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Textbooks for Free: Future Fact or Fiction

by Jeff Cohen

I get emails and phone calls wondering if, and how, eBooks will reshape the higher-education space. While many of us are still waiting to see eBooks really take hold, we all know that change is coming and probably faster than we think. But haven’t we been saying that for a while now? Haven’t we been told to expect the end of print for a decade or so? And even while eBooks and digital readers are gaining in popularity, the printed tome is very much still alive.

I’m pretty sure the real change is coming, it’s not too far away, and it will look nothing like what is currently being used. As more players come into the space, the development will move faster and the product will only get better. I don’t see a variation of what’s already around, I see something new that changes the game rather than tinkers with it.

The post for today is about a free textbook. How can this be true? Well, in the past we have discussed projects like 20 Million Minds and the State of Washington’s push towards cheaper textbooks, now I can introduce you to another such product that is looking to reshape education. Meet, founded by Ron Larson, PhD, a mathematician and award-winning author of more than 200 textbooks. His books are currently used by over 5 million students.

The AndYou series will kick off today and is free to view, print, and read. The books are available online, for download, and in loose leaf as well as paperback and hardcover print. Reviewing the online series, you’ll find that all of the content is original, insightful, and easy to understand. When discussing the book with Dr. Larson he explained that his first book “Math and You” is targeting liberal arts majors who are required to take a math course but are looking for more practical math they can use in everyday life. If you look through the table of contents of this textbook, you can see that is exactly what they get with chapters on taxes, fitness & sports, borrowing and savings, and much more.

When asked why he has made the content available for free, Dr. Larson says that his investment in the product is based on the fact that students will want some type of print edition to complement the free online version. It’s a calculated risk that he was willing to take. From what we have seen in the industry, he’s probably right as many professors are looking for books that extended to the Web and offer interactive feature, but neither they nor students are entirely ready to give up print. Dr Larson goes on to explain that if you look at the cost of his book in comparison to others that would target the same audience, his hardcover price is still 33% less than what major publishers are charging.

Some of the interactive features in the series include the ability to engage in a dialog with the author and his staff. Larson Publishing has three full-time employees reviewing comments and answering questions as students ask. In addition, the book has many practical data sets that students can download in order to participate in hands-on exercises.

Of the hundreds of books Larson has written, he is most proud of Math & YOU.

I think the AndYou series is a step in the right direction. Now comes the tricky part: getting faculty to buy in to this format and adopt these texts. We all know that eBooks are considered the new wave in education, but the real solution that needs to be solved is how to make education more affordable to those who are trying to better themselves through it.

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