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Free Textbooks for California

Brown signs legislation to create free open-source digital textbooks for the state’s three higher ed systems

In a step toward improving college access and affordability, California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed into law two bills that will provide students with free access to digital textbooks.

Bills 1052 and 1053, passed last week, call for creating free, open source digital textbooks for 50 of the most widely taken introductory courses among the University of California, and California Community College systems, and creating a state digital open source library to house the texts.

But just how much an impact this legislation will have on students’ out-of-pocket textbook costs is impossible to predict until the texts have been created and made available, says Jason Lorgan, director of the University of California, Davis stores.

“The principles of academic freedom would still be in play,” says Lorgan. “The faculty member would still have to determine if [the material] is appropriate for their course.”

Use of the texts will not be mandatory, so it will take most instructors’ willingness to adopt the textbooks in order for any true impact to be seen. Put into perspective, assuming biology is one of the subjects chosen for a digital textbook, there may be 1,000 intro to biology classes in California, with 40 different textbooks in use in those courses, shares Lorgan. “In the existing marketplace, faculty don’t often agree on what the best content is to teach their students in their course.”

The quality of the texts, of course, will be key for getting open source doubters on board.

“We have very few faculty on our campus that are currently using open educational resources,” says Lorgan. “The number one reason faculty have given is they don’t feel the content is of comparable quality to the textbooks existing in the marketplace now. If the quality is spectacular and faculty adopt these materials in significant numbers there will be a significant affordability impact, but it’s really hard to predict until we see the materials.”

UC Davis was one of the first in the nation to test digital textbooks about seven years ago, and has been offering them as an option for hundreds of courses ever since. But despite an average 40 percent savings over the print texts, 98 percent of students at the university still choose print, shares Lorgan. For those not interested in digital textbooks, the open-source texts will be available in print for around $20, depending on length.

The state is working toward a goal of having the first free books available for the 2013-2014 school year.