New open-source strategy would drop textbook costs to $0

The University System of Maryland’s textbook pilot program stems from a partnership with Lumen Learning, a Portland, Ore.-based company that helps professors access open-source content, tests, graphics and other course materials that they can pull together into an electronic “book.”

Lumen Learning is providing the service for free to the Maryland system and 19 other universities nationwide through grants, said M.J. Bishop, director of the system’s Center for Innovation and Excellence in Learning and Teaching, who is overseeing the pilot program.

Eleven professors at the College Park campus, the University of Baltimore, Bowie State University and Coppin State University are participating, in addition to two institutions not in the state university system: Chesapeake College on the Eastern Shore and St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Scott Roberts, a University of Maryland-College Park professor who teaches an introductory psychology course, started writing his own open-source textbook for the class in 2010 and is participating in the pilot program. Faculty members are concerned about the burdensome cost of printed textbooks, he said, but the alternatives can be complicated and time-consuming.

Roberts estimated that he spent 80 hours pulling together open-source materials for his textbook, working late into the night to write some sections himself when he could not find good material. Before the pilot, he said, he found no centralized place where faculty members could gather open-source materials and relied heavily on Google searches.

He was motivated, he said, by frustration over textbook editions that were “constantly updated with little justification” and by the desire to save students money.

Roberts said traditional textbooks provide some value, but added, “The question is: Is it worth the cost that students are paying for it? If we can get the job done without it, I think we have an obligation to our students to do that.”

Bishop, who said she believes open-source textbooks will become more common, said the Maryland system could develop its own library of quality open-source materials. Still, she noted that quality control remains an issue.

“Anybody at this point can write a textbook and put it out there for consumption,” she said. “It’s still sort of a crapshoot, frankly, if the textbook you just downloaded is going to have the kind of quality that you want for your course.”

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