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Open source textbooks

This is a great idea.

The words “free” and “college” aren’t often used in the same sentence, but a philanthropic venture at Rice University is drawing attention for bringing them together.

OpenStax College, a nonprofit publishing organization founded by a Rice professor, offers free online textbooks for the five most-attended college courses in the country. They’re mostly introductory courses that students must take to move on to upper level classes. In some classes, the required textbook can cost as much as $250.

With rising tuition and fees, some students struggle to cover the costs of textbooks and supplies, which also have increased. Students will shell out an average of $1,200 on textbooks this school year, up about 3 percent from last year, according to the College Board, a nonprofit that tracks colleges costs.

“Textbooks are so expensive, especially for community college students,” said founder and electrical engineering professor Richard Baraniuk. “Some drop out because of the cost of learning materials. We decided to do something about it.”

OpenStax’s goal is to save 1 million college students $95 million over the next five years.

About 80 institutions have adopted the organization’s first two titles – College Physics and Introduction to Sociology – since they were published in June. More than 75,000 users have viewed them and more than 40,000 have downloaded pdf versions. Print versions are also available for $30.

Another option introduced two weeks ago is the interactive ibook version of College Physics, which includes graphics, videos and demonstrations. Students can download the textbook on an iPad or iPod for $4.99.


The real question is whether open source publishers are sustainable. Flat World Knowledge, a for-profit open source publisher, recently announced that starting Jan. 1, it will begin charging a fee for online textbooks. The company’s co-founder, Jeff Shelstad, told the Chronicle of Higher Education the move was because of cost and limited capital.

Baraniuk believes OpenStax will be sustainable. The organization is already generating revenue through profit sharing with for-profit companies that offer ancillary textbook features for a fee. It also earns revenue from its print and ibook versions, he said.

We’ve been talking about electronic textbooks for several years now, though it’s taken off slowly. I suppose availability and distribution are part of the reason for that, and if so then this sort of scheme ought to address those issues. It also seems to me that these textbooks don’t need to be free for this to be a success – a donation model, or a modest subscription plan should be workable and should be true to the idea of making these texts affordable to students. I figure it’s just a matter of time before something like this becomes the norm. Anyone out there have any direct experience with this? Leave a comment and let us know.

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