This article has been edited to include comment from Laine Farley, executive director of the University of California’s California Digital Library.
On September 27, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation which would give undergraduates free access to online textbooks for 50 of the most common courses at California public colleges. (Students can also pay $20 for a hard copy.)
Senate Bills 1052 and 1053, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), were passed with bipartisan support. One funds the open-source textbooks; the other establishes a Digital Open Source Library to host them.
“The current cost of traditional textbooks is so high, some college students are forced to struggle through a required class without the textbook, forced to drop classes or sometimes even drop out of college altogether, Steinberg said in a statement.
According to The Atlantic, the newly established California Open Education Resources Council, which has nine members drawn from the UC, CSU, and community college systems, will create and oversee the book approval process, including choosing the courses, then solicit bids to produce the textbooks in time for the 2013-2014 school year. The Council can also choose to use existing open source textbooks.
Books created under the Council’s aegis must be placed under a Creative Commons license and encoded in XML (or an “appropriate successor format”) so they can be reused, including outside California. Creative Commons’ Timothy Vollmer said this, “allows teachers to tailor textbook content to students’ needs, permits commercial companies to take the resources and build new products with it (such as video tutorials), and opens the doors for collaboration and improvement of the materials.”
“I certainly support anything that helps reduce the cost of textbooks for undergraduates,” Laine Farley, executive director of the University of California’s California Digital Library, told LJ, including this, which she called “an ambitious project.” But the Digital Library isn’t waiting for this initiative. Farley said U.C.’s libraries already “provide a wide range of digital content to students at no cost to them and are working with faculty to make sure these materials can be incorporated into courses.” And as she points out, “In general, at a research university, there is less reliance on textbooks and more on journal and monographic literature, so the usage patterns may be very specific to a discipline or even certain courses.”
Farley doesn’t have data on what percentage of U.C. students are likely to opt for the $20 print textbooks over the free digital versions, but says “other studies have shown mixed results (such as this one).” Some may plump for print because they lack digital devices to use their ebooks on: in 2010, the library conducted a study that found ownership of tablets and dedicated ebook devices was not high compared to laptop/desktop ownership, and even among those who had mobile devices, only 11 percent reported reading academic content on them, vs. 30 percent for non-academic content. However, as Farley pointed out, “the landscape changes rapidly…I suspect we would see a different pattern today.”
Mark Hedlund, a spokesperson for Steinberg, told the Contra Costa Times that fully implementing the program will cost about $25 million, of which only $5 million is already appropriated. The funding comes from the state public college savings plan ScholarShare Trust fund, to be matched by private entities and philanthropy, according to the 20 Million Minds Foundation. The Foundation also created an infographic on the new law’s impact, which can be viewed on INFOdocket.com.
According to the Sacramento Bee, publishing companies which originally objected to the bills eventually withdrew their opposition after amendments removed a requirement that publishers provide free copies of textbooks to college libraries.