The Boundless lawsuit highlights a critical aspect of higher education as constituted today: There are really two different higher education systems within the standard four-year curriculum, each with very different goals and underlying economic models.
In the first system, students take a broad range of standard courses. According to a U.S. Department of Education study, more than 20 percent of all credits earned by college graduates come in just 13 courses, including calculus, Spanish, biology, and intro to economics. These are essentially commodity courses, based on widely accepted concepts and information. No matter where you go to college, you’ll learn to conjugate Spanish verbs in more or less the same way.
In the second system, students take specialized upper-division courses often taught by professors with expertise in the subject. This is where students specialize academically, and where colleges really distinguish themselves in the depth and quality of education.
The problem for book publishers—and for colleges themselves—is that the first system is much more profitable and more replaceable than the second. Calculus hasn’t changed much since Newton and Leibniz invented it in the 17th century. Yet there have been seven editions of James Stewart’s best-selling Calculus (list: $245.95), the profits from which allowed Stewart to build a $24 million home with its own concert hall. And you don’t need calculus to calculate how much money colleges make by charging hundreds of students sitting in a lecture hall standard tuition rates, minus the negligible cost of an adjunct lecturer standing in the well. By contrast, nobody is going to create an open-source replacement for the Quintessence of long-time Harvard philosopher W.V. Quine. But not that many people are going to buy that book, either, or pay very much for it. (List: $26.50.)
So it’s not surprising that textbook publishers have filed the equivalent of the Recording Industry Association of America’s infamous lawsuit against the first MP3 music player. That’s what you do when your rents are threatened: use them to hire good lawyers.
The amount of free, high-quality online educational content is sure to grow. At the same time, the rise of the global middle class is creating a surge in demand for low-cost education. The best place to be, economically, is in between the people who want all that content and the content itself. It’s not easy to make smart choices about which free textbooks, courses, and videos are right for a particular student.
The Boundless method of using traditional textbooks as a metaphor for organizing content is one way to do it. But there are others. In November, a new venture called Project Blue Sky was announced. It will use a search engine developed by a company called Gooru specifically for online education, allowing people to “search, select and seamlessly integrate Open Education Resources.”
The owner of Project Blue Sky? Pearson, one of the textbook giants suing Boundless. Even as textbook companies try to keep the age of super-expensive college textbooks going a little bit longer, they’re also trying to position themselves for the much better, less expensive future to come.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.