The $5 Textbook – Now For Less Than $5

From time to time I re-review the costs from various print-on-demand vendors to see if we can’t get the cost down a little further on our just-as-effective-as-$100-big-publisher-books $5 textbooks. Good news! CreateSpace, one of the first sites I reviewed this time around, can print our books (8.5×11, B&W, paperback, 250 pages) for $3.85. Add $0.40 per book for shipping, and the $5 dollar textbook is now a $4.25 textbook, delivered. What else will we find as we continue to review vendors in preparation for 2012-2013?

If you’re not familiar with the $5 textbook, these are digital textbooks that use an open license (a Creative Commons license, to be more specific) originally published by CK12. These books are free to adapt, revise, improve, and use in any format. The Open Education Group at BYU works with districts to help them develop their own custom versions of these high quality high school science textbooks (and, starting Winter 2012, high school math textbooks) that are individualized for their students’ specific needs. Where infrastructure allows, these books can be used digitally for no cost. For other settings, we work with print-on-demand vendors to provide printed versions of these books that cost about $5 each.

When we compare the Utah state CRT scores of students who use the $5 custom books with students who use traditional, expensive textbooks, we find no difference in the percentage of students who are proficient at end of year. That’s a savings of over 50% of textbook costs (when you buy one per student each year and give it to the student to keep forever, highlight in, take notes in, etc. – things they aren’t allowed to do in their traditional textbooks) for the same amount of learning. We have anecdotal evidence supporting the conclusion that when students use these books proactively – taking notes, highlighting, etc., the amount they learn increases. While this finding would agree with previous research, we need more data to be able to make this claim with certainty.

And what can a district do when it saves 50% on textbook costs? Well, textbook money can only be used for textbooks, unfortunately, so districts can’t turn these savings into increases in teaching staff or teacher salary. But there are still interesting things that can be done. As one example, these savings can be used to purchase hardware (like iPads) on which digital versions of open textbooks could be read. The digital versions of books can still be annotated, highlighted, etc., and students can keep their digital versions forever. And the digital versions of these books are completely free. In other words, one way to view the financial savings gained from using open textbooks is as a completely self-funded way of acquiring the hardware needed to transition an entire district from static print material to interactive, digital content. And that’s just one example – a district is only limited by its imagination.

So far about 4000 Utah high school students have used these open high school science textbooks, with the support of the Open Education Group at BYU, CK12, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This year almost the entire Nebo district is participating. If every high school science class in the state were to save 50% for the same (or better) learning outcomes, the annual statewide savings would approach $1.5M.

We’re hoping to “greatly expand” the program for next year, and should be able to make a specific announcement soon. Keep watching!