January 20, 2018

Rice University develops free online physics textbooks

Smith, M. (2010) Why Pay for Intro Textbooks? Inside Higher Education, February 7

Rice University, using the Connexions platform, is offering online Introductory Physics textbooks for free, through the non-profit publisher OpenStax College.

The books are peer reviewed, and could save students up to US$90 million a year in the USA, if they are adopted by university and college instructors. In the next five years, OpenStax hopes to have free books for 20 of the most common college courses, across a range of subjects.


Will this revolutionize the textbook industry? It will depend on a number of factors:

  • the ‘absolute’ quality of the textbooks – are they instructionally well designed books with good physics?
  • the ‘perceived’ quality of the textbooks – will instructors accept open access publishing?
  • whether a sustainable business model can be developed. The cost of hiring the content experts and editing was covered by grants from at least four major US foundations. ‘Accessories’ to the main text books can also be purchased by students. But is this a sustainable business model? Only time will tell.
  • if successful, will this limit the range of textbooks for some subjects, and thus reduce choice for instructors and students – or will it have the opposite affect?

In the meantime, this is definitely a good day for physics students.

Apple makes iBooks 2 and cheap textbooks available – but is this a good thing?


© MacWorld 2012

Apple today announced a new strategy for its educational market:

  •  iBooks 2, a new, upgraded version of its iBook application,  featuring iBooks textbooks.  ‘iBooks textbooks offer iPad users gorgeous, fullscreen textbooks with interactive animations, diagrams, photos, videos, unrivaled navigation and much more.’
  • agreements with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill and Pearson that will deliver educational titles on the iBookstore with most priced at $14.99 or less. Apple claims that these three publishers have 90% of the US textbook market.
  • iBooks Author ‘is also available today as a free download from the Mac App Store and lets anyone with a Mac create stunning iBooks textbooks, cookbooks, history books, picture books and more, and publish them to Apple’s iBookstore.’
  • an all-new iTunes U app. ‘With the new iTunes U app, students using iPads have access to the world’s largest catalog of free educational content, along with over 20,000 education apps at their fingertips and hundreds of thousands of books in the iBookstore that can be used in their school curriculum.’

You can see a promotional video here.

Comments and questions

The good news

In principle this is a distinct move forward. ANYTHING that will bring textbooks down to a reasonable price (and $15 is reasonable) is worthwhile.

Second, this is the obvious route for textbook publishing. Last year I tried very hard to find an easy way to create an interactive, web-friendly book, but going through a traditional publisher was still at that time the easiest route to publish a ‘serious’ book. Yes, I did look at open publishing but what I lacked as an author were the tools to create a digital book – iBooks Author promises to remove that barrier.

Third, it is good to have a wide range of digital textbooks available through major publishers, and the more digital materials and applications that are created for education, the better.

The bad news

So far, this is a U.S. story.

I tried to download iBooks 2 and iBooks Author today but unsuccessfully. Canadian Reviewer claims they are available in Canada, but only for OS X Lion, and there are only four books available for iBooks 2 in the Canadian app store. I also couldn’t find iBooks 2 in the Canadian App Store on my iPad. Nor could I find any information if or when iBooks Author will be available in Canada for anyone using a Mac without Lion (I’m using Leopard and am trying to avoid another upgrade until I get a new computer – am I the only person on the planet like this?). In any case saying that ‘anyone with a Mac can create stunning iBooks’ is so far just not true, at least in Canada. However, this is likely to be a short-term frustration, but yes, I am definitely frustrated, having spent several hours trying to crack this. Anyone who can update me on any of this, please do so.

Second, although I am a Mac user and generally support Apple products, I am concerned about the creation of a monopoly on educational services and products. Choice is really important. Will iBook textbooks stay at $15 or will the price go up if this is the only place to get digital textbooks? Will all schools have to have Apple products to get cheap textbooks?

On the other hand, without standardization, we will need to have multiple devices. I already have to have both a laptop and an iPad and an iPhone, I’ve got a Kobo book reader, and maybe I should get a Kindle. This is getting silly. If a school wants to have textbooks from both Amazon and Apple, will students have to have two devices?

Third, iPads are expensive, especially for schools. This is going to cause a great deal of angst for school boards, school principals, and teachers, especially in schools with children from low income families. There was nothing in the announcement about a partnership between Apple and schools. So basically the education system or parents will have to suck up the costs of the hardware. There needs to be more work and thought given as to how education systems can work with IT companies such as Apple and Amazon so that it’s a win-win for both sides.

Lastly, I don’t think this will get rid of traditional publishers. Creating a digital textbook that really exploits the features requires good design, appropriate graphical design as well as content knowledge, etc. Good quality textbooks are more likely to be created by a team, and the team will need to use good project management to keep costs down. Traditional publishers that can work out how to do this will still survive, but it will be a very different business model from the current one.


It’s still premature to come to definite conclusions yet. We need more information from Apple about availability outside the USA. Teachers and students need to get their hands on the products and services and start using them. I need to get my hands on them!

However, I do think this will be a big step forward for e-learning, and could bring considerable benefits. Because of the cost of devices, it may be easier to integrate these products and services at the post-secondary level, but I can see that many schools in the United States could move in this direction quite quickly. I think Canadian k-12 schools (as always) will be more cautious, because many won’t want to get locked into a single commercial supplier.

Yes, there are lots of potential problems but none that I see that can’t be resolved. And you have to admire Apple – it keeps moving, and makes us all keep on our toes (or thumbs).

You can find an interesting graphic on how Apple Can Save Education from Onlineeducation.net

Removing barriers to e-textbooks

Graydon, B., Urbach-Buholz, B., and Kohen, C. (2011) A Study of Four textbook Distribution Models Educause Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 4

Textbooks are a major cost of students (and parents), often exceeding annual tuition fees. E-textbooks offer a potentially low cost alternative model, but there have been a number of major barriers to their use.

This article is a useful analysis of different models for providing textbooks, but also suggest some ways in which to remove barriers to online textbooks. The authors state:

  • In preparation for campus-wide e-text adoption, Daytona State College completed a two-year comparative study of four textbook distribution models: print purchase, print rental, e-text rental, and e-text rental with e-reader device.
  • Though faculty and administrators may embrace e-texts, students often prefer to rent printed textbooks.
  • Institutions seeking to implement campus-wide e-text adoption should be prepared to address specific concerns, including faculty choice, infrastructure needs, student technological skills, cost savings, and instructional adaptation.

They conclude with a list of key considerations that need to be addressed:

  • Avoid top-down mandates. Institutions that require all instructors to simultaneously go e-text might be courting disaster. An effective approach will encourage, but not require, e-text adoption. Should reluctant faculty members observe demonstrable benefits in the classrooms of colleagues who have switched, they will soon decide to go e-text as well.
  • Know your technological limits. Investing in infrastructure increases and upgrades prior to going e-text — not during, and not only as needed — will help create student and faculty buy-in by demonstrating a commitment to the project and preventing technology failures.
  • Help students see the advantages. A sizable number of students who otherwise welcome technological expansion in their lives draw the line at textbooks. Clearly communicating to students how much money they will save and what new educational objectives they might meet will lessen resistance to this major change.
  • Involve student support services. Faculty are never an institution’s only teachers. Collaborate with IT personnel, writing consultants, learning specialists, supplemental instructors, on-campus tutors, and other support staff in the e-text selection, implementation, and training process to ensure that the assistance students receive campus-wide is both consistent and valuable.
  • Provide instructional support and training for faculty. Ultimately, faculty will bear the biggest responsibility for making e-text adoption successful. The development and dissemination of best practices for teaching with e-texts should be fully supported at the college, program, and department levels.

Implementing a new campus-wide solution to the problem of prohibitively expensive textbooks is not without risks. But….careful planning and piloting can help institutions develop strategies for using e-texts to ensure that this enduring problem troubles students much less in the future.

The article is packed full of interesting data about student preferences for textbooks and is well worth reading in full.

Big developments in e-books

Eisenberg, A. (2011) Making Science leap from the Page, New York Times, December 17

At last: an e-book designed to exploit digitality! This is a report of a new biology textbook published by Macmillan, the publishers of the ‘august journal’ Nature. It is available only online, sells for $49 for permanent ownership, and includes audio and video clips, short quizzes, dynamic graphics and other forms of interaction for the learner. (I wonder if it allows for online annotation using tools such as Highlighter?). It is designed to run on any digital device. The book though does not appear to be available yet (for the latest, go to: http://www.nature.com/nature_education/interactive_textbooks).I’ve requested a copy for a full review on this web site.

The New York Times article also discusses two digital books for mathematics, one based on Wolfram Alpha/Mathematica and one on calculus.

Student resistance to e-books

Watters, A. (2011) Why aren’t students using e-books? Mindshift, Nov 7

Some speculation on reasons why students aren’t using e-books following a survey by the library e-book provider eBrary, which found that students’ e-book usage has not increased significantly in the past 3 years, although consumer  e-book sales are up 160%.

However, according to the eBrary survey, “the vast majority of students would choose electronic over print if it were available and if better tools along with fewer restrictions were offered.”

The article provides a number of reasons for student resistance to e-books. Underneath all the reasons though is the failure of the commercial publishing industry to redesign to the needs of digital learning and their fear of losing what has been a very lucrative business model.

It’s just a matter of time before someone comes up with a better, alternative model that will eventually destroy the current publishing model, which I give five years at most.