Open source textbook bill passes state Legislature

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].