Writing Principles of Economics: an open source textbook

Last spring, I received an invitation to become the lead content expert for OpenStax logoOpenStaxCollege’s principles of economics book . OpenStaxCollege is the new name for Connexions, a project I first heard about when founder Rich Baraniuk spoke at the 2005 National Learning Infrastructure Initiative, an organization that became the Educause Learning Initiative. (Thanks again, @GardnerCampbell!) .

When I got the invitation, I was intrigued.   I had been somewhat aware of the concept of open educational resources.   Many people I follow online had either been involved in or had talked about OER.   Steven Ovadia describes OER as freely available course content, including syllabi, assignments, and even textbooks. As he explains:

Open education resources (OER) are an attempt to solve the textbook pricing problem by giving students and faculty great content at more reasonable prices — even free, which many consider to be the most reasonable price point of all.

Which brings us back to OpenStax. The goal of OpenStax is to make higher education more affordable by creating free, open source textbooks for many of the introductory courses undergraduates take.  OpenStax currently has texts in Statistics, Pre-Calculus, Physics, Biology, Sociology, Economics, and soon History, Chemistry and Psychology.   Take a look!

If you haven’t purchased a college textbook lately, you may be surprised to discover how much they cost. New books for my courses can cost more than $150 each, and I understand that at least one popular intro text for principles of economics has breached the $300 level. These costs are pretty typical in higher education today.   If a student takes five courses per semester that works out to $750.

OpenStax has a different business model than traditional publishers. OpenStax obtains grant funding from the Gates Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, 20 Million Minds, the Kazanjian Foundation, the Arnold Foundation and the Maxwell Foundation. They use the funding to create the books, paying for content experts, editors, programmers, all the production expenses. In contrast to the traditional publishing models, all the expenses are paid up front. What OpenStax doesn’t have is a large sales force, which is a major way they keep their costs down. The books are available free on the web, or as e-books, or as downloadable pdfs. There’s even a phone app for the principles of economics book, which is the way I use it most frequently. OpenStax books are also available in print at a modest price.  The Principles of Economics book is currently priced under $40.

These books are free and customizable. Instructors can add content, delete content, and because the texts follow a modular design, move content around.  For example, next semester when I teach principles of micro, I will be adding a chapter that wasn’t in the original version, but which fits the way I teach the course. My amended version of the book will be available from the OpenStax website in the same formats as the original. Students will get only what they need for a specific course. And since the books are free, they won’t object to not being able to resell them, which is a significant problem for customized books from traditional publishers.

The cost of traditional textbooks may explain why only about half of undergraduates purchase the texts.   And if only half your students are buying the book, how many do you think are reading it?  Don’t you think a free text might help?  If you care about your students learning, isn’t it worth considering OpenStax?

You’re probably thinking “how good can a free book actually be?”  In the next post, I will describe the quality assurance process for OpenStax texts.


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