California Bill Pushes for Free Online College Books

Every year, the average college student pays about $1,100 for textbooks alone. At this point, most textbooks assigned by college professors average around $150 each. That's almost the same cost as the course itself at California community colleges.

But the free, open-content movement that's been percolating for the past few years may change all that for the three million college students in California.

At a time when rising tuition costs are compelling students to reconsider buying college texts or even rethink the value of a college degree, the California State Legislature is pushing for colleges to use open education resources in the form of free online textbooks instead of print books as a means of saving students money.

State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is proposing a bill today that will allocate $25 million of state coffers to create 50 free online college book titles that teachers can use, remix, add to, or edit as they see fit. The bill establishes the online California Digital Open Source Library, which will house the 50 most commonly used books for required lower-division courses. Similar to Flat World Knowledge, students and teachers will be able to access and adapt the texts online for free, or pay $20 for either printed form or interactive app form for tablets or mobile devices (think Kno or Inkling).

The bill calls for a request for proposal (RFP) to be submitted from all content providers, electronic platform providers, as well as publishers, that will fall under a Creative Commons license, which means it's open for reuse and repurposing (not copyrighted like most print books). A panel of expert faculty members would approve the content to make sure it meets the right standards and qualifications.

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California follows Washington state, which in a similar move earlier this year, developed a plan for an Open Course Library that will contain online texts for the 81 of the most popular courses with a $30 price cap.

Though college textbook publishers do offer online versions of their books, teachers complain that the costs add up once you include printing hard copies and other ancillary features, like interactive tests. What's more, the online versions are only available for one academic quarter. "I find the publishers' online offerings nothing more than the old ancillaries they've always offered bundled up in a proprietary system," said David Lippman, a math teacher at Pierce College to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

For forward-thinking college professors, being able to customize class curriculum from different sources can be liberating. "Using resources from all different kinds of sources and making them relevant to students can be really powerful," said Carmel Crane, instructional technology manager at St. Mary's College. "Teachers naturally pull from different resources to piecemeal a curriculum together and take it to the next level. Technology makes things more accessible and a more rapid transformation is taking place because of that."

But when it comes to creating content for open use, Crane said the issue gets sticky. "Some faculty are concerned with rights of research they've worked so hard to accumulate and establish," she said. "Publishing has been a source of income for faculty, but the industry has been turned on its head."

Crane said some faculty are hesitant to make their content available freely not just because of cost but because they're concerned about what happens to their research after it's been released. "If it can be changed in any way, they're worried about what happens to their reputation as a researcher," she said.

Una Daly, the communication college outreach manager at Open Courseware Consortium says teachers want to collaborate, but they haven't been supported on the college level. "There's a lot more that needs to be done to support instructors," she said. Though some do go above and beyond their given responsibilities to create content, "that's tough."

"In order to make it sustainable, teachers need to be respected and rewarded for that work," she said.

The first prototype of the interactive open digital textbook that models what Steinberg is hoping to recreate in California is Collaborative Statistics, written by Barbara Illowsky and Susan Dean, faculty members at De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif. The book is found on Rice University's Connexions repository, which contains 1,100 open textbooks. Developed by the 20 Million Minds Foundation in collaboration with Kno, the PDF of the book is free, but students can choose to pay $20 for the interactive app on the iPad through Kno, which features live links and videos.

A big player in the creation of the Steinberg bill is Dean Florez, who's a former state senator and now the founder of 20 Million Minds Foundation, a nonprofit that receives support from the Gates, Hewlett, and Maxwell Foundations.

"We need to think of a model that will completely change the way we do things," Florez said.

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