David Wiley: Digital Textbooks Call for New Business Models

In the 1997 film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact, S.R. Hadden teaches Ellie Arroway “the first rule of government spending: Why have one when you can have two for twice the price?”

When it comes to curriculum materials like textbooks, practice exercises, instructional videos, and online simulations, our universities ask students to pay for them again and again, year after year.

This made sense in the days before the advent of the Internet, when students had to compete for access to educational materials. In those days, if John was using the graphing calculator, Jen had to wait her turn; if Mary was using the physics textbook, Mark had to wait his turn. Students needed to purchase calculators and textbooks of their very own if they each wanted to have ready access to these resources.

In the online era, the competitive nature of educational materials has disappeared. While Selma is running calculations in the online chemistry laboratory, another million students can be using it too; while Nick is exploring genetics in the online simulator, another million students can too. It’s just like when you read the news on while a million other people do. An online educational resource is different from a physical educational resource because every student on the campus can use the same online resource at the same time. We don’t need to ask each and every student on the campus to buy a copy — though that’s what publishers of online textbooks ask students to do.

But it gets worse. In the past, students took some solace after paying the huge bill for all those textbooks in knowing that, once they paid for them, they could sell them back to the bookstore or directly to other students. Unfortunately for our students, publishers of online textbooks don’t generally sell these materials to students – they generally rent them to students on a one-semester contract. That means that our students pay for copies of books that cannot be sold back or given away at the end of the semester. And for the students who would have held on to their textbooks, there is nothing left to refer back to a year later when differential equations suddenly become relevant in the context of thermodynamics.

Professors and universities should work to take advantage of the new economic realities of the Web, and create a collection of online educational resources that students and institutions can pay for once and then own and reuse indefinitely.

For example, at a larger college, a fee of a few dollars each semester could generate enough revenue to replace a $150 general-education textbook – students might contribute $20 each over their four years and in exchange get to skip purchasing one $150 book. If several colleges and universities across a state system adopted such a fee, the rate of replacement of expensive textbooks could be even faster. And for students who still prefer a printed book to an online text, an inexpensive print-on-demand copy could be made available.

An almost infinite number of models could be imagined for leveraging the economics of digital distribution in favor of our students. As demonstrated by programs like Make Textbooks Affordable, students have a great deal of passion and interest around this topic, and they “get” the economics of the online environment far more deeply than many of their faculty members. If universities, professors, and students can work together to understand and leverage these new economics to our own advantage, we can save our cash-starved students a significant amount of money that can be redirected into other, more worthy areas, and greatly improve the affordability of higher education. —David Wiley

David Wiley, our July guest blogger, is an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University and an adviser to Flat World Knowledge, an online textbook company.

Return to Top