Free online textbooks becoming a reality

By Tanika Cooper

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) explained the Higher Education Opportunity Act’s (HEOA) new Textbook Provision during a conference call with students and faculty representatives on Wednesday.

Durbin and the other representatives also addressed open-source textbooks, licensed to be free online and affordable to print, and seen as the next big step in making textbooks affordable.

“I think this is the next stop in terms of the debate on textbooks,” Sen. Durbin said about the Open College Textbook Act, a bill he introduced to conference call attendees.

The idea of online open-source textbooks has been around for over a decade. Schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discussed the idea in 1999 and developed MIT OpenCourseWare, which, according to their website, makes almost all MIT’s course materials available on the Web. This idea also came up within community colleges, too, such as the Foothill de Anza Community College, which established Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER) in July 2007.

Durbin’s Open College Textbook Act (bill S 1714), seems to be similar to what MIT and CCCOER have already done. Durbin’s bill would provide grants to colleges and others to create introductory level college textbooks made available online and free to the public.

Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGS) are very supportive of open-source textbooks, and promote the idea in their Make Textbooks Affordable campaign, which Nicole Allen, Student PIRGS textbook advocate, directs.

Allen said open-source textbooks are gaining popularity with more professors writing them and more students using them.

“Already we have evidence that hundreds of professors and thousands of students are already taking advantage of open textbooks,” Allen, also moderator of the conference call said.

A U. Massachusetts-Dartmouth professor, Dr. Steven White also spoke highly of open-source textbooks during the conference call.

About a year ago White, a professor of marketing and international business, tried Flat World Knowledge, a publisher offering open-source textbooks. He gave one of his classes the choice to use the free textbook online or pay for printed material at most White said was $60 as compared to traditional textbooks that can cost around $130-$240.

“Most of the students in my class, I’d say about 45 to 60 percent used the free online version,” he said. “The quality of the text is outstanding.”

White did not have to worry about new editions because he could simply adopt the new version from online. Through the publisher he used, which operates under the creative common license, White customized textbooks for his classes.

“Two of my three classes in the fall will have open-source text,” he said. “All three spring 2011 will have open-source text.”

The topic of discussion on the conference call was of course the new Textbook Provision, which Durbin, Allen, White and a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rashi Mangalick all consented the law was a good change.

The new law contains the following three provisions: mandatory price disclosure from publishers to faculty, bundled material must also be offered unbundled and assigned textbooks must be known during course registration.

White admitted in the past he was guilty of not asking for textbook prices and selecting textbooks based solely on content.

“Professors share students’ concern about cost and generally would prefer to assign less expensive books,” he said. “The new law empowers professor to readily identify lower-cost options that suit their instructional needs.”

White said the new textbook provision will help him make educated decisions.

“I’m looking forward to having this information when I select text,” he said.

Mangalick, also board chair of Wisconsin Student PIRGS, said the new law was a huge victory for students.

“It will help us manage costs now while also lowering prices in the long run,” she said.

Sen. Durbin authored the original version of the textbook affordability act, and to get the revised bill passed, he had to agree to allow textbook publishers two years to prepare for the provisions in the new act, which means students could have been benefitting from the new law back in 2008 when Congress passed HEOA.

“This is an important issue to me,” he said, “and my only regret is we gave textbook publishers two years to phase it in.”

After visiting a couple college campuses and hearing about the rising costs of textbooks, Durbin said he decided to do something about it to help alleviate parents and students stress.

“The Higher Education Act Reauthorization finally gave students access to the information and options they need to make educated decisions about managing for their finances in school,” the senator said. “My Open College textbook Act would go further by using the potential of technology to further improve college access, learning and affordability for all students.”

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