By Charlie Smart

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Al Franken, D-Minn., introduced a bill Thursday to promote and fund the production and use of free “open-source” textbooks that could save money for students at the University of Connecticut.

According to Durbin, the Affordable College Textbook Act will “establish a grant program to encourage the use and creation of high quality open textbooks which are free to use.”

The College Board reports students spend about $1,200 on textbooks and supplies each year. Durbin touted the new bill as a cost saving measure.

“Greater access to these open textbooks will save students hundreds of dollars and put pressure on traditional college textbook markets to open up and be affordable,” he said in a phone conference to promote the bill.

Traditional textbooks can cost upward of $100 each, so open textbooks, which are free for anyone to access online, could help curb the cost of higher education for students and families.

Open textbooks are peer-reviewed works published under an open copyright license. That means anyone can access, use and modify them at no cost.

“There aren’t restrictions on use and access, so open textbooks can be customized and adapted by professors and teachers,” said U.S. PIRG Higher Education Advocate Ethan Senack in a phone conference.

PIRG, a public interest advocacy group, has long advocated for open textbooks and is helping support the bill.
Connecticut has already made strides toward expanding the use of open textbooks.

Textbook prices have risen dramatically in recent years. Sen. Dick Durbin aims to cut those costs through a federal grant program for open-source textbooks. (Image Credit: John Liu / Creative Commons)

Textbook prices have risen dramatically in recent years. Sen. Dick Durbin aims to cut those costs through a federal grant program for open-source textbooks. (Image Credit: John Liu / Creative Commons)

Last summer, an open textbooks bill introduced by State Rep. Greg Haddad, D-Mansfield, passed unanimously in both the house and senate, creating a consortium to help assess and promote the use of such books. The task force includes representatives from UConn and other colleges and universities in the state appointed by leaders in the state legislature.

Saman Azimi, chairman of Connecticut PIRG Students, is a representative on the consortium. “We’ve sort of been talking about what we want to do to educate faculty about open textbooks,” he said.

Azimi said the consortium applied for a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation. “Hopefully a year from now, or a little bit more than that, we can get that grant money to actually start a grant program [for open textbooks] at UConn,” he said.

Though UConn has not yet received any state or federal funding for open textbooks, it has made some progress on its own.

Two weeks ago, the UConn Undergraduate Students Government approved just over $20,000 in funding for the revision and publication of an open-source chemistry textbook written by UConn professor Ed Neth.

Neth said in an email he has worked on traditional textbooks in the past, but he “decided to adapt an open-source one as they’ve reached parity in quality with traditional ones.”

Neth isn’t being paid to write the book. “Though the development cost is being supported by UConn’s student government, the result will be free for UConn and other students to use,” he said.

According to the USG funding bill, the textbook currently used in Neth’s class costs $90 for a digital version and $195 for a hard copy. The new book will be published by the open-source textbook company Openstax and will be available online for free.

Neth estimates the new book will save his students $400,000 over five years. Those savings will increase if other classes and universities adopt the book.

The opportunity for other schools and professors to use and modify open textbooks is an important element of their design.

In 2012, the University of Illinois, in Durbin’s home state, used a $150,000 federal grant to create an open-source textbook titled “Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation.”

“It turned out to be wildly popular,” said Durbin. “It’s been picked up by other schools and by [online education site] Coursera. Some 60,000 students have accessed this open textbook.”

Openstax, the company that will publish Neth’s book, currently offers 19 textbooks for free on their website.

Senack said the Open College Textbooks Act would focus first on funding textbooks that can be used by as many students across the country as possible. “The primary criteria is the number of students that will be impacted,” he said. “So [we’re] looking at introductory level classes having the highest level of impact.”

There is not yet an estimated cost for the Open College Textbook Act.

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., introduced similar legislation in the House of Representatives Thursday.