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New Bill Aims to Provide Free Electronic Textbooks

Legislation seeking to create an open source textbook library for the California’s colleges and universities passed the State Senate Education Committee in its first hearing yesterday.

The two bills, introduced by State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Senator Elaine Alquist, would offer students solace from the rising price of course materials by allowing them to download their textbooks from the open source library for free or purchase a hard copy for around $20. The bills would establish a nine-member council representing the UC, CSU and community colleges to decide which books are offered.

The council would invite faculty and publishers to develop open source texts, which would exist under a Creative Commons license, and develop a system for peer review to assess the quality of the online library’s materials.

According to Senator Steinberg’s Press Secretary Mark Hedlund, the program will initially provide course texts for the 50 most popular undergraduate courses in the state’s college system.

“One reason for [developing the library] is that everybody has to take these core courses and these would be the textbooks used by the greatest number of students,” Hedlund said.

The bills are modeled on the success of small-scale digital libraries at schools such as Rice University in Texas and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Although the proposal requests a budget of $25 million from the state, Senator Steinberg and his staff estimate that the system could save a student around $1,000 annually in textbook costs.

Betty Johnson, a third-year political science and psychology major, said she spends nearly that amount on textbooks annually, despite purchasing many online and occasionally renting books.

“[I spend] anywhere from $200 to $350 depending on the quarter and the classes I’m taking,” Johnson said. “I think that they charge way too much for textbooks and I would appreciate it if they could find a way to make it less expensive for college students.”

UC Committee on Educational Policy Vice Chair John Yoder, a plant science professor at UC Davis, said the bills provide an indirect way to offset the state’s ever-decreasing contribution to higher education.

“The state has been giving less and less per year, so this may be a way to mitigate the budget cuts that the state has put onto the university,” Yoder said.

According to Yoder, the project could also revolutionize the teaching process within the state by making it easier for instructors to collaboratively construct the content of course materials.

“It will have an impact in two areas: one is, of course, on cheaper textbooks and [the second is that] the textbooks should be easier to modify and keep up to date,” Yoder said. “I think it will help the academic purpose of teaching. It helps in the cost but also in the instruction.”

While the open source library will provide viable alternatives to more expensive texts, it will not be mandatory for instructors who wish to continue using current textbooks, Hedlund said.

“The council would identify the books that should be a part of this and basically oversee and give approval to the texts to make sure they meet the very high standards that we have for our colleges and universities,” Hedlund said. “[But] this bill does not require faculty to have their students use these digital textbooks — we don’t want to step on academic freedom — but it gives them the option.”

If passed, the open source library would become law in January 2013 and the system would likely be implemented later that year, according to Hedlund.

“It will take some time to get the process up and running, [but] we’re looking toward the future and the near-future in particular, so we’re hoping that as many students as possible will benefit from this,” Hedlund said. “Every little bit helps, and so the whole idea is to try and provide as much relief as possible in whatever creative ways we can.”

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One Comment

  1. It’s a commendable decision. I did my BS in India where the only good thing I have to say about the education system there is that textbooks are very affordable. They have economy editions of all key texts, and other than lacking color, they are identical to the US editions. I got my PhD from UCSB and the first two years were terrible financially. I spent 1000s on textbooks I’d never need again. As a former TA and soon to be lecturer, I believe this will be a major step forward in undergrad pedagogy, having watched in near-agony as my students struggled to make sense of snippets of info from lecture notes instead of logically structured arguments from acclaimed texts, an advantage I enjoyed as an undergrad.

    The only problem I see is that writing a good textbook requires a mastery of the subject above and beyond what the average prof would have, even at a great university like UCSB. To wit, the standard grad textbook in quantum mechanics used in engg and mtrls depts throughout the country was written by Prof. Herbert Kroemer, UCSB, Physics Nobel 2000. And in my personal opinion, writing a textbook is an all-or-nothing proposition: it must be outstanding in organization, clarity and ofcourse accuracy, or it is no better than a bunch of photocopied lecture notes.

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