Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Free textbooks

I have reported before about what a rip-off textbooks are. The obvious solution is to teach without one, but today's students insist on them. But help seems to appear on the horizon, in the from of Flat World Knowledge, a commercial publisher that sells hard copies, at lower prices than the competition, and offer the PDF files for free. This is quite an interesting commercial strategy, which has also been adopted by some open access journals that provide print-on-demand services at some cost but otherwise keep the journal free. In economics, Theoretical Economics comes to mind.

Hattip: Against Monopoly

1 comment:

Matt said...

It seems that the percent of courses that can seriously be taught without a textbook is around 10%, and that's being generous.

Maybe some seminar classes, or very introductory classes can be taught without any reference text, but how do you expect to teach an advanced math course without a hard copy reference for students to study? Or an advanced economics course? I don't have training in hard sciences, but I'd similarly imagine that it's hard to learn anatomy, genetics, biology, etc without a reference book.

I totally agree that a lot of texts, especially introductory texts, are bloated, overpriced, and genuinely bad. Although these few texts may be a large portion of the market (I have no data), they are a small portion of the number of courses taught (not per capita; again, I have no hard data).

I'm in no way against free texts or low cost texts--the more competition, the better--but your "obvious solution" to teach without a text is simply not applicable in most cases.

Of course, this is all besides the point that most teachers (perhaps just in my experience, though) aren't that good and a book written by a more serious scholar is sometimes necessary to compensate for poor teaching skills. Regrettable, but holding the various incentive structures fixed, it would be hard to improve every professor's teaching capabilities.