When protesters chant, “No cuts, no fees. Education should be free,” they aren’t necessarily talking about the books students read for their classes. But the very real prospect of a freely available, open source textbook library in California inches public colleges in the state closer to that goal.
Two bills moving through the California State Senate — which advanced through a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Education Committee — will commit resources to the creation of an open source textbook library. If passed by the full Legislature later this year and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, textbooks for 50 of the state’s most popular lower division college courses will be written and made available to students free of charge. When fully implemented, this plan has great potential to decrease student cost and promote an open, educated society.
More than the promise of free course materials, these bills represent a step toward that idealized future in which information and ideas flow unconstrained for all people. Those who dedicate their time, energy and expertise to the creation of textbooks must, of course, be given credit for their research. But prevalent, easily modified open source information only helps the public good and is a goal academics and scholars should all aspire to achieve.
Concerns that this legislation would create a situation wherein the state dictates what professors teach should, of course, be addressed. Educators must retain the authority to decide what texts offer the best material to the students they’re charged with teaching. Therefore, those tasked with implementing an open source textbook library need to keep quality at the top of their agenda.
The idea behind this legislation, too, must expand for it to see success. Simply having free textbooks available for the 50 most popular college courses in California will not suffice for long. If this first set of textbooks proves worthwhile, it is imperative that lawmakers and educators provide continued funding and knowledge required for the library’s growth.
Of the many challenges facing higher education in California — and across the nation — the cost of textbooks is perhaps the most politically easy to allay. While this reality should by no means discourage politicians from making the open source library a reality, students are not occupying and protesting because of textbook costs. Though students will likely be pleased with the creation of an open source library, legislators ought to remember that rising tuition and budget cuts will are the larger systemic issues that must be addressed.