Starting an Open Textbook? Think 100 or 200 Level Courses

For teachers who are thinking about starting an open textbook project for their discipline, one good strategy could be to target an entry level college course within their discipline. I can think of three good reasons to do so: impact on students, the size of the potential author community, and transformative effects on the commercial textbook market.

Impact on Student Spending

The greatest impact on student spending, or savings for students, could happen in the 100 to 200 level introductory courses that are either required of all students or part of general education requirements, such as the core courses found at most community colleges. These courses will have the largest enrollment.

For instance, consider the following "guesstimate" for first year composition classes, which might be the most widespread college requirement with the largest overall US enrollment each year. (Either composition or math, since both are required at almost every institution.)

According to the Digest of Education Statistics, first time enrollment for college freshmen in the US in 2008 was 3,024,723. While almost all US college freshmen have a first year composition requirement, many do exempt it due to AP credit. At the same time, many also take a two course sequence, and at some institutions, AP credit only applies to the first course in the sequence. So conservatively, I will "guess" that total enrollment for composition for 2008 could easily be 80% of 3 million, 2,400,000. Now, if only half of those students buys textbooks (new or used), that's 1,200,000. Even if each of those students only spends an average of $25 each (which, once again, seems conservative), that's still $300 million. That's a big market, and at the point that open textbooks can make a serious dent into it, a significant savings will be passed on to US college students.

Certainly other US general education courses won't have the same overall enrollment as composition. Nevertheless, an introductory psychology or economics class would likely have a much, much higher US enrollment than almost any senior level major class, and certainly most graduate classes. Textbook publishers know this, which is why there are many more offerings for lower level introductory classes. It's a bigger market, and each publisher is fighting for various adopter niches within it.

The Size of the Potential Author Community

Because these courses have the largest enrollment, they also have the largest number of teachers who could be potential authors. An open textbook community needs a much smaller percentage of the teachers of a general education course in the US than for an upper level major or graduate course. We have found with Writing Spaces that all teachers—tenure track, full-time lecturers, adjuncts, and graduate students—are interested in authoring open textbooks. As a consequence, thinking in terms of innovation and diffusion theory, the likelihood of there being enough people willing to author open textbooks to write the texts should definitely be much higher. In other words, with a much larger potential author base, it's more likely that there will be more "innovators" and "early adopters." For other courses, the idea of authoring open textbooks would have to travel further along the diffusion of innovation S curve.

Transformative Effects on the Commercial Textbook Market

In discussing four purposes of OER, Stian Kaklev defines "transformative production" as "the process of producing the resource in itself has a transformative effect upon the people involved in the production process." This led me to think about under what conditions open textbook publishing might have transformative effects on the commercial textbook market. If/when open textbook publishing can have a significant impact on some introductory level course textbook markets, commercial textbook publishers will likely adjust their business strategies to compete more directly with open textbooks. Because their are so few commercial textbook publishers and they compete across a wide range of course markets, it seems likely there would be a tipping point where strategies evolved to compete directly with open textbooks would filter across all commercial textbook publishing.

On the other hand, higher level courses and graduate courses are such small markets, commercial textbook publishers may simply elect to abandon publishing for such courses. A commercial textbook publisher colleague once told me that because graduate courses and higher level undergraduate courses have much smaller potential sales, some publishers do not try to compete for textbook adoption even now. Textbook publishers now spend such large amounts of money in production, that it requires very large sales to even break even.

Of course, I am assuming that any transformative effects of open textbook publishing on commercial publisher strategies will be desirable. There is always the possibility that such strategies may not result in direct benefits to students and might have negative effects on open textbook publishing (e.g., textbook publishers may adopt different advertising strategies to attack open textbook credibility rather than reducing costs).