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Open textbooks catching on in higher ed

Several institutions are making a new push to provide students with free or very low-cost textbooks
Matt Zalaznick
University Business, January 2014
An open textbook produced at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona.
An open textbook produced at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona.

As higher ed revolutions go, open textbooks may have been pushed below the surface by the technological tidal wave that is MOOCs. But several institutions are making a new push to provide students with free or very low-cost textbooks.

SUNY Open Textbooks posted its first two digital titles—written by SUNY faculty—in October and is preparing to release dozens more, says the program’s director, Cyril Oberlander, who is also library director at SUNY Geneseo.

“A lot of faculty authors want their textbooks to be free or low-cost, but they really want copy-editing and peer reviews services,” Oberlander says.

The open textbook program can provide those services, thanks to an initial $20,000 grant from the SUNY system and contributions from four of its libraries. The first two titles, Natives People of North America by Susan Stebbins, and Literature, the Humanities, and Humanity by Theodore L. Steinberg, can now be downloaded—by anyone who’s interested—from the program’s website. The 13 books still in the editing stage range in subject from math to writing to web development, Oberlander says.

The program recently received a second, $60,000 grant to produce up to 15 more textbooks, Oberlander says.

In a broader initiative, Rice University’s OpenStax College, which launched in 2012 at the Houston institution, is developing free digital textbooks for the nation’s 25 “highest-impact courses”—meaning the most popular classes or those that require the most expensive materials, says the program’s founder and director, Richard G. Baranuik.

Textbooks on physics, sociology, biology, anatomy and statistics have so far been published through the Connexions site, which also was created by Baranuik, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice.

“The textbooks are written by the same kinds of authors who write textbooks for major publishers,” Baranuik says. “The material goes through several layers of peer review and testing to make sure it’s high quality before it’s published.”

The books posted so far have been adopted at more than 360 institutions and used by 53,000 students. They also are available on Apple’s iBooks platform, with enhanced navigation and study features, for $4.99 a piece. OpenStax has been funded by a number of philanthropic foundations.

Rising costs appear to be having an even bigger impact at two-year colleges, where textbooks can cost more than tuition and it is not uncommon for students to take courses without even buying the books.

The math department at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona, which only uses open resources for its six courses, has produced its own textbooks for arithmetic, introductory algebra and intermediate algebra. The books are free online for anyone to download. Because these are workbooks, students are often required to have hard copies printed—but that only costs between $15 and $26, says Math Department Chair Donna Gaudet.

“We’ve been able to save students about 85 percent of their costs on their materials,” she says. “Since fall 2012, we’ve impacted the lives 6,550 students.” The savings could be about $655,000, considering textbook costs average about $100 per student.

The college partners with a local publisher to print the open textbooks. Since the math department switched to only open resources, the purchase rate for textbooks at the college bookstore has risen to more than 85 percent, from less than 50, Gaudet says.

“Our goal is to provide our required resources for students at as low a cost as possible,” Gaudet says. “Free is best.”

The books have been developed over the past five years by members of the math department and peer reviewed locally. One of the books is now in its second edition while the other two have reached third editions. The college purchased copies of the books for its instructors with a grant from an organization called College Open Textbooks, which consults with public institutions and private entities looking to publish open textbooks.