State Senate advances bills that would create free online textbook library

Nicole Lim/Staff

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In an effort to address the surging costs of higher education for college students, the California State Senate passed two bills aimed at giving students free access to textbooks for popular lower division courses on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 1052 would create the California Open Education Resources Council, which would oversee the digitization of the 50 most popular lower division textbooks. Its companion bill, SB 1053, would create an open source digital library through which students could access the textbooks on computers or mobile devices.

The council would be composed of nine faculty members from the UC, CSU and community college system. The members would create and review the list of the books and establish an ongoing competitive bidding process by which those interested in producing the books could apply for funds to do so.

“As college students and their families struggle with college costs in this difficult time, let’s do what we can with the tools that we have,” stated Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, author of the bills, in a May 30 press release. “Through open educational resources, we can use technology to provide high quality college textbooks at a fraction of today’s costs.”

Originally introduced in February, the bills passed the Senate floor with strong bipartisan support, passing 32-2 and 33-2,  respectively. The bills will next go to the California State Assembly.

The bills would bring down the average annual cost of textbooks in California colleges. The UC admissions website suggests that students budget $1,500 per year for books and supplies.

Incoming ASUC External Affairs Vice President Shahryar Abbasi expressed his support of the bill at face value, but he described it as just another “band-aid” applied by the Legislature instead of addressing the “root of the problem” concerning the costs of public higher education. He said the Legislature is not doing enough to address larger college cost issues such as Cal Grants, cuts to services, revenue generation and tax reform.

Larry Levin, press secretary for state Senator Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, said Hancock has continued to support the bills because they could have a “potentially dramatic effect” by making “college more accessible and affordable to everyone.”

Rebecca Baumann, Hancock’s education consultant, said she saw the measure as a way of encouraging professors to use textbooks from the free source rather than subjecting students to paying for new textbook editions and increased prices.

Abbasi said that even though there are higher upfront costs, “(the move toward digitization) is a good thing … especially for campuses concerned with sustainability such as ours.” For students without access to electronic devices, the proposal grants the ability to buy one of the 50 textbooks in print for $20.

UC Berkeley junior Arta Gharib Parsa said he had mixed opinions about the bill itself, though he shared Abbasi’s view that more efforts should be spent to directly reduce tuition. He said he believes that students would save money through the open source database but was not as enthused about the move toward digitization.

“(It’s) easier to learn when you can flip open a page and physically write on it,” said Parsa.