|A group of educators will meet at Foothill College this week to begin studying how to encourage widespread adoption of free online textbooks.
Funded by a $530,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources hopes to ease the burden on students who routinely pay $150 for clunky, hard-bound books, according to Judy Baker, dean of Foothill Global Access, an online-learning program.
The majority of grant money will go to the consortium's new Open Textbook Project, a collaboration with other schools and educational groups already using Web-based books to study the long-term feasibility of switching to online books, she said.
The project hopes to overcome financial and practical snarls that have sidelined attempts to move learning online so far, she said.
The consortium, awarded the Hewlett grant in March, was founded by the Foothill-De Anza Community College District last summer at the urging of Trustee Hal Plotkin, Baker said.
Plotkin was horrified to see students short-changing their education because of pricey books, she said.
Some students can't afford traditional textbooks and simply don't take classes, she said.
Foothill professor Robert Cormia, who has used online books for at least three years in his informatics and nanotechnology classes, said many pupils can't afford to buy the second or third textbooks for a class, including valuable study guides.
While attending community college is generally considered inexpensive, at $20 per unit in California, Cormia said book prices can reach into the hundreds for each class.
Yet high textbook prices are an unnecessary burden, Baker said.
Price hikes frequently stem from small, arbitrary changes made by publishing houses solely to rake in more profits, she said.
Salespeople from publishing companies visit schools offering "the latest [and most expensive] edition, when all they'd really done was flipped a few chapters around and added a few pictures in there," she said.
The ever-newer editions create a pattern of forced obsolescence that thins student wallets without adding value to their education, she said.
The Open Textbook Project aims to change that, she said.
This week, consortium members — including representatives from community-college districts throughout California and the nation — will meet with online-learning advocates from institutes such as Rice University's online-book database Connexions to tackle the multi-faceted project, she said.
While some books exist online now, there are several obstacles to widespread adoption the project hopes to surmount, she said.
One major barrier is the lack of standards against which all online books can be judged, she said.
Online books, also referred to as "open textbooks," are often written by individuals without a formal editorial process, she said.
Community-college professors can't easily gauge the books' credibility, nor do they know whether four-year schools will accept them as valid for transfer credit, she said.
The consortium will team up to draft standards and create a system of peer review, she said.
Another problem with Web-book efforts to date has been relative isolation among online advocates and adherents, she said.
Web-savvy professors often deal with only students at their institution, lacking a resource for connecting with colleagues, she said.
"All that valuable knowledge is locked up on those campuses. How can we share that and distribute it?" she asked rhetorically.
The Open Textbook Project's Web site will act as a master clearinghouse for the information, pointing professors to each others' work, she said.
The site's choices will also help professors actively steer their courses — rather than relying on a set selection from a publishing company, she said.
"We want faculty to take ownership of their own curriculum, deciding what kind of content students should get rather than the publishing industry driving the decision by default," she said.
It shouldn't be tough to convince professors to begin posting their documents on the Web, she said. They make little money from writing traditional textbooks versus the time they put in, particularly community-college professors, who gain less prestige from publishing than four-year-school colleagues, she said.
Yet Web-book programs have also faced money troubles — they fail to grow into a useful resource without a good financial model, she said.
The Hewlett grant requires the consortium to present a long-term financial plan next spring to show how it can stay afloat, she said.
The Monterrey Institute for Technology and Education will help create the plan, she said.
The consortium will also conduct a feasibility study on different types of online books, such as Wikibooks, which are completely open to comments and collaboration, or a closed subscriber model for each university, she said.
Online books wouldn't necessarily force students to study off of a computer screen, she said.
Rice's Connexions allows users to print out PDF files or save them to a CD for store printing, she said. It costs $10 or $15 rather than 10 times that much, she said.
Connexions representatives will be on campus this week, advising on the creation of the master Web site, particularly on accessibility for impaired students, she said.
Cormia said Web books work better than traditional books.
Students can easily find the small pieces of information they need at a given time, rather than wading through dense chapters, he said.
While group-written Wikibooks sometimes contain errors, their plain, straightforward language is better for many students than the technical, dry tone of traditional tomes, he said.
That's particularly the case for the diverse range of community-college students, from those who speak English as a second language to adults re-entering school, he said.
Online books, whether group-effort wikis or not, are more frequently written out of passion or interest in the subject, rather than pressure from a publishing house to contribute a chapter, he said.
Beyond pedagogy, the simple act of putting knowledge on the Web reaches to the core of democracy, he said.
"Informed people make better decisions, period. If we want to improve the lot of society, you need to make zero barriers to access," he said.
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