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Originally published April 30, 2013 at 7:04 PM | Page modified April 30, 2013 at 7:04 PM

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Free digital-textbook project drives down cost of college

Washington’s community colleges have expanded a program that is creating low-cost digital textbooks and curricula for the state’s most popular courses.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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A state-funded project to create low-cost digital textbooks for community-college courses has saved students about $5 million in just a few years, advocates say.

The figure represents the cost difference between commercial textbooks, which can cost hundreds of dollars apiece, and free digital books written by Washington faculty members that cover the same subjects.

The project, called the Open Course Library, has employed dozens of Washington community-college faculty members to create textbooks and other curriculum materials for 81 of the most commonly taken community-college classes — like psychology, biology and precalculus. The materials are freely available and open to anyone, not just students in this state.

The project was jointly funded by the Legislature and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with each putting in $750,000 of the cost.

“It’s a really smart investment of state funds,” said Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for the national advocacy organization Student Public Interest Research Groups, during a telephone news conference Tuesday. The group has made reducing the cost of college textbooks one of its signature campaigns; openly licensed textbooks have also gained ground through efforts in California, North Dakota and British Columbia.

On Tuesday, the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges used the news conference to announce it had completed the final 39 courses and related textbooks and put them online, bringing the total to 81.

Allen said her group estimates that open-course materials cost 90 percent less than commercially produced textbooks and other materials, and save students about $96 per course.

Some community-college faculty members have worried that open-course textbooks will be of lesser quality than books they’ve been selecting for years from textbook publishers.

But Pierce College math instructor David Lippman said the materials he helped develop for precaculus and trigonometry have proved to be just as good as the commercial varieties. His students are doing as well as, or better than, students who used commercial textbooks when they took his classes in previous years.

The open-course materials could save students even more money if more faculty members would adopt them, Lippman said. The books and curriculum materials in the Open Course Library aren’t mandated by the state for instructors to use, and “the hardest part is getting faculty to take a look,” he said.

So far in Washington, about 105 faculty members or departments have adopted open-course materials — “a very small number in the grand scheme of things,” Allen said, although she said it can be difficult to identify which faculty members or departments have adopted the materials, and number of faculty using the free resources could be higher.

The state is at a disadvantage because, unlike commercial publishers, it doesn’t employ a sales force to try to encourage open-course adoption, she said.

The books are licensed under Creative Commons, a kind of digital copyright that gives the public permission to share or adapt a work such as a textbook, as long as it is properly attributed to the author.

The Open Course Library books can be used online for free, or students can order a printed copy through a printing service for about $20.

Shaunta Hyde, a member of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges and director of global-aviation policy for Boeing, said the importance of online texts and course materials is underscored by the growth in so-called e-learning — courses taught partially or entirely online.

One of the community-college board’s major goals has been to mobilize technology to increase student access, she said. And e-learning classes have grown dramatically at community colleges in recent years as more students learned they could fit college classes around their work schedules, Hyde said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.

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