New strategy would drop college textbook costs to zero

USM holds pilot in which students use free 'open-source' textbooks put together by their professors

  • UC Berkeley junior and integrated biology major Steven Ilko shops for textbooks at the student store in Berkeley, Calif., Jan. 27, 2014.
UC Berkeley junior and integrated biology major Steven Ilko… (Kristopher Skinner / MCT )
March 22, 2014|By Carrie Wells, The Baltimore Sun

Holding a whiteboard, the University of Maryland, College Park students scrawled their complaints and posed for a picture.

"My name is Justin and I spent $114 on ONE textbook," a student wrote. "My name is Jeff and I spent $736 on textbooks," wrote another.

The images, posted online by the Student Government Association in recent months, are designed to highlight the rapid rise in the price of college textbooks over the past decade. This semester, the University System of Maryland is exploring ways to bring that cost to zero with "open-source" electronic textbooks — the latest experiment in changing the way students in Maryland and across the nation are taught.

Unlike electronic versions of textbooks sold by publishers, open-source textbooks are made up of materials gathered from various sources and are not protected by copyright. They are often designed to be interactive, with links to source material and multimedia elements. The materials are licensed openly, so anyone with an Internet connection can access them.

A pilot program, which the university system estimates is saving 1,100 students a combined $130,000, is the latest in a shift on the nation's campuses toward digital learning. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California State University system and the Washington State college system are among those that have built libraries of free online course materials in recent years.

Still, open-source textbooks, which have been around for several years, face challenges and have not caught on broadly.

"I don't know if it's transforming higher ed yet," said Craig R. Vasey, a member of the American Association of University Professors who uses open-source materials in his logic class at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. "I think the textbook publishing business is still doing very, very well."

In fact, the textbook industry is also working to offer cheaper alternatives to hardcover textbooks and even partnering with open-source textbook providers.

Educators at all levels are still figuring out how to best use technology in the classroom. For example, Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance announced recently that the district would aim to place a tablet or laptop in the hand of every student within five years.

The pilot program is part the University System of Maryland's recent strategy to emphasize online learning. The system is also expanding its online-only course offerings. And this spring, the University of Baltimore launched its first online course open to anyone outside the state. The university system is also experimenting with "course redesign," in which more course material is presented online and class time is restructured to focus more on discussion.

Although the open-source textbook concept has been embraced by student groups such as the Student Government Association in College Park, university officials say the challenges include connecting professors with the materials they need for the textbooks and creating a system to assess the quality of the books.

Another complication: Many universities are bound to contracts with private companies to run campus bookstores, where many students purchase their textbooks. University System of Maryland financial records show that the bookstore contracts are not always lucrative, however — last year the system lost about $1 million.

Some students and a growing number of professors and university administrators say the cost of printed textbooks outweighs their usefulness. Textbook prices have risen an average of 82 percent between 2002 and 2012, about three times faster than the rate of inflation, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

High textbook prices are "quite ridiculous," said Jesse Fox, president of the University System of Maryland Student Council, which lobbied system officials to study open-source textbooks. Fox, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, added, "The only reason this is the case is textbook companies can do this. There's no check and balance."

The College Board estimates that the average college student spends $1,200 a year on textbooks, and the costs are often higher in fields like science or mathematics. The costs strain budgets as families struggle to pay for higher education, and sometimes students opt not to buy textbooks or put off purchases until late in the semester, which can jeopardize their grades, according to student groups, advocates and administrators.

"The traditional model of textbook is like a game of 'Survivor,' " said Meenu Singh, a College Park student coordinating the textbook cost awareness campaign for the Student Government Association. "It becomes a game of outwit and outlast: Let's see how long we can last the semester without having to buy the textbook, or outwit by trying to buy cheaper editions."

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