Community Voices

Sunday, Mar 02 2014 11:00 PM

DEAN FLOREZ: Where's the Netflix for textbooks?

College textbooks cost too much. It's been lingering thorn to students and their parents every semester, regrettably chronicled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports that the price of textbooks has risen more than 800 percent over the past 30 years -- a rate faster than medical services, new home prices, and the consumer price index. It's ironic given we live in the "build-an-app era" that has solved everything from finding a dogsitter, adjusting the temperature in our house to discovering split-second deals on every service and product imaginable.

So where is the technology fix or app for skyrocketing textbooks? Where are the barbarians at the gate? Those Silicon Valley warriors who took down Motown, turned Borders into a laundromat and eliminated film cameras?

There has been no fight with the four large textbook publishers that control 80 percent of the market nor an attempt to challenge the monetary hold they have on 20 million U.S. college students. Textbook publishers today have college students paralyzed to a point that they rarely buy all required textbooks, according to the advocacy group U.S. Public Interest Research Group. In a recently issued report entitled, "Fixing the Broken Textbook Market," they cite data that confirms 94 percent of the students reported not buying the required book and 65 percent of college students deciding against buying a textbook because it was too expensive.

PIRG's proposes an "open textbook" solution that has been accelerated by 20 Million Minds Foundation founder Dr. Gary Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson. Their mission to disrupt higher education is multiplying with policymakers taking a hard look at open educational resources, understanding what PRIG cites as a need for universal, "open-source" textbooks priced at less than $20. The uptake on that budding alternative has been exposing an unpalatable relationship between publisher's predatory sales forces and the only folks that could directly save student textbook dollars: our faculty.

Faculty members seem to have refused to recognize their amassed power as the actual buyers of textbooks and have conceded control of their curriculum guardian status -- empowered by academic freedom -- to drive down unconscionable textbook costs. The moral obligation of choosing a $150 dollar textbook over a comparable $20 dollar book where the basic content hasn't changed much in the last 100 years is self-evident. Does McGraw-Hill really own the periodic table? Does Pearson have a special and unique description of statistical regression? Without internal champions, where are the outside disruptors, those tech warriors able to offer students a contrasting distribution model that offers them an easy path to an affordable textbook?

Where is the Netflix for textbooks, offering students a desired "Book-of-the-Semester Club" available today for trade books or a $9.99 subscription service offered to them when they buy movies, videos and music? The four largest publishers just announced their insidious version of a subscription model. CourseSmart, a digital arm of all four publishers, with textbooks three-deep in most subjects, recently announced Subscription Pack. This service will now offer "qualifying" students a limited, set-to-expire-in-150-days choice of no more than six books for $200.

Imagine any current trade book subscription startup asking readers to pay $200 every 150 days to access only six books, when today they ask $9.99 for over 100,000 books. Or envision Netflix telling customers that will pay nearly $500 dollars per year to access only 12 movies or TV shows and after three months each will conclusively expire?

We need innovative tech warriors to push textbooks along the path of Netflix. To create innovative subscription models and offer a low cost "all-you-can-read" rate available to all students without all the qualifications and disappearing content. This approach is what education is all about. Heavy on sharing knowledge, it destroys the notion that educational information is proprietary and can be locked away in some pricey expiring eBook code.

The pioneering Netflix textbook subscription model I envision would support what students already intuitively experience on their iPads and laptops, all filled with thousands of content choices from video, movies or music but purchased at a fraction of the cost. Why should textbooks be any different? In higher education, with 20 million college students required to purchase three to four textbooks per semester, there is a market to entice inspired ed-tech entrepreneurs to delve into the uncompromising trenches of affordable textbooks.

Dean Florez , former California Senate majority leader, is president of the 20 Million Minds Foundation.

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