How To Stick it to the Man

What would you do with an extra $90? Some ideas:

  • Get a year of ad-free music
  • Pay down student loans
  • Buy a circular saw

But let me back up. Where’d this $90 come from? Why, from textbooks savings, of course. The internet is replete with tips and tricks for whittling down the cost of books, from Ben Franklin classics like your local library to #OccupyTheBookstore, a Chrome extension that adds price comparisons to your school’s bookstore website (thanks, Trent Hamm).

Most of these strategies rely on price reduction available in a secondary market—buying used, renting, sharing, or selling books back. But here’s the rub: the publishers don’t get a cent of it. This explains in part why there are savings to be had, but also why publishers have raised the price of books around four times the rate of inflation in the last decade. They’ve also developed aggressive strategies to beat back secondary sales, from micro-updated editions to single-semester access codes.

This is understandable. These folks are acting rationally to compete in a lucrative market. This doesn’t make them evil, but it does make them the man.

So why not stick it to ’em? For those of us perched on well-padded privilege, the $90 per student per course we stand to gain may not seem worth the fight. But for students on the other side of the socioeconomic spectrum, it can mean the difference between taking an extra course or not, finishing on time or not, and succeeding or not in a major way.

Besides, I never said we should fight.

Frankly, a head-on clash between consumer cunning and corporate wit is not promising. As I pointed out last week, students who struggle are already adopting self-defeating behaviors in the face of high course material costs. On top of that, fast-growing internet tech is facilitating subscription models that affords publishers fine-grained control over who accesses their content and when. Barring Robin Hood-ish piracy and some mad technical chops, there isn’t a great way to beat them at their own game.

What we can do is side-step the game altogether, opting for high-quality open educational resources in place of commercial textbooks. This approach is especially impactful in high-volume entry-level courses, where content knowledge and media already abound.

It’s not an idealistic daydream; it’s a proven strategy adopted by scores of professors at many universities. In fact, adopting an open textbook can cost less than adopting a human child; universities in this study offered OER adoption grants to their faculty ranging from $1K-5K each. Spread over dozens of faculty, thousands of students, and multiple years, these modest investments have saved more than a million dollars so far in some instances.

So don’t let’s get drawn into their kind of fight, a one-on-one, mano a mongo scramble for savings. With a little teamwork, we can win this in a way that keeps on winning for thousands of students to come. The world is taking notice, so why not come along for the ride?


Author: Zane

Zane is a learning experience designer passionate about the intersection of education, software development, and human-centered design. He manages a language acquisition app for missionaries and studies instructional psych & tech at Brigham Young University.

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