Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo announced last week that seven of the state’s colleges will begin using open-licence textbooks this school year in hopes of saving students at least $5 million over the next five years.
Textbook costs, which have risen 1041% since 1977, continue to increase more than the three times the rate of inflation every year. On average, students can expect to spend an average of $1,300 on textbooks and supplies, depending on what type of institution they attend, according to College Board.
Open-licensing makes textbooks free to share and adapt under Creative Commons. While students can download digital copies for free, the initiative will mitigate costs associated with hard copies by placing the burden of production on states or colleges.
Some of the textbooks will be sourced through OpenStax, a nonprofit based at Rice University that offers open and free access to textbooks covering STEM and the humanities. Students can download PDFs from the site for free or order physical copies printed at cost through Openstax’s Amazon or resellers.
While some places — like California, British Columbia, and Washington — offer grants to professors who decide to make their own open-licence textbook, Rhode Island will give “micro-grants” to professors as financial incentives for the time they spend finding new textbooks to incorporate into their classes.
The micro-grants range in the “hundreds of dollars,” a spokesman for the Rhode Island governor told Business Insider. Professors are also urged to adapt or suggest edits to parts of the textbook to better suit their curricula.
And while there are thousands of free textbooks out there, professors won’t go it alone in finding them.
“We’re in the process of training librarians in the schools that have decided to join the initiative,” Rhode Island chief innovation officer Richard Culatta told Business Insider. “They will already be familiar with the open-licence books that are already out there.”
Curtiss Barnes, a product and design manager at Pearson Education, the biggest publisher of textbooks in the UK and US market, isn’t convinced of the program’s viability though.
“There are real costs in developing the materials,” he told Business Insider. “Even if you’re crowdsourcing it, there are practical issues around who’s going to do it. Are they compensated, are you relying on your instructors or your faculty to develop them? Are they trading off research time, teaching time, or both? And who’s going to maintain that?”
While the initiative may have its doubters, the current numbers show sizable interest.
For example, the number of textbooks available on the Open Education Resources Commons, another open textbook site, reaches the tens of thousands, making the website a Wild West for free textbooks. Professor and college administrators face the difficult task of making sense of these policies and turning them into an operational business — even if the promise of less expensive education is tantalising.
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