Free textbooks coming for five intro college courses

Many students say they go without textbooks, even when they're required.

College students in five of the most-attended courses in U.S. higher education soon will have free peer-reviewed textbooks available to them as a Rice University-based program looks to save students $90 million in book costs over the next five years.

OpenStax College, a textbook initiative funded by myriad nonprofits including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced Feb. 7 that books for introductory courses in physics and sociology would be freely available to students everywhere, not just on select campuses.

Unlike most open-platform texts—meaning the work is not copyrighted and available to reprint at no cost—the OpenStax College books are peer-reviewed, eliminating a stubborn impediment for professors and instructors who haven’t adopted open textbooks because they hadn’t been vetted like books from major publishing companies.

The physics and sociology books will be available online free of charge and accessible via computer, smart phone, and tablet. Students can order a printed color version of the books for $30 apiece.

OpenStax College books will be alterable for any professor who wants to tweak the textbook’s content to fit his or her course lessons, according to an announcement.

“OpenStax College believes the future of education lies in greater access for more students, and free high-quality books are a key to that,” said Richard Baraniuk, the founder and director of Connexions, the open education platform that powers OpenStax College. “By lowering the barriers for students, we’re creating new business opportunities for the market. … We’re developing a self-sustaining ecosystem of companies that will provide services around our content.”

If 10 percent of American college students use the OpenStax College textbooks, 1 million college students will see about $90 million in savings, Baraniuk said.

Rice’s OpenStax unveiling coincided with a gathering of open educational resource (OER) advocates at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., where the potential cost savings and educational benefits of openly available material were discussed by higher-education officials, technologists, and copyright experts.

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter was the keynote speaker at the OER conference. She ensured attendees that the Obama administration would continue to support the development of OER as a way of reducing growing educational costs—a highlight of Obama’s State of the Union address last month.

During her days as a community college chancellor, Kanter knew of student groups that pooled their money to buy textbooks, ripped the books into pieces, and made copies of those sections for their classmates.

“It broke my heart to see that,” Kanter said.

Kanter joined a panel of campus officials and activists who have pushed for more government and institutional involvement in promoting OER, which has yet to have a major impact in the rising costs of textbooks, although open options have blossomed in recent years.

Nicole Allen, campaign director for the Student Public Interest Research Groups’ “Make Textbooks Affordable” program, told the group of OER advocates that the price of textbooks has risen at nearly four times the rate of inflation in recent decades, and that the costs are detrimental to students’ educational experience.

Six in 10 students at the University of California, Riverside said in November that they forgo purchasing recommended class supplies—including textbooks—because they’re strapped for cash.

And while 60 percent of respondents to the UC Riverside survey said they “skipped buying [schools supplies] entirely,” two-thirds of students said they postponed buying textbooks and other supplies, leaving them without necessary class material in the first weeks of a course.

Eight in 10 students said they spent less money on food to cope with book costs, and 83 percent cut back on going out with friends.

Sally Johnstone, vice president of academic advancement at the online Western Governors University, said during an OER panel discussion at the Feb. 7 event that students’ appetite for free educational material was plain to see.

In a review of illegal downloads made by students using the school’s network when she worked at a traditional university in Minnesota, Johnstone said the Rosetta Stone language program was the most frequently acquired.

“They knew they needed to master that material,” she said.

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