California Allows Inexpensive Online College Textbooks

Published October 24, 2012

California state university students enrolled in the 50 highest-traffic general education courses will soon have access to cheap, open-source textbooks online.

Until Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed Senate Bills 1052 and 1053 in September, California had not approved online textbooks. Once the textbooks arrive, they can save students between $2,000 and $3,000 in the first two years of college, said bill sponsor Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

“Browse through any college bookstore and you’re hit by sticker shock,” he said. “Textbooks often cost $200 or more… It was mind-blowing that students [had] to spend more on books than on annual tuition and fees at a California community college.”

SB 1052 requires the state to pursue competitive bids to develop the textbooks. It requires the state Board of Education to create a council by April 1, 2013 comprised of California college faculty to develop the course list, accept bids, and review the results.

SB 1053 creates an online library for the materials.

Books $200 and Up
The recession has hurt families struggling with skyrocketing college costs, Steinberg said. Rental and used textbooks don’t offer the same savings as digital textbooks. 

“The proliferation of ‘new’ editions is driven by publisher profits more than by a need to update content,” Steinberg said. “By developing these materials under [open copyright], not only would these textbooks be available for students for free, [they] can be easily updated electronically.”

The council can also approve existing digital textbooks.

K-12 Digital Textbooks
Colleges are moving more quickly into digital textbooks than K-12 schools are because the K-12 market has bureaucratic evaluation processes, and many schools do not have enough computers for all students to use simultaneously, said Joshua Khani, a spokesman for CK-12, a nonprofit open-source textbook publisher.

New initiatives across the country aim to increase K-12 digital textbooks, “especially now that an iPad is becoming more affordable,” he said.

Many K-12 digital textbooks are poorly designed, said David Daniel, a psychology professor at James Madison University.

“There tend to be a lot more distractions in the digital textbooks,” he said. “Publishers are doing everything they can to make sure [digital textbooks] take off, except for doing the research to make sure they’re good learning tools.”

Digital textbooks give instructors the ability to customize learning materials while not impinging on academic freedom, Steinberg said. The law does not require faculty to use the materials.

‘Transitional Period’ 
Research on the effects of digital learning materials is mixed. E-books offer similar learning results, but reading screens takes longer and tires people faster, Daniels said.

“We’re in a transitional period,” said Andi Sporkin, an Association of American Publishers spokeswoman. Opinion studies on digital materials often contradict each other. She says this has happened in every industry hit by the digital revolution.

“The instructors are the decision makers,” Sporkin said.

“If we do not insist upon evidence before investment, the short-term economic savings will end up costing much more than just money,” Daniels said.

Image by the University of Hawaii-West Oahu.