Textbooks get a digital makeover

Two proposed bills may change the way students use textbooks

California college students may soon be using the Internet to their educational and financial advantage, with two new bills being proposed in the California senate that would create an open electronic library of the top 50 textbooks used by students.

The bills, proposed by senate president pro tempore Darrell Steinberg, would create Open Educational Resources (OER) in California, giving students digital access to the 50 most common textbooks in the state.

The first bill establishes a call for textbook suggestions from schools, publishing companies or the public, through a “Request for Proposals” (RFP) process. The second bill establishes an open, digital library for the textbooks, which faculty will collaborate and license under a creative commons license.

The creation of the library is a multi-step process that will, in the end, save students several thousands of dollars on textbooks, said Mark Hedlund, Steinberg’s secretary.

“We know that this has been a very tough time for college students,” Hedlund said. “We were looking for any way possible that we might be able to bring costs down.”

Steinberg eventually settled on lowering the cost of textbooks because of the rate that textbook prices have risen over the past decade.

It’s easy for people who have been out of college for several years to forget the cost of textbooks, but for students, it’s become an expensive problem, Hedlund said.

“The cost of textbooks has really skyrocketed,” he said. “My kids used to pay probably somewhere in the $400 to $500 range per year.”

Now, students can pay upward of $1,000 a year just for books, Hedlund said.

The proposed OER library would eliminate much of that cost, by providing the textbooks for the most common undergraduate classes, Hedlund said.

The two bills are currently in committee, where the legal wording is being finalized, and will be introduced into the state senate in several weeks, Hedlund said.

Already, the proposed bills has the potential to make some of publishers’ textbooks worthless, however.

“The publishers obviously are not completely enamored with the concept, but the idea of the crafting of the text is to involve them,” Hedlund said.

With the RFP process, anyone can ask for books, including publishing companies, Hedlund said.

Creating new texts that the publishers’ haven’t copyrighted isn’t the only thing that would keep the costs down for students, graphic communication department head Harvey Levenson said.

Digital textbooks also eliminate the need for costly paper, Levenson said.

“Textbook prices have skyrocketed, and one of the things that a lot of people don’t know is between 30 to 50 percent of the cost of a book is the paper,” Levenson said.

Author royalties, on the other hand, are approximately 10 to 15 percent, he said.

Levenson, who has published his own books for several classes, said he believes most college faculty will be for the idea of the OER library. And faculty at Cal Poly are very aware of how pricey some books are and try to keep costs as low as possible for students, he said.

“I have a book that’s published through the Cal Poly bookstore,” Levenson said. “I could take royalties on it, but I don’t to keep cost down for students.”

But even with Cal Poly faculty striving to keep book expenses low for students, many undergraduates still find current prices too high.

Biochemistry sophomore Trent MacAllister only bought one book for winter quarter — a used one for $80 — but said he was charged more than the book was worth.

“I’ve used it every day so far, but I still feel that’s really expensive, especially for a used book that’s not a hard cover book,” MacAllister said.

MacAllister said he likes the idea of getting certain textbooks for free, but would have trouble adjusting to a digital text.

“It would be really nice to have cheaper ones, but trying to read — especially a textbook — off a computer is hard after a while,” MacAllister said.

How much did you spend on textbooks this quarter?

  • $201-300 (27%, 82 Votes)
  • $101-200 (26%, 81 Votes)
  • $0-100 (24%, 73 Votes)
  • $301-400 (12%, 38 Votes)
  • $400+ (11%, 34 Votes)

Total Voters: 308

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So what your saying is that instead of getting licensing revenue from each individual copy sold, the textbook publishers are going to grant a single “open” license to a school. Why on earth would they do that? That sounds like a good way to go out of businesses.

Look at the price difference on Amazon between a print version of a book, and the Kindle version (for a title still under copyright protection). The price point is within usually a couple of dollars, right? “Hard costs” like paper, ink, transportation, etc. are just a small fraction of the final price of a book. The actual author might only receive a small percentage of the proceeds, but the publisher is taking a big chunk too.

Dr. Levenson, it sounds like GrC needs a new paper vendor if you’re paying that much.