Lugging around a massive Norton Anthology or Campbell Biology textbook is a long-standing rite of passage for each successive crop of college freshman in the U.S. But it might not be that way for much longer.
“Textbook costs have risen so astronomically, as compared to the cost of everything else – including housing and medical care – that it now becomes cost prohibitive,” explains Linda Williams, a business administration professor at Tidewater Community College.
Williams has even seen cases where the cost of a course textbook exceeds the cost of tuition, especially at the community college level.
"As a teacher, to look at a student who is overcoming all types of obstacles – economic, personal, intellectual, social – to have that student come to you and say, 'I know that I need your class to graduate, but I can't afford the course materials because I have to buy gas, and pay my rent, and feed my children.' When you have that happen more than once, something inside of me said, 'You know, this isn't what I signed up for,'" Williams admits.
Her solution has been to create the country's first zero-textbook-cost associate degree program, using open-source materials. And the changes go beyond just price – Williams, and others, are using digital assets to actually improve the learning experience over the static one associated with traditional textbooks.
Now, in her business statistics course, students watch video demonstrations of how the problems are worked out. Her students don't have to worry about affording their books – and, she finds, they're actually learning better.
Ariel Diaz, founder and CEO of Boundless, is on a similar mission to use digital tools to reduce cost and improve performance for students.
“This post-textbook world takes the best of the technology we have today, including a ton of great content on the Internet and a lot of openly licensed resources, plus the benefits of a digital content platform," he argues.
Early digital textbooks were really just glorified PDFs, he adds. But the new e-textbooks are made to use on your computer, smartphone or tablet; they allow you to highlight passages and review flashcards, and some can even use data to adapt to your personal learning style.
As education-related costs continue to climb – and even President Obama pushes more people to attend community college – the textbook-free future might be closer than we think.