpensive online textbooks. Sadly, they don’t offer chemistry at this time. An introductory economics textbook is available online for between about $7 and $10.

So much for the current state of affairs. These sources provide what is fairly standard textbook fair: lots of text and a nice collection of images. You’re still reading pages, but you can’t dog-ear them. The future will be very, very different. In the first place, these passive tomes will vanish. Most people really don’t like reading pages for hours on end, making notes, rereading sections as successive sections refer back to them, and trying to set things up so that the last-minute cramming will succeed.

We’re just beginning to see the first salvos in what will become an all-out war in the $9 billion textbook industry. Already, some services offer frequent quizzes to test understanding and remedial work if you fall short. Your reading is interrupted by these quizzes and optional remediation. This is a hint of interactivity. What you do changes what you see – somewhat.

The problem with lectures, textbooks, slide shows, and even videos is one of your brain’s efficiency. We know very well that most of what goes into your eyes and ears lasts only a short time, at least for useful recall. We also know that the ability of a mind to assimilate information is much greater than what happens when you’re reading a textbook. We understand such concepts as reward and reinforcement. (I’m not a psychologist or even a psychology major, which means that I step carefully when treading this ground.)

The more your various senses are involved in learning and the more that your mind is actively engaged in figuring out, the better you learn and the more you retain of that learning. Going back at appropriate intervals and actively reviewing, not just reading again, that material makes it even more permanent.

Our minds are not mere memory machines. Engaging means using the non-memory parts of our brains. If we think creatively, as in writing a poem or painting a picture, we’re going to remember better. If we discuss and debate, that will help us remember. If we are an active participant in gathering data about something, we’ll understand better than if we are merely handed the data.

New online learning systems will engage our minds more thoroughly and deeply than any textbook in any format can. We will learn more and understand better than with lectures and books, both of which will become as obsolete as a flint knife or a Roman chariot. Note that flint knives served our predecessors well for around 100,000 years, and Roman chariots were powerful inventions used throughout the Roman reign of centuries. They weren’t bad. They were just superseded by something better.

Of the four options above, one has moved a tiny step beyond the simple textbook. With its $9 million in funding, Boundless is poised to make some strong moves in the free/inexpensive textbook world. Its investors must have been shown a wide path to monetization of this business. I expect to find out soon which path they have chosen.

Will they have competition? You bet! Other start-ups will seek to do better. The traditional textbook companies cannot continue simply to play a delaying game with lawsuits and must absolutely find a way to present their materials competitively. Course providers across the spectrum from big universities to for-profits such as University of Phoenix and MOOCs like Coursera will all be watching and will act as necessary for their survival and growth.

One thing is certain. Students will finally be freed from the tyranny of the $300 required textbook. They may even get something much better soon.

3 Responses

  1. I acknowledge there is considerable expense in acquiring the textbooks for college courses, and it has been a problem for me, too. Yet I found a way to keep most of my science texts, and have picked up additional ones at thrift stores across the years. One of these was the key to my making a very high score on the Praxis 10 years after I had graduated with my BS in Biology, that I completely reviewed it for weeks prior to the test. There is just something about solid text on pages that can be taken anywhere, without a flickering screen or need for a power source. Recently I had all my biology and chemistry texts out to find supporting data for an online course I completed. There are multiple ways that video images of text and stationary text are not equivalent, and for my brain-processing, there remains an advantage to good old books at times.

    • I love books. I like the feel. I like the ability to go back to an earlier page quite readily. I like the look on shelves. When I enter a library, it’s like entering a quiet grove of beautiful trees, brooks, and plants.

      However, I’m not a fan of **textbooks**. Books are really old technology. Textbooks are a new wrinkle, relatively speaking. They’ve been around long enough. Their replacements are not all ready for prime time, but we should be prepared for that date, which is coming very soon.

      Textbooks are inefficient learning devices. They will disappear. It’s just a matter of time.

  2. Very informative article. I was not aware of these resources. Thanks

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