Reaction to: Are Online Textbooks a Viable Alternative?

Philip A. Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College, CUNY

School of Professional Studies, CUNY

Nassau and Suffolk Community Colleges, SUNY

Published in Community College Humanist, Fall 2008,  Vol. 29, N0.4 , pp.7-9.

             Last spring, The Community College Humanist reprinted an article from Inside Higher Education describing a grant that the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California received from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to train instructors to develop on-line, or “open access” textbooks.  As an invited response, this article will condense remarks this author recently presented at the Eighth International Conference of MERLOT: the Multimedia Educational Resources for Student Learning and Online Teaching in August, 2008.[1]

There are currently a variety of titles that can be described as “online” or “e-textbooks.”  In English, there are easily more than 500,000, and closer to twice that number that are available as html pages, or pdf or “downloadable” files.[2]  These texts range in type from publisher-supplied online versions of textbooks available in print, sometimes offering enhanced features, to texts available exclusively on line; to texts authored or edited by instructors available in on-line form; to texts co-authored by instructors and students; to open-access texts authored by entire communities through the use of wikibooks, established in 2003 as part of Wikiuniversity.[3] 

The explosion in the availability of these resources may be attributed to a number of contemporary trends, from the expansion of the internet itself, the declining cost of access to such technology and the increasing number of individuals comfortable making use of it.  One factor, however, stands out in the expanding interest in e-texts: the realization among higher education faculty and text book publishers that e-texts maybe in the best interests of students.  Although many of these texts are still being offered in a for-profit setting by such companies as Flat World Knowledge,[4] over 1,200 instructors across the United States have expressed support for on-line texts in an effort to “Make Textbooks Affordable,” an initiative supported by Student Public Interest Groups that is seen as favorable to college students and their families, who struggle with the soaring cost of printed texts. [5]   The “Make Textbooks Affordable” movement pushes back at efforts some publishers have made to offer digital versions of their print texts only to maintain their revenues.  For-profit e-texts may be offered at an ostensible discount, but no real savings to students who have to pay to download and print out the texts, and then cannot resell them as they would a print version. The Federal Government and some states—particularly the state of California—are considering legislation that would seek to control the rising price of college textbooks through a variety of alternatives including e-textbooks.[6] In August of 2008 two laws were passed relating to college textbooks: the Federal "College Textbook Affordability Act" and the "NY State Textbook Access Act".  These measures  "encourage all faculty, students, administrators, institutions of higher education, bookstores, distributors, and publishers to work together to identify ways to decrease the cost of college textbooks and supplemental materials for students while supporting the academic freedom of faculty members to select high quality course materials for students."   The effective dates  are July 1, 2009 for New York State law and July 1, 2010 for the Federal law .  Amongst possible responses would be faculty-authored textbooks and e-textbooks. 

Many instructors, including this author, would moreover argue that e-texts—particularly open-access texts-- can be useful to students with varied learning styles and a predisposition to respond positively to visually-presented information. Over many years of teaching online, this author has followed the Open Access model for publication, making all work and texts available to students at no additional cost via the internet.  In addition to the “practical” Learner-Centered advantages of such open-access, online texts used in this instructor’s philosophy courses allow both students and faculty to take advantage of a new approach in textbook writing: collaborative authorship.  In such a model, faculty members organize and author a text that may include

works of past and present philosophers as well as interpretations supplied by the instructor, but students, users, and other readers supply critiques and suggestions that the faculty author immediately integrates into the text through an ongoing revision process.  In some cases, the instructor may even invite students to write portions of the text—effectively revising it so that fellow students can profit from peer interpretations of assigned readings, from original philosophical texts to interpretative literature, as well as peer recommendations and references to existing on-line learner resources. 

            Collaborative models of text authorship capitalize on the internet culture familiar to many students coming of age over the last two decades, for whom internet communication is a constant, interactive experience.  Students gain a greater sense of ownership and engagement in the learning process, in which even an assigned textbook can be modified through collaboration with the instructor.  Instructors are, meanwhile, able to capitalize upon the multi-media capacities of the internet.  

There can be disadvantages to such an approach.  Some students are infelicitously prodded past the comfortable world of pages and highlighters, while others crave the bells and whistles of electronic learning as entertainment, rather than education.  Faculty can be held to a time-consuming schedule of website maintenance.  A full comparison of learning outcomes when electronic texts are used instead of traditional texts has yet to be made, and such a study would be valuable.  Yet, based upon the personal experience of this instructor, it seems like the rewards of such a system can often be as substantial, or greater, than those an instructor might find in a traditional, text-based, talk-and-chalk classroom.  The world has changed since the internet and so has publication and ideas of authorship.   What is possible now was unimagined ten years ago, and one can only guess at what might be possible ten years hence.  For now, however, instructors can find new, exciting opportunities in new mechanisms for gathering and presenting text to their students via technology. 


[1] Philip Pecorino, “The On-Line Textbook: A Student-Faculty Collaboration: Adopting, Adapting, Authoring Digital Learning Resources,” available in full at


[6] For an overview of this debate, see  For a discussion of these trends and views of e-text publishing, see Editorial, “That Books Costs How Much?”  The New York Times, April 26, 2008, at; “The Community College Open-Textbook Project Gets Underway,” The Chronicle for Higher Education, April 29, 2008, at; Andrew Guess, “Next Step for E-Texts,” Inside Higher Ed, April 26, 2008, at

John Hechinger, “As Textbooks Go Custom, Students Pay,” The Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2008, at

Svetlana Shkolnikova, “Online Open Textbooks Save Students Cash,” USA TODAY, July 10, 2008, at

Philip Pecorino teaches philosophy and ethics at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.  If you have questions or comments about this article, please contact him at