The future of the textbook

24Aug09

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College and university textbooks are notoriously expensive. As a Toronto Star story from earlier this year explains, “engineering and medical textbooks are particularly expensive and can range from $150 to $300 for a single book. It’s not unusual for students in other areas of study to spend more than $1,000 annually on textbooks.”

So how is digital technology affecting on the textbook business? According to a New York Times story from this past weekend:

many educators say that it will not be long before they are replaced by digital versions — or supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web.

That kind of free courseware may come in the form of “freemium” products, like the textbooks from Flat World Knowledge, a company profiled by Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson in his recent book FREE. Flat World Knowledge publishes “‘open textbooks,’ free works that can be edited, updated, and remixed into custom course materials.” These open textbooks are free to read online, with printed copies and audiobook versions available as paid options.

Another way to get textbooks is to steal them. Like music, movies, and television shows, digital versions of physical textbooks are easy to share online with little regard for copyright. Though the world’s largest textbook BitTorrent site, TextBook Torrents, shut down last fall, you don’t have to look hard to find questionably legal copies of textbooks on various file sharing networks.

What about you? Are you a student (or the parent of a student)? Where do you get your textbooks? Would you consider buying a digital textbook?

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