'Open source' textbooks provide many benefits


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When Professor Jonathan Tomkin went looking for a textbook to use in his introductory Earth Systems class, nothing was quite right.

He couldn't find a book that he felt was worth the high price tag for students. So he put one together with a few colleagues — for free.

That "open source" book, available online for students to download, doesn't cost them a dime (unless they want to print it for $20 or $30). That compares to the $76 textbook, plus a $30 lab manual, required for Tomkin's geology course this semester.

"It's hard to buy a textbook for less than $100 these days," said Tomkin, associate director of the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment. "I'm a big proponent of open-source textbooks. I think the quality can be really high, and I think they're great for students."

The text, "Sustainability: A Comprehensive History," has been used at a dozen colleges and universities and for Tomkin's popular Massive Open Online Course, which has drawn more than 100,000 students worldwide.

Tomkin co-edited the text with a professor from the University of Chicago, and several other UI professors contributed chapters.

That's fairly typical for an open-source text, said UI junior Matthew Hill, vice president of the Illinois Student Senate. The authors usually reserve some rights to restrict the content through Creative Commons, a nonprofit that provides standardized licenses allowing authors to modify their copyright terms so the public can use their work — stipulating, for example, that the original authors be cited.

Hill represents the UI in the Association of Big Ten Students, which is pushing for more open-source textbooks. The Illinois Student Senate approved a resolution last March calling on the campus to provide incentives for faculty to adopt open textbooks where appropriate. It also supported the Affordable College Textbooks Act, which would create a grant program to fund pilot programs for campuses to create open education resources. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin is a primary sponsor.

"I'm a big supporter of open textbooks," Hill said. "It's cheaper for students, it gives professors a lot of flexibility and you can use the textbook in really creative ways. It's about sharing information, and it can empower people who don't have access to education."

He uses the example of one Physics 101 textbook at the UI that cost $250. He found a similar open-source textbook online "with a lot of the same content." If that were used instead, the 404 students enrolled last semester would have saved a collective $101,000 over the cost of a new book, he said.

Tomkin said professors don't have an incentive now to create open-source textbooks because they're not the ones shelling out $100 apiece to pay for commercially produced books.

And they have incentives from publishers to continue using those materials, which now come with power-points slides, pre-packaged study questions and lots of other support.

But open-source has a big advantage in its accessibility to students who otherwise might struggle to afford books, he said. And he thinks over time it will gain in popularity.

Tomkin is using another free online textbook written by a Cambridge professor for his class on alternative renewable energy this semester.

The UI has developed its own multimedia platform for electronic textbooks and some faculty are using it, said Associate Provost Charles Tucker. It includes video, audio and built-in math notation, as well as voice-over text and other features for students with disabilities, he said.

Startups like Boundless have butted up against mainline publishers by offering texts for free online. The industry accused that company of using proprietary texts and other materials to craft their own products, according to published reports. Boundless settled in 2013, though the terms weren't released.

The Association of American Publishers opposes legislation that would "subsidize" open-source texts to the exclusion of the textbooks and digital platforms that publishers produce, said David Anderson, the group's executive director of higher education.

But he sees room for both in the future, similar to the software industry, which is a mixture of commercial and open-source material. The digital textbook platforms offered by publishers can be customized by professors who may want to include some open-source material, he noted.

"It's not a question of either-or, it's both-and," he said.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).