Thursday, 27 August 2015 15:01

Are We Witnessing the Death of the Textbook?

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Speak to any post-secondary student about the cost of their studies and it won’t take long until the conversation turns to expensive textbooks. The costs of educational textbooks are ballooning, adding to the significant debt and stress that already overbears the student population.  The exorbitant cost has led students to seek alternatives or even to attempt courses without the required texts at all. This has led to a rising chorus of voices to ponder: Are we witnessing the death of the textbook?

Those of us who have left post-secondary for the workforce and then returned to add to our credentials would not be wrong in believing that the already significant cost of textbooks are even more than we remembered. In America since 1970 the cost of textbooks has risen three times faster than the rate of inflation (Economist).

This rapid rise in textbook costs begs the question: Why are textbooks so expensive? When an instructor is tasked with choosing a textbook they are most often looking for the latest and greatest to best serve their students. These just so happen to be the most expensive options as well. This is an incentive to publishers to retool their texts into new editions as often as possible in order to make more money. Subsequently this has also led to a barren market for used textbooks, as courses demand these latest editions. The market has been so flooded with used textbooks that many second hand bookstores will refuse even a donation of them.

For the amount students are paying for textbooks there is an expectation that they will be used significantly throughout a course or there will be a feeling of being scammed. It is common to hear comments about the purchasing of an expensive textbook, only to have the instructor require only a chapter or two for course readings. This puts unnecessary pressure on the curriculum of programs to be shaped by the costly textbook instead of what is best for the learner.

In an effort to relieve the financial burden of textbooks educators are turning more and more to Open Educational Resources in place of traditional textbooks for their courses. Open Educational Resources are educational materials that exist in the public domain. These are freely (and legally) copied, distributed, and adapted.

For more information on Open Educational Resources: check out our past introduction article to the topic.

In Canada recent legislation has allowed for educational use of portions of any published work. This legislation has helped to change the way that post-secondary institutions deal with copyright licenses. Now, instructors who wish to keep course costs low, have more options when using resources. Fair use has essentially reshaped the educational landscape in Canada taking some power away from the publishers and allowing for some financial relief for students.

While it may seem as though paying significant costs for textbook is a sort of ‘right of passage’ for post-secondary students, the perspective in education is changing, viewing student debt as a social justice issue. Post-secondary instructors are becoming more conscious of the burden of textbook costs and are working to not only provide students with the best resource, but also ones that make financial sense. While the future of textbooks remains uncertain, the way in which we access and utilize them is definitely changing.



Nelson, L. (2014, December 19). Three reasons college textbook prices are out of control. Retrieved from

Otani, A. (2015, February 27). Student Groups Pressure Colleges Over the Insane Cost of Textbooks. Retrieved from

Ross, T. (2015, March 6). The Death of Textbooks? Retrieved from

Taylor, D. (2014, April 16). What is fair dealing and how does it relate to copyright? Retrieved from

Why textbooks cost so much. (2014, August 16). Retrieved from

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Kyle Snowdon

I am an instructional designer focused on creating the best possible learning environments for students, as well as supporting instructors with their visions for their classrooms. My educational interests focus on mobile devices in the classroom, as well as digital literacy and digital citizenship for students.