Hurdles to Open Textbooks

runners jumping over hurdlesI am finding that the biggest impedance to open textbooks is not with instructors or supply, but college administrators, government administrators, and those who provide the money, including grant foundations.

Administrators’ primary job is to ensure the health, survival, and reputation of their institution. Their priority is to provide an education infrastructure that is capable of achieving the outcomes expected by formal and informal sources. They compete for funds and will avoid any activities, no matter how innovative, that will seem to risk the institution’s health, survival, and reputation. Those of us in the open textbook movement have so far failed to adequately demonstrate the low risk, the long-term value of open textbooks, and how to sustain them. For example, the loss of potential revenue from their bookstores alone is sufficient to continue with exclusivity agreements with traditional publishers. Besides, anyone providing open textbooks may be a “vaporware” organization. Traditional publishers have a solid longevity and reputation. Administrators are not risk takers.

Grant foundations’ primary job is to carry out their charter while complying with complex tax laws. Though many want innovation in both process and products, most of their money is given to status quo institutions, which makes sense since they must avoid any investments the IRS might consider as a “jeopardy investment.” They also fund projects that require approaches already established in some form. Foundations are not risk takers either.

The primary point is that the education industry and its supporting organizations are not constructed to innovate very quickly (i.e. within a generation.) What many are calling innovations is only innovative to the education industry. For those of us outside education we see the efforts and funding aimed at technological and pedagogical breakthroughs getting lost in organizational and institutional isolation and competitiveness. If they so desired all the heads of all the institutions could pull together their resources to quickly and efficiently provide open textbooks and ancillary resources.

My Solution? Demonstrate the commercial feasibility of open textbooks as a textbook competitor among the giants. Once the perceived risk is mitigated education institutions will adjust accordingly. Textbook prices will fall back into normal ranges. Economically, students and taxpayers will be much better off. And, naturally, the quality of textbooks will increase.

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