How Free Books Could Put an End to One College Cost Problem

College students in Rhode Island will save a collective $5 million a year if a plan to replace traditional textbooks with free materials is effective.

The plan, announced by Gov. Gina M. Raimondo earlier this month, is among a growing number of attempts to encourage college professors to turn to free, open-licensed materials. And, in this case, the effort is being billed as a way to cut the costs of a college education.

At Rhode Island College, a pilot program is already underway. Students who are taking a basic biology course there were able to get the textbook and other course materials for free – saving them altogether an estimated $100,000 this year.

“Today’s college students, on average, spend more than $900 a year on textbooks,” Rhode Island College president Frank Sánchez said in an interview with The Hechinger Report. “That just gets in the way of them staying in school.”

The challenges to wider adoption to this plan include obtaining quality, free materials for the wide menu of course offerings on college campuses, and convincing college professors that this is a good idea. Unlike a K-12 teacher, a professor has the right to choose course materials – it’s not a decision made by the administration. But unlike textbooks hawked by publishers, open educational resources do not typically have the benefit of a sales force with a mission of getting professors to find and pick them.

Most faculty members had a “very positive response” to the idea of open educational resources, Sánchez said. Many had simply been unaware that there are free materials that can function as a $150 college textbook – or, ideally, do more than the traditional book. Digital resources can include videos and interactive materials, along with text. And they can be updated more readily than printed texts.

That’s not to say students must do all their reading on a digital device. Even if students spend money printing out some of the text to read on hard copies, they will typically spend less than they would on a bound book.

To help faculty members learn more about open educational resources, the college is turning to the library. The project intends to harness the expertise of librarians, who are experts in finding high quality information and working with teachers and students. Many librarians are also subject-matter experts who can get up to speed quickly on the best materials in various fields.

Taking the project statewide in Rhode Island could help test whether the concept – and the supports to make it work – could work more broadly.

“Rhode Island can be a lab state because of our size and agility,” said Culatta, the former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Technology who now heads Rhode Island’s office of innovation.

So far, six other public and private universities in the state will participate in the effort, including Brown University, the University of Rhode Island and the New England Institute of Technology. In a statement, Raimondo said the initiative dovetails with her goal of ensuring that 70 percent of Rhode Island residents have at least an associate’s degree by 2025.

The state’s Office of Innovation is spearheading the effort. It will work with other organizations to provide grants, staff training and access to peer-reviewed, open-licensed textbooks.

“Our main goal is to say how can we take nontraditional approaches and use them to tackle persistent challenges,” Culatta said.


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