The Solution for Rising Textbook Costs? Free Peer-Reviewed Textbooks.



David J. Trowbridge is an assistant professor of history and director of African and African American studies at Marshall University. He is working on a project to produce a two-volume, peer-reviewed U.S. history textbook. It will be available for free as an ebook and for a modest price as a print edition. Learn more at the project's Facebook page.

As an academic doctor, books about history are the only thing I can legally prescribe. Altogether, I have written almost four thousand prescriptions. Not every patient (student) has taken their medicine, which led me to reconsider the way I practiced history. Was the $80 textbook I assigned at a community college based on a proper diagnosis of my students? Was the textbook that was even more expensive (but mostly full of pictures) the right book for my students at a research institution? Clearly not. But where could I find better medicine that would address my patients’ chief complaint—over-priced textbooks that failed to address their academic ailments? Similar to the pharmaceutical industry, a growing army of textbook reps responded by offering new editions of old books at prices that outpaced inflation.

This search for better medicine led me to become part of what I hope becomes a movement—a movement to create peer-reviewed textbooks that are available to students without cost. There are a number of free resources for students online, and many of them are very good. However, none of these resources are as complete as the textbooks offered by the major publishers. In addition, these free and inexpensive online resources are not available in print—a format most students still prefer. In order to better serve our students, I worked with others and constructed a U.S. survey textbook that was as comprehensive as any textbook on the market. The difference? We made our book completely free online and very affordable in print and audio formats ($25-40). Most importantly, the book has received an extensive peer review conducted by over thirty professors.

We began by asking instructors how they felt about their current textbook—what they liked and what they would like to change. We read and experimented with each of the leading textbooks. We also talked to our students. We recognized that many students approach college as if it were a contest to identify and only study the material that is most likely to appear on an exam. We were surprised to see how savvy students were when they applied this model to textbook reading. It was clear that we could eliminate chapter-opening photo montages, lengthy vignettes, extended block quotes, and other material that students simply skip over. This gave us more space to write about history—more examples to show that the fight for civil rights was a national movement, more opportunities to show how global events affected the U.S., and more space to include the kinds of details that make history interesting. All without upsetting the unspoken truce that has been observed by teachers and students since the invention of the textbook—assigning less than fifty pages per week. 

Our team of academic doctors have learned from experience that college students experience near-allergic reactions when they are assigned “value” textbooks that only have a few pictures. We also know that students really can learn from images that compliment the text and convey important lessons. However, our students also confessed that they are easily distracted when they read. When there are too many pictures and when these pictures disrupt the flow of the text, students admitted, they catch themselves “browsing” their textbooks as if they were catalogs or popular magazines. In response, we included about 500 images in each volume but were deliberate in our placement of these maps and images. We worked with reviewers to only select images that had a compelling message, and were even more careful to avoid the trap of overloading pages and distracting students in ways that turn reading into browsing.

Finally, many of the instructors we spoke with indicated that they wanted a textbook that did not presume their students knew anything about geography, government, or even the basics of the U.S. Constitution. They asked that we explain key concepts—such as the difference between socialism, capitalism, and communism. They also asked that we incorporate more of a national focus throughout the book. For example, we included examples from labor history beyond Homestead, Haymarket and Pullman. Most of our reviewers appreciated this approach and indicated that they too were not convinced that the Settle General Strike, Bisbee Deportation, Ludlow Massacre, and Battle of Blair Mountain were of secondary importance to the strikes and conflicts in Chicago and Pennsylvania.

We recognize not everyone will agree with our approach and wanted a book that also gave instructors the ability to improve the book by adding their own material and editing ours. By publishing A History of the United States under a Creative Commons license, this is exactly what we achieved. Instructors can easily add local history, remove and edit sections, and even add their syllabi and handouts. Perhaps no other academic discipline lends itself to ease of adaptability that the Creative Commons license provides quite as well as history. In a discipline where individuality reigns, authority is suspect and “truth” is subjective, we believe that a peer-reviewed “open” textbook just might change history.

Flat World Knowledge publishes nearly one hundred textbooks in a variety of fields. Their team is always looking for authors who support their mission of providing quality textbooks without cost.

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