I’ve written frequently about the unsustainable “college textbook bubble,” which continues to inflate at rates that make the U.S. housing bubble seem relatively inconsequential by comparison, see chart above. The cost of college textbooks has been rising at almost twice the rate of general CPI inflation for at least the last thirty years. As Glenn Reynolds reminds us, “a process that cannot go on forever, won’t,” and the college textbook bubble is certainly one of those processes.
In this post from last April, I predicted that the traditional, cartel-style textbook model won’t survive, and we might already be hearing the giant hissing sound of the “college textbook bubble” starting to deflate due to lower cost competition from alternative textbook providers like Flat World Knowledge. As an alternative to a standard economics textbook like Greg Mankiw’s “Principles of Economics” for $179 from the publisher Cengage, students now have free online viewing access to a comparable economics textbook like “Principles of Economics” (by Libby Rittenberg and Timothy Tregarthen) from Flat World Knowledge. To get an eTextbook option for an iPad, Kindle Fire or NOOK version that includes PDF downloads, students pay $35. A black-and-white hard copy text costs only $45, and students can buy individual chapters of the textbook.
In another post, I linked to a post by Kevin “Angus” Grier, whose comment about high-priced textbooks from the traditional publishing cartel was “These days, given that you could make yourself a pretty good free principles text just by downloading relevant Wikipedia entries, I don’t see how these rents can be sustained over the long run.”
Looks like the free, Wikipedia-based principles textbook model envisioned by Angus has now arrived – those types of free textbooks are now available from Boundless Learning. The company is profiled in an MIT Technology Review article titled “Free Textbooks Spell Disruption for College Publishers,” here’s a slice:
In 2011, Ariel Diaz started Boundless Learning, a Boston company that has begun giving away free electronic textbooks covering college subjects like American history, anatomy and physiology, economics, and psychology.
What’s controversial is how Boundless creates these texts. The company trawls for public material on sites like Wikipedia and then crafts it into online books whose chapters track closely to those of top-selling college titles. In April, Boundless was sued by several large publishers who accused the startup of engaging in “the business model of theft.”
Once a student or professor creates a free account at Boundless Learning, they get free access to textbook materials that are organized to closely duplicate the material in a standard $180 textbook like Mankiw’s Principles of Macroeconomics on a chapter-by-chapter basis. In Mankiw’s chapter on “The Monetary System” he covers these topics: The Meaning of Money, the Federal Reserve System, Banks and the Money Supply and the Fed’s Tools of Monetary Controls. In the corresponding materials from Boundless Learning, they have comparable sections on Money, the Description and Purpose of Money, U.S. Central Banking, the Role of Banks in Money Creation and the Tools of the Federal Reserve. The sources of the Boundless Learning materials are mostly Wikipedia entries and online resources from various Federal Reserve Banks.
As might be expected, the textbook publishing cartel isn’t taking this competition sitting down and they (Cengage Learning, Pearson Education, and MacMillan Higher Education) filed a lawsuit in March accusing Boundless of copyright infringement, false advertising, and unfair competition. Boundless has denied all of the charges.
Bottom Line: Whether or not Boundless Learning prevails in the lawsuit, its open-source, Internet-based, free textbook model is more likely to be the textbook model of the future than the status quo model of the traditional publishing cartel. And for that, students (consumers) of the future will be much better off, thanks to all of the “unfair” competition taking place today. As the unsustainable college textbook bubble starts to deflate, we can thank publishing innovators and “cartel busters” like Flat World Knowledge and Boundless Learning.