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Friday, March 28, 2008

Competing with Free -- again...

Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger recently issued a request for philanthropists to make textbooks free online. The Chronicle's blog, The Wired Campus, recently posted an article about this, which generated a range of interesting feedback.

This is an intesting concept -- and one that has both pros and cons. Originally, I wrote a lengthy response to this plea. I decided in the end that going through all of the pros and cons might only stir up the advocates of one side of the equation or the other. Do we need to find a way to reduce the cost of course materials for students? Yes, and it seems pretty clear that mechanisms will step in to help make that happen in the near-to-midterm future. Open-source or open-access content will be one of those mechanisms.

If I have learned anything, though, in this position over the past three years is that the textbook market is far more complex than a simple list of pros and cons could capture. There are many stakeholders (students, faculty, stores, institutions, wholesalers, publishers, authors, parents, online retailers, editors, software developers, etc., etc., etc.) -- it is a sizeable industry. While I am often among the first to argue that old mature industries have a lot of room for improvement and have many opportunities to create improved efficiency and effectiveness, we must also be careful not to sacrifice quality or value at the sake of cost or in a rush to find a quick fix.

A fomer professor of mine used to say, "You can have things better, faster, or cheaper -- pick any two." I believe digital solutions are moving toward some options that are better and cheaper, but we are still learning how to do that, which will take time. We have many complex dynamics to work out. For example, for many institutions, part of the revenue from textbooks directly contributes to financial aid scholarships or supporting student activities on campus. Thus, when students buy through their college store, they are helping support other services for students on their campus. [Note: Is this universally true, no. I am referring to the majority of cases here, not the exceptions.] If stores went to a break-even model tomorrow, covering only costs and generating no profits, some other mechanism would need to step in to cover the revenue shortfall. Because most US academic institutions are heavily tuition-driven or tuition-dependent, either services would need to be cut, or tuition and fees would have to be increased. Again, that does NOT mean that we cannot or should not find ways to reduce the cost of course materials. Philanthropy could be part of that solution. Digital could be part of that solution. Faculty could be part of that solution. Other stakeholders and new entrants to the market could also be part of that solution.

For stores, one way we can help is to provide students options or choices. Digital gives us more opportunities to provide more options. For example, we find that students prefer to read the print, but study from the digital. Faculty contribute greatly to the cost of textbooks -- something I never knew or understood as a faculty member, but now have greater appreciation for having seen more of the economic models embedded in current industry business models. There are ways through the stores that we can still support our institutions, while providing better value at lower costs for students. Many of us are working on those solutions--but that will take some time.

In the interim, philanthropists could help by creating textbook scholarships at institutions, or supporting initiatives that help make quality textbooks more affordable to those who are socio-economically disadvantaged. And to put my money where my mouth is -- I did create an endowed scholarship at my undergraduate alma mater to help defray educational costs for students as they approach their junior and senior years. What would be ideal is to help every institution have fully-endowed financial aid, like we see at Princeton U -- so that no student should be denied a quality education because of the cost. Fully endowed education would make textbooks, and in fact education, appear to be more free for those who need financial assistance most. A daunting goal -- but one equally worth pursuing.

Okay, okay -- so I still wrote a lengthy response to Larry's plea. I probably still managed to stir up advocates on different sides of the equation. I will endeavor to stay off my soapbox going forward. :)

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