Open source textbook bill passes state Legislature

Joe Wright/File
Joe Wright/File
Joe Wright/File

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A set of bills that would create an online library of free electronic textbooks was passed by the state Legislature last week — an effort aimed at alleviating the burden of rising textbook prices for students at California’s public postsecondary institutions.

Senate bills 1052 and 1053, which are awaiting approval by Gov. Jerry Brown,  legislate the development of an open source library of electronic textbooks for 50 of the state’s most popular courses. The bills were introduced in February by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and has been formally endorsed by the University of California.

The open source library will allow students to download textbooks for free or pay around $20 for a hard copy.

Beginning in January, the Intersegmental Committee of the Academic Senates, a body that represents faculty from the UC, CSU and California’s community colleges will begin appointing representatives from the three institutions to the California Open Education Resources Council, which will determine what courses will have texts in the library.

Operational costs for the council are projected to be around $450,000 annually, according to an Aug. 28 analysis of the bill by the Senate Rules Committee.

The ongoing costs are in addition to initial startup costs for the library that Steinberg’s press secretary Rhys Williams estimated would hover around  the “low millions.” The total estimated cost for implementing the bill was listed at $25 million in the Aug. 28 analysis but has since been removed in amendments.

Five million dollars have already been appropriated for the project from the state public college savings plan ScholarShare Trust fund, but the council must raise an additional $5 million in funding from private entities before it can tap into the savings plan money, according to Williams.

Assemblymember Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks), who voted against both bills in the state Assembly, said that the new policies could potentially threaten academic freedom.

“We should be encouraging business and allowing the free market to drive new, innovative ways to deliver course curriculum, not creating new government entities to drive competition out,” he said in a statement.

Both bills received unanimous approval in the state Senate last Friday but met with more opposition in the Assembly, where the vote was 63 in favor, 16 opposed and 1 not recorded.  Representatives from the governor’s office said Brown has not indicated whether he will sign the bills.

“This is a great victory for students and middle class families struggling with the ever-increasing costs of higher education,” Steinberg said in a statement released Friday. “This is a major step toward using technology to cut costs for students while enhancing the quality of higher education in California.”

The Association of American Publishers, which initially opposed the legislation, withdrew its opposition after the bills were amended Aug. 20 to remove a section requiring publishers to provide three copies of used textbooks on reserve in campus libraries at the state’s public colleges and universities.

“AAP does not oppose open source material, but we don’t support state funding for it, particularly when private industry, foundations, investors, entrepreneurs and others have already spent more than $500 million developing and producing open educational resources for college and university students across the country,” said Andi Sporkin, vice president of communications at the AAP.

Despite coming out in support of the bill, in a July 20 letter UC officials expressed concern about the cost the bills might levy on campus bookstores, which would most likely observe a drop in book sales if online material were made available for free.

UC Berkeley professor of physics Richard Muller, who teaches the popular campus course Physics for Future Presidents using a textbook he wrote himself, said he is concerned about the quality of open source material.

“The books I pick I consider the best that I can get for what I teach,” Muller said. “Sure, you can get some books for $20, but is that worth doing if the textbook you’re going to get is mediocre?”

Still, UC Berkeley sophomore Shannon Axelrod, who said she spends around $300 for textbooks per semester, is eager to see a wider book availability for students as a result of the bills.

“Even if someone wants to read a textbook that’s not for their class, they would be able to do it,” Axelrod said. “It ties into the whole idea of Berkeley as an open campus.”

Justin Abraham covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected].

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  • OpenTextbookAdvocate

    “We don’t oppose open textbooks, we just oppose finding ways to produce them.” Way to show your lack of integrity textbook lobbyists! Good thing there are already 80 textbooks offered online for free through Flat World–a commercial publisher. Many more on the way through government and charitable organizations as well.

    • Guest

      Which is why it’s not entirely clear what purpose this serves, apart from enriching state bureaucrats. As far as I can tell, this $25 million is not going towards writing books, it’s going to paying the salaries of a bunch of people doing god knows what. The truth is, if open-source textbooks were any good, a lot more professors (and students) would be using them. A lot goes into making a commercial textbook, and things like high-quality technical illustrations or good problem sets are not easy or cheap to produce. So far, the free stuff that I’ve seen is wildly variable in quality, and not really suitable as a primary book for a course.

      • OpenEdAdvocate

        I’m prone to agree. The government created textbooks are usually lackluster at best. Have you tried commercial publishers like Flat World? In addition to their stellar books in Psych, Econ, History, and Sociology, the Composition textbook Writing Spaces and the Art History (both indies) book are also quite good.

      • David Diez

        “The truth is, if open-source textbooks were any good, a lot more professors (and students) would be using them.”

        Nope. Teachers don’t pay for the books, and few consider price when selecting a book. If students are required to pay for a book that a teacher uses in the course, then why would students seek out alternatives?

        The textbook market isn’t an actual free market. The people who need and pay for the resources don’t actually get to choose them.

        • Guest

          I have no idea why you think that. First, professors generally choose the book they think will work best for the class. After all, if you are paying a few thousand dollars for taking the class, it makes no sense to pinch a few bucks on the books. Sure, price is not the primary consideration, but if an open-source book was truly the best for the course, they would use it. If it’s not the best for the course — then why use it? It makes little sense to use a sub-standard book just to save $50 when you are paying $1000+ for the class.

  • Calipenguin

    I’m a huge fan of open source and also a critic of wasteful government bureaucracy. Why does it take $25 million to get free textbooks? Projects like CK-12 already distribute open source textbooks, including Calculus. Open source books and books whose copyrights have expired can be found all over the Internet. But I guess California Democrats love to re-invent the wheel, especially when they can get their relatives and friends a piece of the action.

    • Demican

      Good Point. But this is not a Democrat vs. Republican thing, so stop it. :)

      • Calipenguin

        I have my own criticism of Republicans on this issue as well. Republicans mentioned in this article respect academic freedom and don’t want the government to stifle innovation and competition, which is important even in academia. However, I believe certain class subjects are so basic that an open source textbook would be just as good as one written by a professor teaching that course, so there’s no need for students to pay for information available for free from the Internet. The bottom line is if a professor truly believes a copyrighted textbook is necessary for his class then who are we to second-guess that professor? But if he or she cares enough about student finances then a “good-enough” open source textbook is appropriate. If the professor wants to modify parts of the book to reflect recent events or provide alternative points of view, he has the right to do so since the book is open source. I know this isn’t a partisan issue but whenever I see Democrat politicians start a new bureaucracy I get suspicious, especially when the problem has already been solved.

        • feh

          Yup, the problem of overly expensive textbooks, has definitely been solved dude.