First-year linguistics and psychology student Anya Platt ended up returning her $244 chemistry textbook this quarter because the high cost was not worth its educational value. As the price of some textbooks can rival the cost of a new television or smart phone, it is not surprising that Platt and many other students have forgone purchasing textbooks simply because they are too expensive.
With each new quarter’s classes comes an entire quarter’s new load of textbooks, which can cost students hundreds of dollars. Whether these textbooks are actually read or just act as expensive doorstops until finals week, they still place a large financial responsibility on students already paying thousands of dollars for tuition.
But as books become increasingly available in digital formats, so does the potential to minimize costs of these course materials and increase their accessibility.
Legislation passed in a California Senate committee last week would aim to create a digital library for California public colleges and universities, an online resource housing open source educational resources. Open source materials are published under open licenses and can therefore be distributed online at minimal cost.
These resources would be based on the findings of a California Open Education Resources Council, a council that would determine the 50 most widely taken lower division courses at public postsecondary institutions and then approve the open source materials created for those classes. Though the bill did not state how the council would go about determining which classes to include, and though the focus of classes differs from university to university, the library is still a positive effort to provide low-cost materials to all California public institutions.
This legislation, Senate Bill 1052 and Senate Bill 1053, should be passed to ease the financial strain on students and to allow educational materials to be more widely disseminated throughout the California public education system.
Although concerns about the quality of open source textbooks are valid, and switching to new materials may be a hassle for some professors, this digital open source library may help relieve one of the economic stresses students face.
Though capping the number of classes at 50 may limit the library’s potential, it still marks a good start.
Upper division and more specialized courses require much more varied and specific course materials, so attempting to switch them over to open source textbooks would prove difficult and costly. Also, the lack of uniformity would require the purchase or formulation of thousands of diverse texts, which would not be feasible for this library.
Beyond simply deciding which courses to provide open source texts for, the council would create a system allowing publishers and faculty members to apply for funds to create these digital textbooks and other educational materials for the library to disseminate. By having faculty members from the universities work directly in the formulation of these textbooks, the high quality of materials used in university classes would be better maintained.
UCLA professors, many of whom already write or compile their own materials, should use this opportunity and contribute to open source textbooks. Professors should still be compensated for their work, but with the new library system, students will not have to pay the premium price that they currently do.
Economics professor Mike Sproul, who teaches a popular lower division class, said he currently uses some open source online materials for his class, but quality is always a concern. Despite this issue, Sproul said he would be willing to make small sacrifices on quality if it meant his students could receive the books for free.
Though the open source materials created for this library are likely to be very general in subject matter, individual professors will easily be able to alter these digital textbooks to suit their teaching style and class focus.
Chemistry professor Steve Hardinger said in an email that he does not feel the state has the right to mandate that he use open source materials in his courses. While the proposed library has many merits and would be a useful resource for students and professors, legislators should ensure that professors are not forced to adopt these new materials and have the freedom to choose which textbooks they use for their classes.
On the other hand, if this legislation is passed, professors should at least consider using open source materials in their classes to lighten the financial load that purchasing numerous high-price textbooks places on students.