Editor’s note: Today’s post is by Liz Gabbitas, who works at the J. Willard Marriott Library, at the University of Utah, where she focuses on reducing the cost of higher education for the University’s 32,000 students. In addition to the Espresso Book Machine mentioned here, she manages the library’s course reserve service and its collection of textbooks and course materials. In this guest post, she reports on a collaborative effort between the library and a faculty member to create an affordable alternative to a high-cost Arabic textbook. 

College textbooks are expensive. In most industries, a more expensive product is also a higher quality one. However, in college textbook publishing this may not be true. In the following case study, an instructor at the University of Utah on the hunt for better materials for an entry-level Arabic language course came to the library looking to create a solution. This article explores the resulting workbook, the collaborative process, and the future of course materials like this one.

Page from old arabic book showing arabic script

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), textbook costs to students have increased by 82% over the past decade, three times the rate of inflation. It’s now estimated that the average undergraduate at a state institution pays $1,250 per year for course materials. This cost has become so high that 65% of students report they have decided not to purchase a required textbook for a course. Of those students, a whopping 94% reported concern this decision would negatively impact their grade. Clearly, we have a problem.

The 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act requires textbook costs be disclosed to students at the point of registration. At the University of Utah, this is addressed by asking instructors to submit their official course material adoptions to the Campus Store, which then lists these materials for students. According to the Campus Store’s adoption records for Fall 2017, language courses at a 1000 level — the university’s freshman level connotation — had an average total required material cost of $206. The course with the highest cost required $395 of materials, again for an entry-level language course. These numbers don’t include recommended supplementary materials, such as dictionaries or study guides.

My work in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah allows me to talk about textbook options with professors as they make their selection for an upcoming semester. When I bring up Open Educational Resources (OERs) or other non-traditional materials, the most frequent protest is that the quality of these materials will always suffer compared to textbooks offered by major publishers and that this will in turn hurt their students’ learning experiences. In this case, data proves that claim false.

What We Did

During the summer of 2017, Arabic instructor Marie Groberg approached the library about her course materials for the entry-level Arabic course she would be teaching in the fall. The previous two semesters she had taught the class using one of the most widely adopted textbooks for beginning Arabic. However, she was dissatisfied with this and other entry-level Arabic language learning texts available in the marketplace. Her own research in second language acquisition and the pedagogy she had developed through her teaching career led her to believe there was a better way. Groberg had a broad, new vision which included a novel way of approaching the alphabet and she needed materials to support it.

I manage the Marriott Library’s Espresso Book Machine (EBM), a product of OnDemand Books which provides print-on-demand services to the library, the university, and our larger community. It’s a tool the Marriott Library has used for a decade to archive theses and dissertations and allow our University Press to make back titles available on demand. As a self-publishing service available to the community, it’s also a channel to subvert the traditional publishing game.

In our first conversations, Groberg and I quickly saw the EBM would be the perfect avenue for this project. It allowed us to run copies quickly and cheaply, which meant the instructor would be able to run proofs and then test things like the calligraphy exercises she had created before assigning the workbook. The final cost would also be low, making this manageable for students.

The instructor created a compilation of assignments and reference materials, all her own original work. One of the most important elements was the presence of calligraphy assignments. As part of her learning plan, Groberg guided the students through proper techniques as they learned the alphabet. This required special pages with a heavy paper weight and carefully designed handwriting ruled lines. She and I worked together on design and formatting to meet all these needs. Without any external impetus, this was a direct author-library collaboration.

Goals of the Project

Groberg and I were excited about this project for different reasons. Obviously, her main goal was to fill a gap in the existing literature. I can’t say why there is only one widely-used textbook for teaching Arabic in higher education, but the method she developed using her own research on second language acquisition wasn’t supported by this existing textbook. Her theory was that non-Latin alphabet languages have a different acquisition process for students whose native language is Latin alphabet-based than the process for learning a second language with the same alphabet, a major implication for all instructors of what the US National Security Education Program consider “critical languages”. This workbook was a step forward in her own scholarly work.

My goal was rather different. Seeing students visit our Course Reserve offerings on a daily basis in an attempt to save money on textbooks, I wanted to see how low we could keep the cost to students and still provide quality material. Our pricing structure for self-publishing projects on the EBM is quite low; because the library views self-publishing resources such as use of the EBM as a service rather than a revenue for income, patrons pay our cost instead of a markup. I hoped with this pricing model we would be able to keep the costs low for students.

From a broader perspective, I had another goal. We needed to create this material quickly. It had to be ready to print for Groberg’s Fall 2017 class, a few short months from when we first started talking about it. Although faculty members do sometimes approach the creation of custom course materials far enough in advance to rely on the great resources available for this sort of project, more often they come to me two days before the semester begins and expect to create something new. This project gave us a chance to try something fast but not unreasonably so.


After proofs had been approved and before the semester started, the instructor gave me the expected enrollment for her Fall 2017 Arabic 1010 class and I printed enough copies for her students. When her enrollment unexpectedly increased due to late registrations, I was able to print additional copies on demand thanks to the Espresso Book Machine. Charging only our costs to print the books, as is our library policy, students got this workbook for $9. This is radically cheaper than the marketplace alternative. Again, the average cost of course materials for a 1000 level language course at the University of Utah is $206. These students spent 95% less than they would have with a traditional textbook or online access code.

We didn’t go into this project planning to compare the materials in any quantitative way. Fortunately, the University took care of that for us. Students are given the opportunity to provide feedback on their courses and their instructors at the end of each semester. Since this same instructor taught Arabic 1010 in the Fall 2016 semester using the beginning Arabic textbook with the largest share of the market, we can analyze student responses between the two semesters to directly compare the materials.

One question on the standard survey asks about the overall course content with the statement “The course content was well organized.” Students using the new workbook in the 2017 class were 55% in strong agreement, compared to the previous year’s 20%. This could support the argument that a custom-made course material better fits the instructor’s specific needs.

Furthermore, the survey asks specifically about course materials. Of respondents using the new workbook, 82% agreed or strongly agreed that “The course materials were helpful in meeting course objectives,” an increase from users of the previous textbook at 60%. This supports the argument that the new $9 textbook was of equal or higher quality than the standard marketplace option. In this case, cost and quality of the material do not correlate.

Conclusions and Recommendations

There’s a lot of noise about the cost of higher education, including textbooks, and there are a lot of seemingly opposing solutions. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the conversation. But this is one answer.

Textbook prices have increased by 800% over the last 30 years. It’s hard to believe and even harder to assert that their quality has increased to the same extent. Meanwhile, this workbook cost students $9, a major savings. It was a slapdash, print on demand workbook with no critical assessment or review process, and it received better student responses than the leading marketplace alternative.

There is a lesson here for everyone with a stake in educational materials. If an instructor can spend one summer creating something more effective than the leading textbook in the marketplace, we had better get behind these instructors. And who is better equipped to support rough-and-ready course material alternatives than libraries, universities, and publishers? If 65% of students are choosing to completely forego purchasing a required course material due to the cost, then the current system has failed. It’s time to wake up to the radical alternatives instructors are creating and start supporting them.

Liz Gabbitas

Liz Gabbitas, works at the J. Willard Marriott Library, at the University of Utah, where she focuses on reducing the cost of higher education for the University's 32,000 students.


22 Thoughts on "Guest Post — Low Cost Textbook Alternatives: Worth the Effort?"

This is an important and interesting article. But there are other ways of reducing the costs of textbooks. In 1993, for example, I persuaded each of seven third-year students at Keele University to write a chapter for a textbook on learning for the following year’s second-year students, and this was produced and used ‘in house’….
More details are available on request (j.hartley@keele.ac.uk)

Not really….Each student wrote a chapter as part of their coursework. The completed text was printed in house and sold at a modest price by the university bookshop.

I’m wary of any solution that proposes to help cash-strapped students by exploiting other students for free labor.

Very interesting. I wonder if she billed for her time, did the library bill for their time? Was the material reviewed, copy edited, etc?
I have found that if one does not include all the costs than things are cheap!

Since all the costs of an academic library (including the salaries of its employees) are underwritten by the university, library staff don’t typically bill students or faculty members directly for the time spent assisting them on research or other projects.

Even if the library doesn’t bill for their time it would have been interesting to see what the result would have been in a like for like textbook development scenario. Interesting read though.

What license did you use? Does the resource have a Creative Commons license or is it copyright protected?

In this case, the instructor chose to keep the copyright protections in her name rather than a creative commons license since she planned to continue developing the resource with future classes. If this felt more like a final draft perhaps she would have considered a Creative Commons license.

Liz mentioned using a different paper stock for the calligraphy exercises in the book. Is that actually possible with an EBM? I was under the impression that the specs on the paper were very specific and a different stock would not only affect the binding due to a change in spine width, it would also impact the effectiveness of the glue.

There is a much more affordable introduction to Arabic textbook and it’s published by Georgetown University Press. It isn’t even close to the $206 quoted here. The paperback is $75.95 and that includes ancillary digital materials. http://press.georgetown.edu/book/al-kitaab/al-kitaab-fii-tacallum-al-carabiyya

There are quite a few university presses who publish textbooks that are not only affordable but also maintain the high-quality standards UPs are known for. It might be useful for faculty to look beyond Pearsons & McGraw-Hill when considering course materials for campus use.

We do a lot of custom printing on our EBM, somewhat outside of the recommended guidelines. Since we have rebuilt a number of mechanical components over the years, we have adjusted our print processes. This project wasn’t too different from our most frequent print settings. I can’t say whether it would work as well on an out-of-the-box machine.

You make a great point about considering options outside the Big 5. The Al-Kitaab book you mentioned is a high quality work at an affordable price, but it didn’t fit the specific approach Groberg wanted to use, which is what started this project. I could see the work Groberg created as a precursor to a UP offering, similar to Al-Kitaab. For instructors with specific needs but without the time or resources to create something of their own, a university press textbook may be a much better fit.

This, is a very nice thought. It would, of course, require that sufficiently many instructors with the capability of preparing a material of such quality are willing to forgo the possibility of earning money by publishing a traditional course book.

Also, virtually all course books started as a course material of this kind, and then a publisher got involved, so I’m not entirely sure what you mean by including publishers in the list of providers of rough and ready course materials. It sounds more like what you are building is an argument for cutting out publishers… which sounds like a great idea. I think that universities could fairly cheaply compensate at least some of the loss of author revenue by salary bonuses for teachers who can show that they press down costs for their students. Now that I’ve thought about it, I’ll definitely try to introduce that idea at my university.

Harvey, I am not with you on this. These experiments are valuable, and the goal–better teaching materials and lower prices–are to be lauded. I agree that it is unfortunate that so much activity in libraries is wrapped inside financially dubious analysis, but we should cheer on the development of new materials.

Ah, I forget that many work in countries where students pay directly for admition and tuition… do forgive a Scandinavian. I meant “drives down the literature costs for students”.

You’re definitely correct that writing a textbook and publishing it through a traditional publisher is more lucrative. However with the full slate most professors face, the time demanded is prohibitive. I recently heard from another university which implemented an ingenious solution: they created a course material for a large enrollment class by assigning sections to faculty members as the equivalent of one course assignment. The faculty members had a semester to work and were compensated as they would be for teaching a course. That’s another idea I’d love to see tried at my own university.

I was delighted to read this post. Anything that lowers the cost of higher education is to be welcomed. In my view this post has two components: a description of the creation of a new text, written by an author with a strong interest in pedagogical methods, and a discussion of the cost of commercially available textbooks. For the first component, what can we offer but praise? But the second component is a red herring. The financial analysis is simply not adequate to make the comparisons asserted here. To identify just one of dozens of questions: what is the depreciation schedule for the Espresso Book Machine?

As a business model, I would never argue that the Espresso Book Machine is sustainable. It exists as a library service, not a profitable enterprise. Even beyond depreciation, I didn’t take into account staff time, library overhead, and not-insignificant maintenance costs. Maybe it is flawed to compare a library service to a private sector publisher.

I recognize these types of works would be better suited to a University Press, where they could receive more attention and be offered to a wider audience. However, I believe the use of the EBM in this case is what made it work. Without the ability to run drafts easily and cheaply, it would not have been finished in time for the needed semester, and the whole project would have been scrapped.

I think what you did was great, and I think the use of the Espresso Machine was smart. My objection is that there is no need for publisher-bashing.

In such an undertaking, staff competence is key. That is certainly the case at this specialized library, where the librarian is my colleague Leonard Chiarelli, a distinguished scholar of medieval Arab history. Ideally, however, one would hope that something suitable could be found among existing books in print.

We are seeing related trends in K-12, driven primarily (but not exclusively) by pedagogy. Larger school districts are looking to customize materials, especially in ELA, to make the readings relevant to the students. For example Washington DC created a curriculum with complex, relevant texts and DC-based readings designed to meet its equity goals. Publishers in this market are increasingly chunking their content to meet ever more granular requirements for adoptions.

In Higher Ed, there are of course still course packs.


Interesting post, which I really enjoyed reading as always good to see the issues around textbooks raised and potential solutions offered. There have been similar “experiments” in the UK, with a JISC funded project enabling librarians and faculty to work together in this way. It was successful on some fronts, but also had difficulties not least in getting faculty buy-in and around issues of sustainability and any longer term offer. I have two main thoughts around this and indeed wider library activity in textbooks.

Firstly activities of the kind can work well, but I think only really in the more niche subject areas, where often a “textbook” is recommended rather than core, which tends to be the case in the main textbook heavy disciplines such as business, law, medicine etc. The academic has to really passionate about her/his subject and there needs to be a real gap where no similar or cost-effective provision already exists. In the other disciplines I mentioned an alternative text book offer usually exists and whilst these can be expensive, faculty are usually willing, if not always happy, to use and recommend. There is also then less push on them to self-publish or author a textbook in the way described here. The other issues at play, touched on in other comments, are there is a)always a cost associated with this kind of activity(though sometimes hidden) usually from faculty and librarian staff time and b)in many research intensive universities, the faculty member wont be granted time or disposition to author such works as research outputs take priority

The second point relates to role of library in the whole textbook supply and acquisition process. Rising student costs and providing cost-free access to students are certainly key drivers for libraries (amongst a host of others). Whilst we do have a key role in Open Textbooks and wider OER (ideally through working collaboratively with consortia bodies and other libraries) my view is that our most pressing priority is to ensure access to our students to these textbooks through library based e-textbook programmes using our leverage and expertise with publishers and within our institutions to secure wider unrestricted access to textbooks for our students. This is a critical role libraries can and should play.

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