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With the rising cost of college tuition and debt, many students skip purchasing textbooks to cut costs, risking poor academic performances.

When Christie Fierro, a communications instructor at Tacoma Community College in Washington State, saw students struggling in her eight-week communications class, she decided to ask them about it.

“I discovered that only three of them could afford the textbook," she said. "Textbook expenses are barriers to education.”

And the problem isn't isolated to Tacoma Community College. A 2014 study conducted by the Student Public Interest Research Group found 65 percent of students skipped purchasing a textbook because of cost. Students made the decision knowing it could harm their academic performance.

According to College Board, the average college student in America spends about $1,200 per year on textbooks and supplies. That amounts to approximately 13 percent of tuition at a traditional, four-year university.

Schools across the country are responding with policies that allow so-called open source textbooks, written by faculty, peer reviewed and available for free online to students. Research has shown open source textbooks can potentially lop millions of dollars off the higher-education price tag while improving student engagement with more interactive, digital publications.

“Most institutions using open resources are still in the building stage," said Fierro, who is now a designer and coordinator for open education resources at TCC. "We want to get to a point where there are options where students do not have to purchase textbooks.”

To be sure, the $8.8 billion textbook publication industry and academics who have supplemented their salaries from textbook sales are not ignoring the open source textbook movement. Publishers have responded with a combination of copyright infringement lawsuits and expanding digital alternatives to traditional printed textbooks.

Open resources movement

Ethan Senack, higher-education advocate for Student Public Interest Groups, contends open source textbooks can play a key role in bringing down the high cost of a college education.

"By extrapolating average student savings and applying it to larger segments of the student population, we can predict that open textbooks have the potential to save more than a billion dollars each year," he wrote in a report summarizing his research, Open Textbooks: The Billion Dollar Solution.

Senack said the open educational resources movement began in the late 1990s when educators began to harness the power of the Internet to bring quality content to students and faculty at little to no cost.

The movement has grown since its beginnings, and open source materials are available at all education levels. Currently, more than 1,000 institutions use open resources and more than 3,000 faculty members have adopted open source materials for their classrooms, wrote Senack.

Senack analyzed five programs at universities with open textbook/resources programs. At Kansas State University, students saved an average of $138 per course taught with an open textbook. At the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, students saved roughly $127 per course. The lowest cost savings per course was roughly $111 at Tacoma Community College.

From the data collected, Senack predicted students in the United States would save on average approximately $128 per class that used open resources instead of traditional textbooks.

Cost benefits provided by open resources are only part of the story.

“Open resources allow faculty to involve students in learning in a more engaging way. When I teach now, I have students involved in picking readings. They participate more in class and are more engaged in the learning process,” said Fierro.

Faculty contributions

Students aren't the only ones benefitting from open source, online materials, proponents of the movement said.

Brian Lindshield, associate professor in the department of nutrition at Kansas State University, said the open source program aims to give flexibility to teachers. “We give instructors the flexibility to set up courses the way they see fit. We are open to innovative ways of learning and teaching,” he said.

Andy Bennett, professor and head of the department of mathematics, said he rarely encounters faculty hostile to open textbooks. “A lot more are cautiously optimistic, but the faculty senate did vote in favor of this program,” he said. “the biggest barrier to adoption of open textbooks was a misunderstanding of the purpose and advantages of open resources.”

He said the use of open source textbooks is voluntary.

David Ernst, chief information officer for the University of Minnesota's College of Human Development, contends open source textbooks go through a process of drafting and editing similar to traditional printed textbooks.

At Kansas State, professors interested in participating in writing an open source textbook can apply for grant money intended to compensate faculty for their contributions to the book. Open source textbook publishing companies also pay royalties to authors of open textbooks based on the distribution of their content.

Bennett said the application process is where materials for classes are reviewed, ensuring the quality of the content. He added that faculty can continually critique and update materials in the online textbooks for their courses.

“With (printed) textbooks, once they come out, it is four years before you can fix them. Under this system we can consistently resolve problems with the material much faster,” he said.

The University of Minnesota was an early adopter of open resource learning and now maintains a library of roughly 175 open-source textbooks. In an effort to expand that library, the university is reaching out to other universities to build a network of faculty and other experts who can create textbooks from every academic discipline.

Part of this process is holding workshops regarding open textbooks at universities across the country, educating faculty about what they are and how they can become involved in writing textbooks and open resource materials.

“The pattern is towards rapid growth, but there is still a lot of work to be done,” said Ernst.

Publishers respond

The threat of open source textbooks to traditional publishing industry companies has been taken to court. Boundless, a startup that publishes open textbooks online, was sued by three major publishing companies, Pearson Education, Cengage Learning and MacMillan Higher Education for copyright infringement.

Publishing companies claimed Boundless copied from the plaintiffs' textbooks “hundreds of topics, sub-topics, and sub-sub-topics … even presenting them in the same order, and keying their placement to plaintiffs’ actual pagination.”

Although Boundless argued a company could not copyright topics and ideas, the lawsuit was settled when Boundless agreed to alter the way its products are put together and marketed, reported Inside Higher Education.

Outside of the courtroom, publishing powerhouses are responding to the demand for low-cost customized content by expanding their digital offerings, which cost roughly half as much as their print counterparts to produce.

Brian Belardi, director of communications at McGraw-Hill, explained how publishers are now selling publishing software to enable academic authors to publish online textbooks.

McGraw-Hill’s online publishing platform, Create, allows instructors to create personalized textbooks, incorporate McGraw-Hill materials and content and update the textbook if needed.

Belardi said Create gives faculty flexibility in choosing content but also offers them high-quality, well-researched, trusted content.

“We bring 125 years of experience in the process of learning. Our products go through years of development and we believe in its ability to help students," he said. "We understand students and instructors will want to use a mashup of content and we embrace open technology standards that will allow technologies to integrate with technologies from other sources.”

lcorbly@deseretnews.com