Both the state and students will save money from a project assembling "open-source" books loaded onto computers.

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Here’s an idea that would take a big bite out of the cost of a two-year college degree:

Gather state community-college faculty members who teach “English Composition I.” Use state and federal grant money to pay them to assemble a top-notch textbook on the subject. Sell a digital version of the book for $30. Ditch the $100 textbook from commercial publishers.

Because they’re digital, books produced this way could be adapted or updated on the fly to fit different classes. The books would be owned by the public, since public funds were used to create them.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

They could lower the cost of a two-year degree, with some studies showing students spend up to $1,000 a year on textbooks.

And the same model could be used to develop books for K-12 classes, and for classes at four-year universities.

The state’s community and technical colleges are leading the way with an ambitious new initiative: They’re assembling previously published “open-source” textbooks and course materials for the 81 most popular classes at state two-year colleges — including for such mainstays as “General Psychology” and “Introduction to Chemistry.”

“The power of this is that we’re going to go from a couple hundred dollars per year [for each textbook] to $10 or $20,” said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who sponsored legislation that set aside $750,000 for the initiative. It’s a robust level of funding, experts say.

“The return on our investment is going to be extraordinary,” Carlyle said.

The open-source textbook drive is part of a larger state effort, called the Open Course Library, to assemble all curriculum materials — including the course syllabus, videos, lecture notes and exams — for the 81 most popular courses, said Cable Green, director of elearning and open education for the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC).

The board is working with a consortium of international colleges and universities to find and assemble the materials — for example, taking pieces from freely available textbooks to create a book suited for a Washington state course. In Washington, about 90 community- and technical-college faculty and staff are involved.

Quarter of total cost

For a community-college student who pays about $3,000 a year in tuition, $1,000 in textbook expenses can make up one-quarter of the overall cost of a two-year degree. The Open Course Library “will fundamentally and significantly reduce the cost of going to college,” Green said.

More affordable textbooks also could save taxpayers money, because the state spends millions every year in financial aid to low-income students, Carlyle said — and some of that pays for books.

Free, open-source textbooks have been available online for years; for example, a widely used text is “Collaborative Statistics,” written by two professors at De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif. Locally, University of Puget Sound math professor Robert Beezer offers a free online textbook on linear algebra.

Online books often lack the smart, professional-looking design of books from major publishers. And they’re not always written by the top names in the field.

But “that’s going to start to change,” Green said. “Big money is coming from foundations now to build textbooks in the highest-enrolled courses.” The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has matched the Legislature’s contribution with $750,000 in foundation money.

“The tide’s turning,” Green said. “Faculty are very excited about this.”

Washington is one of the few states that has put a significant amount of money toward creating an open curriculum, said Nicole Allen, a textbook advocate for the national Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). “They’re putting their money where their mouth is,” she said.

Shared material

The state also is unique in adopting a policy that all of the course materials developed under the Open Course Library be publicly shared and freely available, Green said.

One school preparing to use the new open-source courseware is Bellevue College, which received a $783,000 grant from the Department of Education in October to buy 500 netbook computers and load them with electronic textbooks.

The netbooks are a key to the program’s success because not all community-college students can afford a laptop computer, said Kristen Connely, manager of the Bellevue College bookstore.

A netbook loaded with course materials for one class will rent for $35 a quarter, and could save a full-time student up to $600 a year.

Meanwhile, students at four-year colleges are trying to interest their schools.

Derreck Ross, a University of Washington senior, became involved in the textbook-affordability movement after he spent $150 on an applied-math textbook and used it once. That same year, he purchased a physics textbook he couldn’t resell when a new edition came out.

Ross joined the Washington chapter of PIRG, the student research group, and he and student Christa Davis, a junior, walked door to door in UW’s Padelford Hall in October, asking professors to sign a pledge to consider using open-source textbooks.

Only four professors signed that day. But Ross said he wasn’t discouraged.

University professors generally have been receptive to open-source textbooks, said Allen, with the national PIRG office. “They’re as frustrated as students in many cases,” she said. More than 2,500 professors across the country have signed the PIRG pledge.

The Washington Student Association, an Olympia-based lobbying group that has successfully pushed five bills through the Legislature in the past four years to try to lower the cost of textbooks, also is encouraging professors to consider open-source textbooks.

College textbooks are a $10 billion-a-year market, Green said, and publishers are, not surprisingly, wary of Washington’s efforts. When work first started on the Open Source Library, Green said he met with textbook publishers and tried to secure their cooperation.

“I said, ‘This is not about putting you out of business,’ ” Green said. “We’d love to partner with you. … At first, they said, ‘You’re crazy.’ “

But as publishers realized the state was planning to give away its general-education curriculum for two-year colleges, some began to cooperate, Green said. They began offering to sell electronic versions of texts that expire after a quarter for $30, or offering old versions of books for that price.

The textbooks and curriculum materials are being developed this fall and winter for the first 43 classes with the highest enrollment in the state’s two-year colleges, including English Composition I and II, General Psychology, Introduction to Sociology and Introduction to Chemistry. By fall 2012, textbooks and curriculum materials will be completed for all 81 of the most popular classes.

Sometimes, the best materials for a class may not be textbooks at all, Green said. The Open Course Library will tap into materials from such highly respected sources as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University, which offer free videos, lecture notes and exams.

Green said he expects open-source textbooks will grow as students bring more pressure to bear on faculty members to adopt them.

“Higher education has 200 years of history behind it of doing this a certain way,” he said. “This is very disruptive to that model.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219


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