How a University Took on the Textbook Industry

Oct 25, 2019

HOUSTON — On the third floor of a bank building near Rice University, the future of higher education is being written.

Or at least, edited.

Perched in lime green desk chairs, dozens of employees of OpenStax work here to transform physics, calculus and psychology materials into digital textbooks that students can study at no cost.

This kind of free online textbook was novel in 1999 when Rice professor Richard Baraniuk started gathering them online for students and faculty around the world to use. As demand for low-cost, high-quality materials increased during the Great Recession, the nonprofit project shifted from curation to creation, publishing its first five free textbooks in 2012.

Today, OpenStax—part tech startup, part publishing house, part cognitive science research lab—has a library of three dozen titles. By the nonprofit’s estimates, more than half of U.S. colleges use at least one. And some credit it for helping kick-start a trend—now known as open educational resources, or OER—that has sent shockwaves through the traditional publishing industry.

Some economists say OpenStax and other OER producers helped to halt the decades-long rise of textbook prices, which, along with other supplies, now set the average undergraduate back between $1,200 and $1,440 each school year, according to the College Board.

Feeling squeezed, for-profit publishers are searching for new revenue by selling colleges digital homework systems that charge students up to $100 for a semester’s worth of access. Since professors typically require use of these tools to participate in class, students complain that they are essentially being charged to turn in their assignments.

Some of these controversial platforms are actually built around OpenStax materials, since the nonprofit has licensed its content to publishers that build systems around OER components. These arrangements bring in key financial support to OpenStax. Yet the nonprofit is also developing its own software designed to undercut the courseware industry, charging just $10 per student.

First, OpenStax came for textbooks. Now, it’s coming for courseware.

“Our goal,” says Baraniuk, “is positive world domination.”

Editors, developers and scientists at work in the OpenStax office. / By Rebecca Koenig

In Pursuit of Personalized Learning

Baraniuk played electric guitar in high school rock bands while growing up in Winnipeg, Canada—the same city, he notes, that spawned The Guess Who. He credits his academic path into electrical and computer engineering to his early curiosity about recording equipment and amplifiers: “I built a lot of my own stuff.”

After earning his doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and spending a year studying in France, Baraniuk wound up in Houston, rolling up in a Canadian car that lacked air conditioning. The heat took some getting used to. So did his Rice University students, who were not immediately gripped by the formulas he taught in class.

He started asking his students about their post-graduation goals and trying to connect their interests, like digital photography and music, more explicitly to the curriculum.

“After several of these epiphanies, I realized this idea of finding out how you can reach students more than half way and give them access to a personalized learning experience,” Baraniuk says. “You could maybe change the world, or at least the world of education.”

At around the same time, Baraniuk and his research teams were starting to use the free and open source Linux operating system created by the developer community as an alternative to those used by Microsoft or Apple. The powerful possibilities it offered for collaboration and customization, plus Baraniuk’s new interest in individualized education, inspired him to start Connexions, a project that aimed to replace the “monolithic paper textbook” with a compilation of varied, mix-and-match digital resources.

“Why don’t I instead build a system or a platform where we can have hundreds of different possible textbooks to teach the concepts I’m teaching?” Baraniuk recalls thinking. “Books built out of little Lego blocks, glued together so the digital photo student could have their perfect book and the music student could have their perfect book.”

With support from Rice and the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, Connexions built such a platform to share OER materials, which Baraniuk says millions of users accessed each month.

Then the Great Recession hit.

“A lot of students weren’t able to get jobs. People were trying to go back to college to retool, people in dire financial straits,” Baraniuk says. “That’s when we really started getting calls from frustrated instructors at community colleges who said, ‘I have a big problem. Students are enrolling in my course to get a technical degree but they can’t afford the textbook because it’s $300. They have no help at home. They can’t do the homework. Can you help me?’”

OpenStax textbooks are display in a room named for the author of one the nonprofit's economics books. / By Jemel Agulto, OpenStax

From Curation to Creation

In the OpenStax office, a small room holds colorful copies of the textbooks the nonprofit has published. There are 37 titles for college and AP courses in subjects that include calculus, astronomy, sociology and business law.

“They’re very well-regarded,” says Karen Lauritsen, director of publishing for the Open Textbook Network. “Many members use them as physical examples they can show faculty when they’re introducing them to open textbooks.”

The network runs the Open Textbook Library, a digital resource that contains links to nearly 700 openly licensed textbooks. The site drew more than half a million visitors so far this fall, and OpenStax books are some of the most popular in the collection, according to Lauritsen.

Yet back when OpenStax was still called Connexions, Baraniuk wasn’t interested in developing his own materials, hoping instead to crowdsource resources made by other professors. Over time, however, “we became increasingly realistic about how difficult it can be to expect content to just emerge out of the primordial soup of ideas,” Baraniuk says.

And those calls from community college faculty proved persuasive.

“We had some really good physics content in this repository, but we didn’t have a turnkey replacement. It wasn’t enough,” Baraniuk recalls. “We had maybe two-thirds of a physics book, and they needed the whole way.”

So in 2012, OpenStax raised $5 million in grant support to produce five titles for large introductory classes. An editorial team researched the materials needed in the lecture hall settings where physics, anatomy, sociology and biology are taught, then recruited professors to write and review relevant textbooks, paying them flat fees upfront rather than royalties based on sales.

“In the beginning, it was much more us banging down their doors,” says Anthony Palmiotto, OpenStax editorial director, of authors. “However, because we’re more widely known now … they’re almost pitching us, in a way. It’s turned around a little.”

The books are openly licenced, digital-first and free. (Print copies cost between $25 and $65, though only eight percent of students using OpenStax for class purchase a print version.) That means faculty can adapt them to their own tastes and purposes. When updates or corrections are needed, it’s easy to change the files, and there’s little profit motive to do so unnecessarily.

“Commercial publishers are rather infamous for issuing new editions that don’t offer much newness but have a higher price tag,” Lauritsen says.

So far, more than 9 million students have used OpenStax books, the nonprofit reports, calculating their cumulative savings to students at $800 million. Based on the number of faculty-reported adoptions, OpenStax estimates its physics textbook is now No. 1 in the market.

Overcoming Objections

Only part of OpenStax’s success comes from the work happening in its Houston headquarters. The rest is ground game.

“I did a lot of what I jokingly call door-to-door sales with the faculty,” says Jason Pickavance, associate provost for academic operations at Salt Lake Community College, who has helped his institution adopt open education resources in more than 1,900 course sections this year—and in some cases across entire departments.

Indeed, OpenStax, which employs no salespeople, owes its proliferation to evangelists like Pickavance and other early adopters for whom the nonprofit’s conference rooms are named. Because most U.S. professors enjoy academic freedom to select their own course materials, it can take a lot of personal persuasion to convince each to try teaching a new text.

Some professors have aesthetic objections to OER materials. Because OpenStax doesn’t pay big bucks for illustrations, some faculty don’t think the art is good enough to compete with that in commercial textbooks, Palmiotto says.

Others think the committee-compiled books lack a coherent perspective. Volker Janssen, a history professor at California State University Fullerton who served as one of six senior contributing authors for the OpenStax U.S. History textbook, was disappointed with the final product. So he doesn’t assign it to his students.

“I found the whole process was a little more like a production line and not an authorship,” says Janssen, who has also worked on textbook materials for several commercial publishing companies. “There was never a meeting of the authors where we talked about our vision. That would happen if W.W. Norton invited me to co-author a new book, as it needs an intellectual rationale to be on the market. With OpenStax, the rationale is that it’s free. It doesn’t have to do anything new or different, it just has to be free.”

And for some faculty, the biggest question is: What about the extras the publishers give us (like those homework systems that automatically grade work students turn in)?

“They’re not very inclined to take on a new textbook that will require them to change the way they’ve been teaching, significantly altering their syllabus with new tests and resources and ways of assessing students, changing their PowerPoint slides,” says Nathan Smith, philosophy instructor and OER coordinator at Houston Community College, which offers a few “Z-Degrees,” the catchy phrase used to describe entire programs that have zero textbook costs.

“I’ve found faculty are pretty resistant to that. If I can give them an option that really resembles what the publishers were already giving to them, they’re much more receptive.”

On the Rice University campus, artist James Turrell's "Twilight Epiphany" Skyspace serves as a window to the sky. / By Rebecca Koenig

‘We’re Going To Be Promiscuous’

That’s where courseware comes in. OpenStax is developing a homework software system to rival the ancillary materials its for-profit peers now routinely bundle with their textbooks.

For decades, traditional publishers benefited as textbook prices rose faster than the cost of any other consumer good or service except for college tuition and hospital services. Other than the used textbook industry, the market was largely insulated from competitors, according to Mark Perry, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute.

“But once faced with intense competition from Open Stax, et al., the ‘textbook cartel’ had to, for the first time, start offering low-cost options for students to maintain their market share, or suffer from a significant loss of market share,” Perry said in an email interview.

For example, this year, giants Cengage and McGraw-Hill announced plans to merge and offer a subscription-based service that combines their digital libraries. Many publishers are also pushing “inclusive access” programs, in which colleges buy access to digital textbooks from publishers in bulk and then charge students a fee to cover those costs. Companies say the plans ensure that every student has course materials from day one, but many students have complained about essentially being forced to buy new textbooks rather than find better deals on their own.

“They’re trying to lock up all the money that’s available,” says TJ Bliss, chief advancement officer at Wiki Education and a former program officer for the Hewlett Foundation who managed its OER grants portfolio. “It’s a big misnomer and irony that they call it ‘inclusive access,’ because it’s not; you have to pay for it.”

In Houston, the OpenStax team is constructing Tutor, a homework platform built on top of its textbooks. Drawing on Baraniuk’s interest in personalized learning, the tool incorporates cognitive psychology research and machine learning tools to guide students through reading and studying, aiming not only to assess their learning, but also improve it.

Tutor pushes beyond simple multiple-choice quizzes. OpenStax and Rice scientists and developers collaborate with external researchers to test and publish papers about, for example, the effects that personalized question selection has on learning outcomes and whether natural language processing algorithms can nudge students to improve their responses to short-answer questions.

So far, OpenStax Tutor is available for beta testing in physics, biology and sociology courses. It costs $10 per student. That could undercut the courseware that for-profit companies sell for five or 10 times as much.

Yet OpenStax doesn’t treat traditional publishers like the enemy. It has established partnerships with more than 50 companies that pull the nonprofit’s materials into their own courseware systems, sharing revenue in deals Baraniuk says are “absolutely critical” for sustainability.

“History shows that when you have an open, freewheeling ecosystem, innovation happens faster and things become more efficient,” Baraniuk says. “We want to create a world where everybody has access so that companies can help us get the materials in the hands of even more students and improve the quality of the services around those materials.”

Some people in the OER community think dealing with commercial publishers is a “slippery slope,” Bliss says. And Baraniuk acknowledges the possibility that some for-profit companies may mostly be interested in PR, since touting their association with an OER producer may “enable them to get some, let’s say, goodwill from the community.”

But so far, he says, publishers haven’t tried to charge exorbitant prices for tools built around OpenStax books. And Baraniuk predicts that in the future, these kinds of software programs may not be totally free anyway. After all, technology is expensive to maintain. But with OpenStax in the game, Baraniuk thinks companies will at least have to keep their courseware costs reasonable.

“There are things in life that are worth paying for,” he says. “We keep them honest. They can’t gouge people with a super high prices; they’re going to have to work in this marketplace with really high-quality things that are open.”

Indeed, this kind of partnership may actually challenge for-profit companies to prove they can add value to free resources.

“What I like about OpenStax is they say, ‘Our content is the platform, we’re going to be agnostic when it comes to the courseware, and we’re going to be promiscuous as well,’” says Pickavance. “‘If you want to come play with us, that’s great.’”

During sunset, a luminous display in the open structure complements the changing natural light. / By Rebecca Koenig

Thinking Beyond Free

Some provosts and policymakers hoping to remove barriers to learning and degree attainment have equated OER with “free.” But to true believers, low costs for students are just the most obvious benefit of materials like OpenStax textbooks, and not even the most important.

Commercial texts and tools make it too easy for some faculty to outsource their teaching and course design, Smith says, although he’s empathetic to part-time instructors whose workloads outweigh their resources. Open materials return some power to professors.

“We’re letting publishers determine what gets taught in our institutions,” Smith says. “I think a part of reclaiming faculty integrity and academic freedom—and what we think is most important about our jobs—is to reclaim the control of your course materials.”

Pickavance is skeptical of homework software systems for the same reason. Yet if professors are going to use courseware to save time, they might as well use open versions that allow for personalization, he says.

“There’s flexibility,” he adds. “I think that empowers faculty to do interesting stuff.”

Giving professors more control may be a step toward an even grander mission. Like an advocate for internet neutrality, Smith sees OER as a way to build a public repository of knowledge that has the potential to transform society.

“That promise is evaporating in front of our eyes because everything is becoming captured by commercial interests,” Smith says. “What copyright law has done is choke off the transformative power of knowledge sharing. OER and open access and open education really gives us back that promise, the old Newtonian idea of standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Baraniuk is still using OER to chase the “north star” of personalized learning he set out to follow 20 years ago. It’s been a winding road, but he thinks Tutor and other digital tools built atop open materials will finally enable professors and institutions to better “judge if learning and retention is actually improving.” With that knowledge, he hopes to eventually boost graduation rates and close equity gaps.

Researchers are already studying the extent to which OER materials help achieve those goals. So far, results have been mixed, but a meta-analysis published this year in the journal Educational Technology Research and Development found “students achieve the same or better learning outcomes when using OER while saving significant amounts of money.”

In the meantime, the engineering professor-turned-publisher wants to save more students more money. He wants more colleges to adopt not just one, but 20 OpenStax books. He sees his nonprofit startup becoming one of the country’s largest college textbook providers, taking on the commercial establishment the way Linux challenged Windows.

“It kind of looks like we were in the right place at the right time, but we had also been waiting around,” Baraniuk says. “We had everything in place on our surfboard, waiting for this wave to come.”


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