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New Legislation Before Congress Teases Free Digital Textbooks, But It Probably Won’t Have Much Effect

As I have2044748271_b809bdf62c[1] written numerous times over the past few years the price of college textbooks have risen past ridiculous into the realm of drug-induced, but it looks like a solution may be in sight. But will it help? I’m not so sure.

According to the Huffington Post, a new bill was introduced into Congress last week:

Legislation introduced in Congress could make buying expensive textbooks a thing of the past.

The bill sponsored by by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) would create a grant program for colleges and universities to "create and expand the use of textbooks that can be made available online" and offered with free access to the public. Students — and anyone else for that matter — would have access to digital textbooks and not be bound to buying the latest edition stocked in a campus bookstore.

The bill, named the "Affordable College Textbook Act," was filed by Durbin and Franken earlier this month. A complementary bill was drafted in the House by Reps. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas) and George Miller (D-Calif.).

This can’t happen soon enough, IMO. Over the past 3 decades college textbook prices have increased faster than inflation, CPI, or even healthcare costs (I’ve said this before but it is worth repeating). The publishers are rapidly pricing themselves out of the market, and some have decided to turn to digital textbooks in the hopes that it will save them.


More and more publishers are launching new digital products which are designed to get schools to pay every year for the content (as opposed to buying a paper textbook which lasts a decade or more).  For example, Curriculet announced a new partnership with HarperCollins to provide enriched ebooks to schools, only there’s a catch:

The pilot endeavor, now offered to 256 schools, allows institutions to buy a portion of the HarperCollins backlist catalog through Curriculet for periods of three months or a year, says Curriculet CEO Jason Singer. Teachers can then use Curriculet’s tools to embed the ebooks with quizzes, questions, and videos; add scaffolding material including Web links and annotations; and insert customized, Common-Core-based assessments. “We’ll see more big publishers” joining Curriculet’s program to in early 2014, Singer says, and Curriculet will be publicly available by the summer.

3006632-poster-amplifytabletorangecase[1]And that’s not the only example.

Update: Amplify dropped me an email with the details that some of the following details are incorrect.

Anyone who has followed tablet news knows about Amplify. This is NewsCorp’s entry into the educational market, and it is designed to get schools to rent their tablets academic materials on a 3 year license (website). You might recall that the Amplify’s first major deployment was fiasco due to serious hardware issues, but one equally important detail is that Amplfy’s platform appears to be designed to create a recurring payment. the school district in question were paying an annual fee for the tablets rented the curriculum at a cost of $100 per student per year.,

Many publishers are trying to set up that kind of recurring payment and it is tripping up school districts everywhere. For example,the much troubled iPad program in the LA schools is facing a new budget crunch:

Contradicting earlier claims, Los Angeles school district officials said Tuesday that their right to use English and math curriculum installed on district iPads expires after three years.

At market rates, buying a new license for the curriculum would cost $50 to $100 each year per iPad, an additional cost that could surpass $60 million annually. The expense would add to the price tag of the $1-billion effort to provide a tablet to every teacher and student in the nation’s second-largest school system.

While it is surprising that they missed that detail until 5 months after the program was launched, it’s worth noting that the LAUSD won’t be the only school district to face this issue, nor are they even the first.

Even though all of the above examples are drawn from K-12 and not college textbook issues, they are still good examples of why a free textbook program is a good idea financially.  These examples tell us how the publishers think of digital textbooks, and the severe financial issues that digital content can represent for schools.

But in spite of the need for cheaper or free digital textbooks, I would bet that this bill is going to have a greater effect simply by raising awareness and not by making more digital textbooks available.


There already are free digital textbooks; several states (including Calif., Wash., and more) have digital textbook archives which contain textbooks that meet each state’s standards. And there are also efforts being led by the universities themselves, including the Open Source Textbook Initiative at the university of Illinois.

And last but not least there are also organizations that support the development of CC-licensed textbooks and other open educational resources (the CK-12 Foundation, for example) which can be customized to meet the requirements of a specific curriculum. For example, all it took for ones school district to craft their own AP Stats textbook was $40,000, much of which went to pay the salaries of the 3 teachers who did the work.

So you see, free textbooks already exist; the only problem is in getting schools to adopt them. And I’m not sure that this bill before Congress is going to help much. Sure, it will offer funds for schools to develop their own textbooks but first they’ll have to break the habit of only considering the textbooks available in the catalogs. And as more schools consider switching over  they will also have to learn to see through the claims made by the marketing depts at the various textbook publishers.

College textbooks are big money, so naturally some publishers are going to respond to the new competition by disparaging the quality of the freely available open source textbooks. And they’ll have big budgets to throw at the issue, too.

And that is probably what is going to kill this bill. As good as Franken’s bill may be, and as much as it might help, getting the bill passed is going to be an uphill battle against well financed lobbyists who have sizable funding from textbook publishers.

I strongly suspect that much of the talk about the wonders of digital textbooks comes from hype generated by the publishers themselves. I beelive that some view digital textbooks not as a good thing for students but more of a jobs program for publishers in much the same way that No Child Left Behind was a boon to the academic testing companies.

They’re not going to want a free textbook program disrupt their gravy train, so they will do their best to kill it.

More Reading

  • Are Digital Textbooks The Wave of The Future or Simply a New Jobs Program for Textbook Publishers? (The Digital Reader)
  • College Textbooks Could Be Free Under Legislation Introduced In Congress (The Huffington Post)
  • Free digital-textbook project drives down cost of college (The Seattle Times)
  • Open-source textbook was a three-campus collaboration (Inside Illinois @ University of Illinois)

images by andrewmaloneflickingerbrad

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Clint Lalonde December 3, 2013 um 7:18 pm

I think it is important to clarify the difference between digital textbooks and open textbooks. The bill before the Congress is to support open textbooks, which are not the same as digital textbooks. Open textbooks are not about technical formats, but instead refer to the intellectual property licenses associated with the book. Open textbooks are released with licenses (usually Creative Commons licenses) that allow other educators to reuse and adapt the content to fit their specific learning outcomes. Think of open textbooks like open source software in that it can be changed and modified without having to get the permission of the copyright holder. In higher education where there are no common core standards, this ability to customize and contextualize a learning resource is important as each institution may teach the same subjects in slightly different ways, depending on their local context.

But your observation about adoption and breaking long established habits of relying on publishers content is astute, and, perhaps, the biggest hurdle in adoption of open educational resources and open textbooks. There are some open textbook projects out there that are having an impact (like OpenStax College), but open textbooks cannot compete with the marketing machines that are commercial publishers and getting adoptions of open resources is a tough slog. With any luck this bill will at least be able to draw attention to many of the excellent open textbook projects already underway, and pave the way for the creation of more open textbooks in more subject areas where there are no existing open textbooks.

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