Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Is Using a Free Textbook a Good Idea?

I will no longer be using Greg Mankiw's favorite textbook in my class, which I used myself as a first year college student 13 years ago and have used in every principles class since. I'm switching to Libby Rittenberg and Timothy Tregarthen Principles of Macroeconomics, which is published by Flatworld Knowledge. The main reason for the switch was that the new book is free online* (here is the free textbook). Of course if you want to print it or a paper copy it will cost you, but it will be cheaper than any other Principles text as a new book and close in price to used books.

The other change is I'll no longer be using Aplia, which is an online homework system. I liked a lot of things about it, they made things really easy for the professor. With Aplia and an electronic copy of Mankiw my students paid $80 a semester. I will now be doing home work through blackboard, which loses some of the nice graphing features of Aplia, but is also free. I can also use homework questions from Flatworld that I can import into blackboard.

So the question is with 70 students a semester at $80 each is this switch worth the $5,600 a semester (or about one student's tuition at Towson).

Will the students be better off? With money we could design an experiment where I use different books in my sections, then compare test scores controlling for student characteristics. If either publisher is willing to fund this experiment let me know. We would then have to estimate if the difference in learning if in fact Mankiw/Aplia are better is worth $80 per student, which would be hard.

Instead I think it will take a semester or two to see how students feel about the textbook and judge how they do on the exams, where I write all of the questions. I get no monetary benefit by switching and I have had to spend sometime switching my syllabus and will spend a fair amount of time getting used to the new homework system.

Over the semester I'll be going back to compare my new book to the old one and possibly a couple of other major textbooks.

* Opportunity Costs of free textbook not included.
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1 comment:

Gallaugher said...

One of our students forwarded your blog post to me. Looks like our students are following these developments, too! I’m a Flat World author and can speak to the model. Price alone is not a driver - ultimately a text will survive or fail based on quality. So it’s been great to see my text gain traction (in the first year it had been adopted by 6 of the top 10 Information Systems programs listed in the U.S. News specialty rankings list). The free option is also extremely disruptive and lends itself to rapid adoption. Many faculty started using selected chapters from my text (social media, information security, cases on Facebook, etc.), then when students evaluated the content highly faculty moved to adopt the entire book. This kind of experimental adoption can’t happen with a conventional $200 b-school text. It’s also allowed my text to be used far more broadly than I anticipated. I’ve gotten feedback from Vietnam, Bolivia, S. African – I just returned from Nairobi where I gave a keynote talk with the connection made largely because faculty at U. of N. were using my free online content. My thoughts on this were shared in a talk I gave at Apple’s AcademiX conf. earlier this year – you can find the video online at: http://education.apple.com/academix/

There is a continuum of options available to faculty who want to publish a text – from completely free & self-published to the conventional extremely expensive hardback. While the different models may work for different folks, I really like Flat World. It gives me the reach of an entirely free online version, but I also get the benefits that a publish offers. These are not insignificant: layout, graphic work, editorial, copyright clearance for images, help creating supplemental materials, printing, marketing & promotion, and more. And their team has helped meet my demand for regularly refreshed content. In less than three years we’ve released four updates to the text (critical when our content covers the rapid-fire world of Tech & Business – imagine how much Google has changed in two years). Flat World wouldn’t exist if they didn’t sell something, and enough students want a ‘dead tree’ book that there’s something for FWK to make money on. At $35 for the B&W softback option, the text is cheaper than renting the current bestselling hardback IS textbook. Students can also buy audio chapters, easy-to-print .pdfs, and study aids. It’s also important for faculty to have an incentive. Research faculty rarely see benefit in writing textbooks, so a royalty on print/audio sales provides incentive to make publishing in this model worth a faculty member’s effort. For someone in my situation it’s unrealistic to assume the herculean effort of creating & updating a textbook would happen without some kind of incentive (financial and promotion credit). I am optimistic that over time deans and promotion committees will see the global impact of well received open textbook and that this legitimate scholarly contribution will stand side-by-side with conventional research, but that remains to be seen. Having an incentive to faculty to give up ‘traditional’ publishing for this unknown frontier is key, and Flat World’s ability to compensate authors will be vital to nurturing a disruptive, high-quality, freemium market.

You’re welcome to explore the resources I’ve put up for authors adopting my text – you’ll find a Ning community, my personal slides, podcasts, etc. at my website (http://gallaugher.com). Social media plays a role in making the project a success. It’s been great seeing your blog post. I hope your experience with the economics text goes as well as many of the faculty who have adopted “Information Systems: A Manager’s Guide to Harnessing Technology”. My best,
John Gallaugher
Associate Professor of Information Systems
Carroll School of Management - Boston College
http://www.gallaugher.com - http://twitter.com/gallaugher