Open Source Textbooks

Education

Textbooks make up a large part of the overall cost of a college education. On average, college students spend $900 per year on textbooks. Students who rent or buy only used textbooks spend around $600 per year, but run the risk of acquiring books with outdated material. In an attempt to alleviate some of the cost, educators have developed a new way for students to read: open source textbooks.

The term "open source" is applied to information or technology that is freely available to transfer between parties, and that is not restricted under copyright laws. Open books are usually offered by authors or through open-licensed publishers. Open source textbooks allow students to access information easily, which alleviates some of the cost of college textbooks. Some open source material is available at no cost, while other open source textbooks require a small fee for usage. The average cost of one year of open source textbooks is just $184.

The Three Types of Open Source Textbooks

Currently open source textbooks come in three varieties: digital, self-printed, and professional print. Digital copies of open source textbooks can be downloaded online and accessed on computers or other electronic devices such as iPads. Depending on the specific textbook, these copies may be available to "rent" at no cost, which means that they can only be accessed for a certain amount of time (usually over the course of one semester).

A self-printed copy is a digital download that students can print from home. Students may have to pay a fee for a self-printed copy. The main difference between a digital copy and a self-printed copy is the formatting. Regular digital copies are not formatted to be printed from a home computer and could be locked from printing.

Some publishers offer professionally printed open source textbooks. Students have the option of purchasing a black and white or color copy of the open book. Although these open textbooks cost more than digital or self-printed copies, they are less expensive than the average textbook by about $100.

The Debate Over Open Source Textbooks

Open source textbooks have the potential to help the average student save money. For instance, an algebra class consisting of 50 students could save about $5,400, or about $100 per student, by switching to open source books. A physics class made up of 185 students could save around $24,000 or $129 per student using open source textbooks. Supporters of open books, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Student Public Interest Research Group, focus on the affordability of such textbooks as a solution to the rising cost of college tuition.

Those who oppose the use of open source textbooks, such as major publishing companies like Pearson Education and McGraw-Hill, believe that open books make it impossible for publishers to stay in business. Although 76% of students have said that they would be willing to pay a small fee in order to support the production of open source textbooks, much of publishing companies' current revenues would be lost. The educational publishers that rely on textbook sales to make a profit have a harder time making money through open source publishing.

Further Studies

The debate over open source textbooks is a complex one. You may want to study publishing if you are interested in the production and distribution of textbooks and how open source material affects the industry. Open source technology, which focuses on community involvement in information production, is another area of study that could suit you. Although it is a relatively new major, open source technology degrees are likely to become more popular as personal computing moves towards tablets and handheld devices. If you are interested in the ways open source technology affects other fields, you may want to look into software or computer programming. These fields deal a lot with open source programming and the availability of software to the general public.