About Those Ridiculous Textbook Prices....

As students head back to school, one of the first things they encounter — besides the high tuition costs — are soaring textbook expenses. I blogged about this problem three years ago, but sadly, textbook prices continue to be ridiculous. The average student now spends $700 to $1,000 a year on books — which is about three times more than what students paid in 1986, according to a federal Government Accountability Office report. Many textbooks are deliberately designed to be made obsolete by new editions — a power play by publishers to undercut the used-textbook market and artificially bolster their revenues.

One of the most hopeful developments, however, is the rise of the “open educational resources,” or OER, movement. This fledgling but fast-growing movement seeks to make textbooks, courses, videos, taped lectures, software and other materials available free online, without copyright or technical restrictions.

Most OER projects used to be experiments conducted on the fringe of higher education with little recognition or support. But now, various commons are starting to discover each other and collaborate with each other. Its leaders see themselves not as some marginal effort, but as a movement that is challenging unresponsive markets, improving the quality of educational materials and making learning more affordable for everyone.

The OER Commons is one of the chief clearinghouses on the Web for this activity. The website provides a single point of online access for educators, students and learners of all types to find, browse and obtain OER materials. It also encourages the re-use and improvement of OER materials. Much credit must go to The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for its steadfast commitment to funding OER initiatives and seeding the movement more generally.

The OER movement is trying to build new bridges among existing projects, many of which are expanding at impressive rates. A brief overview:

The student-run Public Interest Research Groups have also become active in promoting open textbooks. Their Make Textbooks Affordable campaign is encouraging professors to use course materials that are as affordable and accessible as possible.

There is a lot of ferment in OER activity, as this quick survey suggests. (For a longer overview, see this excellent 84-page report to the Hewlett Foundation. ) But clearly much more needs to be done to validate the advantages of educational commons and take their activities to a higher level.