It was pointed out to me that my last blog entry (on what we need to know about how we and our students are reading) left out any mention of the one big knowable among the unknowables: that our students are paying way too much for textbooks. True. So it seemed providential that today’s Inside Higher Ed had a piece on free textbooks titled Textbooks Unbound.

The punny title was one way of signifying that the article focused primarily on Boundless (“The Free Textbook Replacement”).  And the ambiguity of that parenthetical (does it replace textbooks for free? or does it replace free textbooks?) is also significant. Unlike purveyors of free textbooks like Flat World Knowledge or the Community College Open Textbooks Collaborative, Boundless starts with what instructors want from a textbook and aggregate that from what’s out there. Given the growth of open educational resources (OER), that’s a lot, but it’s also a lot to look for (or look through), hence the utility of something that pulls these things together and packages them.

As the article in IHE points out, it’s also another kind of threat to the standard business model for textbooks, sort of the second swing in the 1-2 punch. Giving whole textbooks away is one thing, but when you start pulling stuff together (including multimedia, things that go beyond what you can find in a standard text), that creates real problems for publishers. The article is really on the stir that has resulted from publishers crying foul, and especially the federal court complaint filed by such major players in the textbook publishing industry as Pearson, Cengage, and MacMillan. Ironically, because Boundless uses open content, the suit charges that it’s ripping off the structure of existing textbooks, filling them with freely available content but retaining (borrowing?) a form that students and instructors are used to. And the real irony is that this repackaging that retains the package’s traditional shape comes from giving professors what they (supposedly) want: the same old same old, only without the cost.

This seems to be that familiar shuffle of two steps forward and one step back: we have free content that approximates what publishers have been (over)charging for, but in the same form. What transformed the music industry was a transformation of the way we experienced music, not just the way we bought it. Music was suddenly not just cheaper than formerly but more mobile, more find-able, more share-able. We didn’t have to buy an album to get the sought-after song. We didn’t have to search through used record stores to find that beloved old tune. It wasn’t just the price.

What if we similarly transformed the way we brought together and assigned content for a course? What if it wasn’t a matter of assigning one chapter after another? What if professors didn’t give students basically what they themselves were given at that age and stage, all pulled together in a compendium? What if students were able to choose and provide at least some of the reading? What if the discovery of it was part of the learning process? And what if only some of it was found and the rest made by the class?

Boundless has made a new move both the publishing industry and on OER, but there are lots of moves still to be made.

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