The Academic Success Center at San Diego City College
The Academic Success Center at San Diego City College / Photo by Megan Wood

The New England Primer, first printed in Boston around 1690, is often viewed as the first textbook produced in the United States. It was meant to help kids learn to read the only book Americans of the time really felt was worth reading: the Bible. Among other lessons, it featured helpful (?) rhymes that taught children the alphabet, like “Time cuts down all/Both great and small,” for “T” and “Youth’s forward lips/Death soonest nips,” for “Y”.

Fast forward three hundred years and we’ve realized that reminding kids of their impending death every few sentences may not be the best way to teach. But textbooks have stuck around, and they’ve become big business.  

The industry’s gradual stagnation, however, has forced it to pivot in search of new revenue and solidified its footing in the technological realm — and all the while prices have increased for students. But new approaches to educational materials have emerged and their supporters believe they may be a way to kneecap high costs. Some local districts, and the state itself, are leaning into those changes and beginning to imagine a world where they don’t have to rely on the same old publishers. 

The price of textbooks rose 183 percent from 1998 to 2018 and over 1,000 percent from 1977 to 2015 according to estimates. In the 2021-2022 school year, students could expect to spend between $628 and $1,471 on textbooks and supplies according to the Education Data Initiative.  

Those prices are a burden for many students. As a community college student during the pandemic, I may or may not have turned to open-source platforms of debatable legality which allow students to download PDF’s of books for free (cue the epic, and oh-so early aughts “YOU WOULDN’T STEAL A CAR” anti-piracy ads.) But those solutions aren’t sustainable, especially given some of the digital roadblocks publishers have erected.  

Just three publishers make up about 80 percent of the college textbook market, but, according to estimates, revenue has been declining year after year since peaking at around $12 billion in 2015.  

Faced with that decline, publishers are finding new ways to make money, like pivoting to digital-first publishing with single-use access codes that limit students’ ability to resell books (or score free copies online) and creating platforms for students to turn in homework. But all this innovation comes at a price. These platforms sometimes incorporate subscription models that effectively charge students to turn in homework. 

And the pivot to tech doesn’t stop there. Andy Bird, CEO of Pearson, one of the big three publishers, has even floated creating e-textbook NFTs to use blockchain technology to capture more of the secondary bookselling market. According to Bird, they have a whole team “working on the implications of the metaverse and what that could mean for us.”  

Pearson has also been criticized for collecting data on its users, though the company insists that it only takes data that can be used to improve student learning

The transition to digital has been a long time coming. In 2009, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger pushed for more widespread adoption of e-textbooks, which he claimed would be a cheaper alternative to “outdated” print textbooks. 

Digital textbooks are often cheaper, though they sometimes come with subscription elements like I mentioned above. They also offer a range of other benefits, like incorporating videos or interactive activities and links to other sources on the internet. Critics of traditional textbooks have also complained some textbooks can be outdated by the time they’re printed. E-textbooks allow for frequent updating.  

Still, e-textbooks also have significant drawbacks. For one, they require access to computers. The transition to online learning during the pandemic highlighted the dramatic effect the digital divide — which refers to the unequal access to technology and the internet experienced by marginalized folks and those of lower income — can have on education. The divide actually narrowed thanks to funds dumped into providing students with the resources needed to learn from home by districts locally and nationally, but millions of students are impacted by this imbalance

There are also comprehension drawbacks to e-textbooks. If you’re like me, when you’re finished reading a book it’s often filled with underlines, scribblings, circled portions and highlighted phrases. That physicality helps my comprehension and even though some of those features have been incorporated into digital textbooks, they’re simply not the same. Research also shows, however, that comprehension is generally lower when reading on a screen.  

Open Educational Resources — digital learning materials that are free to students and can be customized by educators — and zero-textbook-cost courses — which are courses that do not require students to purchase additional materials — have gained popularity in recent years.  

E-textbooks often don’t allow reproduction, thereby requiring students to have computers with access to the internet. “Open Educational Resources give you so much more flexibility,” said Nicole Allen, the director of open education for SPARC, a nonprofit that advocates for equitable education systems. “It’s much more possible to create offline copies, print copies — students have a lot more choices.” 

But transitioning away from traditional textbook driven curriculum to zero-textbook-cost courses that may utilize Open Educational Resources isn’t always easy — or cheap. So, California has directed funds to steer educators, and specifically community colleges in that direction. 

In 2016, the state appropriated $5 million to a Zero Textbook Cost Degree Grant Program. It resulted in 37 new zero-textbook-cost programs at 19 community colleges in areas ranging from political science to precision agriculture technology and more than four hundred courses. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that allocated $115 million to developing more zero-textbook-cost courses across community colleges (though the distribution of that money has been held up for months.) 

And last week, the San Diego Community College District announced it was awarded nearly $1 million in congressionally directed funding via Representative Scott Peters to develop around twenty zero-textbook-cost courses. But this isn’t the SDCCD’s first foray into zero-textbook-cost courses. In the fall 2021 semester, 241 of its courses across its four campuses were zero-textbook-cost courses, and 1,178 of them did not require textbooks at all. That amounts to approximately 29 percent of the district’s courses. 

Carlos Cortez, SDCCD’s chancellor is bullish on this transition. 

“We believe we’re on the cusp of really making major inroads at eliminating textbooks,” he said. 

They’ll never eliminate them altogether he said — some industry certification agencies require certain textbooks be used in instruction for example — and the change won’t come overnight, but Cortez believes the district can gradually make them less and less of a part of the average student’s experience. 

“Increasingly, teachers and professors have been working collectively to create (Open Educational Resources) or online textbooks that they’re then making available to one another,” Cortez said. 

That material, which can incorporate all manner of media and free resources, “is often much more relevant because it’s created and tailored along with the instructional experience,” he said.  

There may not be an immediate draw for someone who’s been teaching, say, automotive repair for thirty years while using a standard textbook, Cortez said, but when that teacher realizes the cost of said textbook has been prohibiting some students from taking the course, the alternative becomes much more attractive.  

The Content Bouncing Around My Mind Palace 

What We’re Writing 

  • Three years later and the fallout continues from a story Will Huntsberry wrote about doctors granting vaccine exemptions for reasons that didn’t line up with medical guidelines. According to California Medical Board records, five more doctors listed in that piece were recently charged with issuing improper vaccine exemptions, Huntsberry writes. That brings the total up to sixteen locally and twenty-seven statewide. Most of the charges against doctors — and all in this case — are related to writing vaccine exemptions for children with familial histories of autoimmune disorders. Vaccine skeptics claim they can trigger autoimmune responses in those susceptible to them, but the vast majority of studies don’t support this conclusion. 

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @jakobmcwhinney. Subscribe...

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