Steinberg pushes free digital college textbooks for California
By Torey Van Oot
The Sacramento Bee
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
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Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg wants to create a digital library of free course materials for California college students.
The proposal, unveiled earlier this month, is bound to be popular with students grappling with rising tuition and fees at California's public colleges and universities.
But the plan faces multiple obstacles. Some professors worry the e-books won't meet their standards, the publishing industry wants to ward off a competitive threat, and the proposal would come at no small cost to the state's chronically burdened budget.
The Sacramento Democrat plans to introduce legislation next year to tap $25 million in state funds to solicit open-source course materials for 50 lower-division courses at University of California, California State University and community college campuses.
He is drawing on a publishing model that has emerged in recent years as a potential solution for a common complaint on college campuses nationwide: textbook prices are too high.
Because they lack traditional copyrights, open-source textbooks can be shared freely and updated or customized by professors.
That means they can be provided to the student at little or no cost. Some estimates peg the annual cost of books at $600 to more than $1,000. Amounts vary depending on courseload and whether such lower-cost options as used or rented, or online texts are assigned and available.
"What we need here is a statewide push to say this is the policy of the state of California, that all students are going to be able to access quality instructional materials at a greatly reduced cost," Steinberg said.
Nonprofits and private companies have developed new platforms for the online, open-source books, rolling out dozens of new titles, including some already used in hundreds of California college classrooms.
Advocates say Steinberg's proposal to commission new titles and put the state's stamp of approval on them marks a major turning point for the movement.
"It definitely has sent a shock wave throughout our world and the publishing world because it's saying there may be some viability to this," said Dean Florez, a former Democratic state senator and president of the 20 Million Minds Foundation, which promotes textbook affordability.
Some in the industry say Steinberg's goal of developing content for 50 courses by 2014 could be a challenge.
Assuring quality for that much material could prove difficult, said Jeff Shelstad, CEO and co-founder of Flat World Knowledge, a publisher of open-source books.
Shelstad, whose company has created about 50 titles since its 2007 inception, said it's tough to compete with the royalties offered by traditional publishing companies.
"One of the things that we've been very successful at is convincing authors that our business model is rewarding to them," he said, adding that very few people will "just sit down and write a calculus book from scratch" with no reward.
Steinberg says he wants traditional publishers, college faculty, foundations and technology startups in Silicon Valley to contribute to the proposed system, submitting bids to create new content.
But getting traditional publishers on board is also problematic.
The industry says it has already made strides in lowering textbook prices, taking cues from consumers to develop new licensing agreements and online content that keeps costs down.
Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, said while textbook producers are not opposed to the idea of open-source materials, they do object "when the government wants to go into competition to become publishers."
"Competing with free is very, very difficult, particularly when it's taxpayer funded," he said.
Hildebrand said publishers' attempts to keep costs down have been proven successful by independent market research and studies showing that textbook spending remains just a small percentage of a student's total higher education costs.
But Steinberg said current efforts to lower costs of textbooks are "too spotty," especially as students in California grapple with rising fees and tuition rates caused by ongoing budget cuts.
While some faculty members have embraced open-source materials, questions about quality and a relatively limited offering remain.
Steinberg plans to address such concerns by creating a new faculty panel to select and review the titles added to the state's library.
The texts, which could be adapted for use in all three of California's public university and college systems, would be available for free online or in print for $30 or less.
Dean Murakami, a psychology professor at American River College, said his main concern is preserving choice for faculty members and ensuring that the new library would offer enough options to accommodate different learning and teaching styles.
"One textbook doesn't serve all the different varieties of students and colleges across the state," said Murakami, who has not yet come across open-source books tailored to the advanced classes he typically teaches.
But Murakami said he welcomes the push to expand open-source options if it means reducing expenses for students.
"I think the long-term benefit is worth the initial investment," he said.