College students may find relief from high textbook prices in a California State Senate bill that would create a free open source textbook library.
State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, introduced a bill Feb. 8 that would fund a library containing open source textbooks for the 50 most popular lower division courses at the state’s colleges and universities. Students could download the textbooks for free or pay about $20 for a hard copy.
On March 3, the bill — which asks for $25 million in state funding to create the open source textbooks — will be eligible for discussion in committee hearings. But that funding request can change as the bill moves through the hearings, according to Steinberg spokesperson Alicia Trost.
Steinberg estimated in a Dec. 13 press release that the library could save nearly $1,000 annually per student. His plan would create a council composed of nine faculty members from the UC, CSU and community colleges to determine which textbooks to produce and develop a peer review process to ensure the quality of the materials in the library.
“We want the faculty to take ownership to make up this oversight board so that we can guarantee the most rigorous quality-based materials,” Trost said. “At the end of the day, you can build the library, but unless the faculty are choosing to use the book, it’s a waste of time.”
Open source publishers like OpenStax College — funded in part by the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, which has been advising Steinberg — have already developed quality assurance programs for open source textbooks.
OpenStax ensures the quality of its materials in much the same way that industry publishers do, according to OpenStax Editor in Chief David Harris. The organization looks to subject matter experts to develop material and to faculty to conduct detailed reviews.
“The reason the books are high-quality is because we are investing nearly as much as the publishers when they develop a new book,” said OpenStax Director Richard Baraniuk.
Some faculty members, such as UC Berkeley associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences Paul Hilfinger, have already begun using open source textbooks.
Hilfinger started using an open source book in his Computer Science 61A class because of rising costs and unnecessary material in print textbooks. He said having students learn from open source material did not significantly affect his teaching.
Varun Rau, a freshman student in Hilfinger’s class, said having an open source textbook was “really awesome” because of its accessibility.
Hilfinger said his move to an open source textbook went smoothly because most of his course material had been online for years.
Still, for faculty members to adopt open source textbooks on a wide scale, they would have to be provided with materials publishers traditionally bundle with print textbooks, according to UC Davis professor and Vice Chair of the University Committee on Educational Policy John Yoder.
At a Feb. 1 hearing of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, Yoder said the quality of supplementary materials — like study guides and online homework systems — is a key factor for professors in deciding which textbook to use.
An October 2009 study conducted by the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education found that faculty valued the supplementary materials, especially as teaching assistance support wanes due to budget cuts.
While Steinberg’s bill specifies that funding be used to develop “related materials” for the textbooks at the council’s discretion, this may be easier said than done.
According to Executive Director for Higher Education for the American Publishing Association Bruce Hildebrand, creating high-quality supplementary materials and providing training on to how to use them would take hundreds of millions of dollars and could take “years to develop and deliver.”
“If (open source textbook publishers) can produce materials that are of equal or greater quality … and if the faculty can be confident that they can do this year in and year out, then the market will decide,” he said.
Curan Mehra covers higher education.