How Good is a Free, Open Source Text: Part 2?

This post is where I go off the reservation.  It is the third in a series of posts about the process of creating a free, open source textbook.  I ended the previous post with a question:  Is the book I helped create for OpenStaxCollege the best principles of economics book on the market? I would like to suggest that this is a more complicated question than it seems.


Beauty Contest

If you asked a Ph.D. economist whether Greg Mankiw’s Principles text is better than the OpenStax principles text, most economists would probably say yes.  Mankiw’s book is a good one.  I’m singling it out only because it is the market leader, the prototype for the current crop of commercial text books.  [On the other hand, I know of no assessment evidence that evaluates Mankiw’s book vis a vis other intro texts, but that’s another issue.]

But the real question is not how good Ph.D.s think a textbook is, but rather how much students learn from it.  In a way, this is a variation on John Maynard Keynes’ beauty contest metaphor for the stock market. Keynes observed that the way to make money in the stock market is not to invest in the best companies, but rather to invest in what the majority of other people think are the best companies.

If students neither buy nor read the text because it is expensive, they aren’t learning anything from it.  Thus, a “great” book that isn’t read by students is not better than a good book that students actually read!

So where does that leave us?  I believe that introductory textbooks these days are 3084239579_f1813df8cf_zcommodities.  They may not be identical, but they are close enough substitutes that any experienced faculty member can teach their intro course with pretty much any textbook on the subject.  Publishers don’t want you to believe this, but I think it’s true.  Think about how little time instructors devote to textbook selection.  They certainly act as if the choice doesn’t matter.

Half of undergraduates do not buy the text.  They make this decision for one of two related reasons: either they don’t see the value given the price, or they don’t think they can afford it.

What is the value-added in an intro textbook?  Students often see textbooks as substitutes for class lectures.  If they go to class, why do they need the book?  I don’t agree with this logic, but many students think his way.  To defeat this logic, we need to raise the value/price calculation in students’ eyes.  If you accept that intro texts are commodities, it’s going to be very difficult to raise the value.  The much more promising approach is to lower the price.  And free is a very attractive price.

In my view, while textbooks have value, the real value-added is in the ancilliary products, specifically online problems, quizzes and other activities that allow students to work with the course content until they master it.  This is not just my idea.  The latest issue of Campus Technology has an article subtitled, “Technology is moving the digital textbook from print look-alike to next-generation learning platform.”  Subjects like economics really benefit from students regularly working with the content in thoughtful, interactive, adaptive and low-stakes ways.  At present, the quality of these exercises lags behind the technology with which students can work them, but that’s an issue for another post. Suffice it to say we need to get beyond “drill & kill.”  Before digital, such practice was limited by the instructor’s (or teaching assistants’) ability to grade and return student work quickly (tasks which are ideally suited to computers).   Which is to say, such practice was very limited.  Note that the real benefit in this ancilliary software is self-directed learning along with self-assessment of mastery.  It is not primarily course management and grades.

Think about how commercial textbooks are priced.   Commercial publishers put a high price on the textbooks, but then a relatively low price on the ancilliary products, which have been perceived, after all, as ancilliary.  In my view, this is exactly backwards since the value to students is no longer in the course content, but in the digital learning environment around the content.  This is the reason why OpenStaxCollege has teamed up with commercial aftermarket producers, including Sapling Learning, and WebAssign which have at least some of the features I’m describing, at really modest prices, currently between $30 and $40, including the text. Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in these companies, but I think they offer some really interesting products.   If you genuinely care about your students learning, I urge you to take a look at these products. Faculty at nearly 100 schools to date have adopted OpenStax’ Principles of Economics.  While commercial publishers are also moving in these directions, they can’t give away the content for free, like OpenStaxCollege does.

Photo credits:

  • JanWillemsen via flickr
  • Ben.Gallagher via flickr


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