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The Case for Creative Commons Textbooks

According to a recent survey, University of California students now spend 40 percent more on textbooks than they did six years ago. We argue that colleges and universities may be able to significantly reduce these costs by creating a coalition for the acquisition and distribution of electronic textbooks.

The survey, taken in the Fall of 2003, found that University of California students now spend an average of $898 per year on new and used textbooks, compared to $642 in 1996-97 [ 1 ]. By pooling the acquisition of electronic textbooks, and distributing them under a creative commons licence [ 2 ], we could lighten the load on these students' already tight budgets.

It should be noted that there are initiatives underway to bring electronic textbooks to market [ 3 ] [ 4 ], and there are projects intent on improving access to and utilization of existing library resources [ 5 ]. Also, a number of well known creative commons initiatives are seeking to supplement, but not replace, textbooks [ 6 ] [ 7 ].

Yet, though all of these efforts are innovative in their own way, none seek to fundamentally transform the textbook industry.

While the textbook market seems rather tranquil for the time being, the same cannot be said for vendors of Learning Management Systems. One significant proposal that could disrupt the learning software market has been put forward by Ira Fuchs, VP for Research at the Mellon Foundation. In a recent article, he proposes the creation of Educore - an organization dedicated to the development of open source educational software. According to Fuchs, Educore "...might involve more than 1000 colleges and universities around the world. Each member institution would be asked to contribute between $5,000 and $25,000 per year, based on size ..." [ 8 ]

Inspired by Fuchs' vision, this paper explores the idea of establishing a global coalition of similar size that would acquire and distribute high quality creative commons content that could be used in any of the following combinations: a) as the basis of an online course, b) as an electronic textbook, or c) as a customized printed textbook for use in a traditional college course.

OpenTextbook, as I'll call it, would also consist of around 1,000 residential colleges and universities, but it would accomplish its mission by forming long term, strategic partnerships with one or more open universities, such as the British Open University (UKOU).[ 9 ]

Unlike MIT's Open Courseware initiative, OpenTextbook would focus on content for the big introductory courses that account for a large percentage of student eyeballs, and a substantial portion of the textbook market. According to my own research, around 120 large introductory courses account for around 50% of Berkeley's undergraduate enrollment. For community colleges, this figure may be as low as 25 courses. [ 10 ]

OpenTextbook's business model would be simple: traditional colleges and universities would agree to pay membership dues to purchase content from the open universities. OpenTextbook would not develop the content; it would purchase content in bulk. In this sense, OpenTextbook would be similar to consumer cooperatives and buying clubs that pool member resources to gain purchasing power in the market.

In addition to saving money, OpenTextbook's objective would also be to give faculty the freedom to customize creative commons content, and use it as a substitute for mass produced commercial textbooks. To the extent faculty choose to do so, the cost savings for students could be substantial.

To see if this would be economically feasible, I'll start by determining how much UKOU spends on content development. I'll then look at how much it would cost OpenTextbook members to buy UKOU's content on an ongoing basis. And finally, I'll divide a single school's membership fee by the number of students at the school to see how this cost compares with the current cost of textbooks.

At present, the UKOU spends on average $3 million dollars (US) per course on content development, and they have over 200 undergraduate courses in their inventory, which comes to a total investment of over $600 million. They also keep their content updated on a regular basis, which, among other things, means replacing each course from scratch after eight years. In other words, the UKOU currently spends around $75 million per year on content development, which amounts to around forty percent of their budget. [ 11 ]

If OpenTextbook distributed these costs equally to each member, the annual membership fee would be on the order of $75,000. This would be comparable to what Berkeley's library pays for an annual subscription to one of the more expensive journals. If we assume that students can choose to avoid printing costs by accessing the content on-line, then for a school the size of Berkeley (23,000 undergraduates) this would come out to an annual per student cost of $3.25.

In my view, a fair number of faculty who teach Berkeley's large introductory courses would be willing and able to substitute OpenTextbook content for the commercial textbooks currently in use. But even if most instructors continued to use commercial textbooks, it may still be that enough students would be able to use OpenTextbook's content to justify the small per student cost.

Even if we take the most pessimistic scenario (OpenTextbook fails completely and the content goes unused), the $75,000 annual cost of joining the coalition would be rather small - especially when compared with the best case scenario where textbook costs can be reduced to $3.25 per year. In the latter case, the cost savings for a school the size of Berkeley would be extraordinary: $898 less $3.25 times 23,000 undergraduates, or $20,579,250 per year!

In conclusion, it should be noted that what has been presented is not a specific business proposal. The purpose of this paper is simply to stimulate discussion, and to show that given a coalition of 1000 schools OpenTextbook would be economically feasible.


[ 1 ] Merriah Fairchild, Rip-off 101: How the Current Practices of the Textbook Industry Drive up the Cost of College Textbooks, , (CalPirg Education Fund, 2004).

[ 2 ] Creative Commons

[ 3 ] A Strategy and Vision for the Future of Electronic Textbooks in UK Further and Higher Education, , (Education for Change LTD, 2003).

[ 4 ] Michael H. Granof, A New Model for Textbook Pricing, (Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 2004).

[ 5 ] Diane Harley, The Use of Digital Resources in Humanities/Social Sciences Undergraduate Education, , (Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley, 2004).

[ 6 ] MIT Open Courseware Initiative, .

[ 7 ] Merlot,

[ 8 ] Ira Fuchs, Needed: and 'Educore' to Aid Collaboration, (Chronicle of Higher Education, September 24, 2004).

[ 9 ] British Open University,

[ 10 ] Carol A. Twigg, The One Percent Solution, Vol. 30, Number 6, , (Educom Review, 1995).

[ 11 ] David Kirp, Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education, (Harvard University Press, 2003), p185.


In 1986, Fred Beshears came to UC Berkeley to work as a programmer for the Instructional Technology Program. In addition to helping "early adopter" faculty explore new uses of learning technology, Fred also served for ten years as staff to Berkeley's central Instructional Technology planning committee. In 1997, Fred introduced Learning Management System technology to the campus, and established Berkeley's central LMS support services group shortly thereafter. In 1998, he became Berkeley's representative to IMS Global, a leading developer of learning technology standards and specifications. In addition to his work with IMS, Fred also organizes activities on the Berkeley campus, which have included all-UC video conferences on learning technology standards, open source software development, and creative commons content development.

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