A college undergraduate spends an average of $1,200 on textbooks a year, enough to buy about five pizzas a week for the entire fall, winter and spring semesters.
It’s no wonder that free “open textbooks” are spreading fast on college campuses across the country.
“I’m in a lot of biology classes and those books can cost $300 or $400 a piece,” said Katherine Semler, a freshman biology major at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She’s from Blue Springs and receives financial aid to help pay tuition.
“If I could get some of my books online for free that would really help me.”
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Getting an open textbook is easy. Students go online to the Open Textbook Library website or their university’s open textbook site and select the subject area for their course. Books there are produced and licensed at no cost to the university.
These textbooks can be read online. Or, for students like UMKC freshman Austin Sackman, who prefers to read from paper, they can be downloaded and printed and in some cases bound at the university book store for a fraction of the cost of a commercially produced textbook.
“I would definitely do that,” said Sackman, an accounting major from Platte City. “I’m a college student. I’m always broke. The last book I bought cost $100.”
Getting a book that normally costs $100 from the open textbook library and then getting it bound at the book store might run you $20 or $30.
Fort Hays State University in Kansas is one of the many schools where several professors have chosen to use open textbooks for some of their courses. Professors say they’d like to see the practice spread further still.
After all, said David Schmidt, an assistant professor of informatics at Fort Hays, “teaching is about sharing knowledge, not draining students and families of every last penny.”
Schmidt said that by using open textbook materials he could save a total of $54,400 for the 1,360 students who will take his course this academic year.
Open textbooks are books licensed through Creative Commons, which makes them accessible to anyone for free. A professor could decide to use an open textbook for a course, and even modify an existing one so that it better fits his course.
“I think that it is a great idea” Schmidt said. Using open textbooks, “is encouraged at the top” at Fort Hays State. “I think that is mainly for the good of the student, not for the good of the faculty because faculty could write text and get money.”
There is no money in open textbooks for faculty members. But it’s still a published work, said Schmidt, who has written some open textbook supplemental materials he plans to submit for Creative Commons licensing.
As for quality, Schmidt says, open textbooks are reviewed by faculty from a variety of colleges and universities to assure they meet standards for common use.
These free texts are already in use by about 15 percent of the nation’s two- and four-year private and public universities, including Kansas State, University of North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Penn State, The Ohio State University, the University of California-Berkeley, Temple, Rutgers and the University of Kansas.
Missouri schools, including the University of Missouri, UMKC, Missouri State University and Northwest Missouri State, among others, belong to MOBIUS, a consortium of Missouri libraries, which this summer joined the Open Textbook Network.
In June, University of Missouri System President Mun Choi announced that all four system campuses in Kansas City, Columbia, St. Louis and Rolla would participate in an open education program that makes textbooks and class materials available online at a lower cost.
“High-quality, affordable education is central to our mission as the state’s public higher education institution,” Choi said in a June 21 statement. “By providing open-source and affordable textbooks, we are meeting the needs of our students by lowering their costs and increasing their access to the resources that will help them be successful on our campuses.”
Experts in open education say open textbooks are a major part of the movement fueled by a national conversation around the rising costs of higher education and the changing demographics of today’s students.
“More lower-income bracket students are going to college today than ever before,” said Josh Bolick, scholarly communications librarian for KU. “So you see universities around the country starting to pay more attention to cost issues.”
KU two years ago joined the Open Textbook Network, which is a part of the Center for Open Education.
“At KU we have a fairly broad initiative moving toward more use of open textbooks,” Bolick said.
He said KU is focusing its push for open texts on “the people who assign the textbook because that’s where we stand to have the greatest impact on student savings.”
Research shows that a significant number of low-income students assigned to buy a traditional high-cost textbook might try to get by without purchasing a book at all.
But if a professor assigns an open textbook, Bolick said, “then 100 percent of the students taking that course save and it’s more likely that 100 percent of the students taking the course will access the text.”
Connor Thomas, a UMKC sophomore from Washington, Mo., is studying business law and found “some law books I need are $500 apiece. But sometimes it is just too expensive. I have forgone buying it and tried to pull a book from the library or borrow a book from someone.”
The research also shows, Bolick said, that one-third of professors are not aware of the expense of the course text.
“When a marketer knocks on a professor’s door, and they do, and says by the way have you seen the latest edition of our books, they don’t also say by the way it costs $300.”
At the Center for Open Education open textbooks can be found in the Open Textbook Library in subjects ranging from accounting and finance, to economics, engineering, law and medicine among other study areas.
Bolick said there is also a push to get more professors to adopt, adapt and create open textbook materials. He and other supporters of growing open education resources travel the country telling professors and administrators about open textbooks.
In Missouri, campuses are just beginning to train people to send out and encourage professors to join the open textbook movement.
“It is very exciting,” said Scott Curtis, Open Education Resource coordinator at UMKC. “It is extremely new and anyone in teaching now is curious about open textbooks.”
But he said, those doing the training have to be able to show professors a good, compelling reason to use open text books and they have to assure them, Curtis said, that they would be using quality materials.
“At first we were seeing some resistance,” Bolick said. “But I think they are beginning to see that this is a reality moving forward and it can not be ignored.”