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California Wants To Legislate Use of Digital College Textbooks

California's Senate is pondering legislation to mandate the development of digital textbooks in order to save college students money. A new bill proposes that the state invest $25 million to create 50 new textbooks, which would be made available free to students in digital form or would cost $20 each in printed form.

The legislation would create a request for proposal process inviting faculty, publishers, and others to develop digital open source textbooks and related courseware, 25 for fall 2013 and 25 for fall 2014. The materials would be placed under a Creative Commons licensing structure that would grant readers free access and also allow instructors to customize the content. The bill stated that material would be reviewed and approved by subject matter experts.

The legislation would also require publishers selling textbooks adopted by faculty for the most widely taken lower division courses to provide at least three free copies of their books to be placed on reserve in campus libraries.

The announcement came in the midst of midyear budget-related "trigger cuts," tied to shortfalls in state revenues. These cuts will automatically decrease allocations to the state's college and university systems. Though the reductions are still undefined, they're expected by administrators to lead to additional tuition increases in the near future. According to a recent report from the College Board, the state's four-year public universities have put in place the highest tuition increases of any other state this year--21 percent, compared to a national average of 8.3 percent. California community colleges saw a 37 percent tuition increase over the same period.

In proposing the new digital textbook bill, California Senate President Darrell Steinberg said that the average cost for textbooks for California college students is $1,300 per year. He's pushing for the state to promote the creation of "open educational resources," books that would be published specifically for the mostly widely delivered courses.

To demonstrate what he has in mind, Steinberg held up a copy of Understandable Statistics, an introductory text used in courses attended by 220,000 students in the state. At Cosumnes River College, he added, the book is priced at $214. (Published by Brookes/Cole, an imprint of Cengage Learning, the book is $225.96 in hardcover and $151.56 in paperback on Amazon.com.) A survey of required materials shows that the particular textbook is actually in use by only one statistics instructor at Cosumnes; the others use less expensive materials. Steinberg then held up an alternative text, Collaborative Statistics, an interactive open digital textbook written by De Anza College instructors Barbara Illowsky and Susan Dean.

One school that has adopted the less expensive text in some of its classes is Lake Tahoe Community College. Instructor Larry Green, who customized the textbook contents for his class, said he recently talked with other faculty using the book. "We were all in agreement; not only was it free, but it was better. We're not willing to sacrifice quality for our students."

Noted Dean Florez, a former California state senator and currently head of 20 Million Minds, a fledgling organization promoting digital textbooks, "[Students] pay way too much. Over $30 million for one book for one course in our entire system makes no sense, when you can go and get the Collaborative Statistics book today. Two hundred thousand-plus students can get it for free and get an enhanced version, and get a hard copy for under $20. That's just one course. Senator Steinberg is calling for 50 courses. You do the math. A $25 million investment to recoup $1 billion a year in savings for our students.... That's a return that no one in this nation can replicate."

One student who supports the idea of free and cheap digital textbooks has created an online petition at change.org encouraging lawmakers and college faculty to support the initiative. Kelsey McQuaid, a student at the University of California, Davis and communications director of California College Democrats, a political network, said she works an additional 20 hours a week to cover the latest round of increases in college charges. McQuaid is seeking 100,000 signatures for her petition. As of Dec. 13, she had 78.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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