Textbooks: a closed-off corner of learning set free by technology

Anne-Marie Slaughter

Students around the world returning to university this week are, whether or not they know it, living disrupters of the global market in education. Given that tuition fees vary widely between colleges and countries, many are looking overseas.

A growing number of American students, for example, are trying their luck at British, Canadian, French, German and Australian institutions.

But there is one corner of the education market that is proving harder to disrupt.

Regardless of fees charged by the university, all students face high and rising book bills. For 75 per cent of those enrolled at the University of São Paulo, the cost of textbooks exceeded their family’s monthly income.

In the US the retail prices for recent editions of Fundamentals of Corporate Finance , Modern Physics and Principles of Microeconomics , textbooks that are required for big introductory courses, run to hundreds of dollars.

Textbook prices in the US increased 82 per cent between 2003 and 2013. The digital versions do not help much; they are often coupled with expensive access codes without which students cannot complete and submit coursework. These codes often come with expiry dates, at which point students’ access to their materials is cut off. The potential for reselling is eliminated.