Affordable Textbook Bill Looks to Utilize Internet via “Open Educational Resources”

The Affordable College Textbook Act would allow universities to offer free textbooks via “Open educational resources” which would also make textbooks available to the public, according to bill sponsor Senator Richard Durbin.

According to the bill, S1704, Congress seeks to reduce the cost of college textbooks for students. William Rainey, manager of the University’s book store, said the main issue with the program would be the expense of it. “A typical textbook is multiple years of writing, editing and the important reviewing process which gives it credibility with its users.” Rainey said there have been success open source programs at some universities and states but it was very limited. Another issue Rainey mentioned is where the funding will come from.

The bill states that the average student budget for college books and supplies was $1,200, according to The College Board.  The Government Accountability Office said that textbook prices have increased 82 percent over the past ten years.

The bill cites the need for the “Open Educational Resource which is defined as “An educational resource that is licensed under an open license and made freely available online to the public.”

Rainey said, “My expectation is you will see open sourcing grow slowly but with it there will be a pressure to lower prices of all other texts and publishers will speed up digitalization efforts.” Rainy does warn this may not happen for another five to 10 years. “Everyone wants lower prices and forces such as e-books although not yet embraced in large numbers by students, and the growing rental and internet market have reduced costs on many books over the past three to four years,” said Rainy.

Adam Sharkey, a senior business administration major, said, “Publishers are already making online rentals of their textbooks available for a fraction of the cost of a print edition of their book, it’s just a matter of whether enough people have access to the technology to make it profitable.”

Sara Reiser, sophomore education major believes this bill is a good idea. “Some students only have so much to spend on books and a lot of the required ones total hundreds of dollars. Then they are left prioritizing which books they think are really needed and as a result, they are not meeting requirements for classes.”

Paul Dement, Director of Government and Community Relations, said that both sponsors of the legislation are Democrats. “For the bill to get through the House, it would need Republican support because they hold the majority of seats in that body. At this time, I would not anticipate any movement on the bill unless it gets some support from Republican members of the House,” said Dement.

Rainey said that another issue that may arise is getting the bill passed with bi-partisan consensus on the spending needed for this bill.  Rainey mentions that some books won’t change such as math textbooks but “Humanities and social sciences with their various outlooks are much more problematic. Just look at the quarrels at the state level over the content of certain social science and biology evolution texts in K-12. Rainey continued, “While the decision maker at the University is the faculty, not the school board, the federal government through grants deciding who develops and gets the benefits of ‘free’ college textbooks and what their content will be is the interesting question, so I am saying I think there will be issues beyond just getting ’free books.’”

According to the bill, “Using open educational resources in place of traditional materials in large-enrollment college courses can reduce textbook costs by 80 to 100 percent.” It also stated that federal investment in expanded use of open education resources could help lower college textbook costs.

The bill states that the Secretary of Education will make the grant program which would fund the project, would help expand the use of the open textbook resource. Each University that would want to attempt the open educational resources idea would have to submit an application to the Secretary of Education which would include a description of their program, a plan for promoting and tracking the use of the textbook program, a plan for evaluating whether the program is necessary, a way of review for universities and a way to receive results regarding the program.

The Secretary of Education will give special consideration to schools that  “achieve the highest level of savings for students through sustainable expanded use of the open textbooks in postsecondary courses offered by the eligible entity.” The ways schools can be given this special situation is by producing high quality textbooks; make the textbooks easy to use and adaptable for faculty members; the open textbook resource works with the courses with the highest enrollment at the universities and that campus book stores will assist in the marketing and distribution of the program.

The grant will allowed to assist universities with activities such as professional development for the faculty, creation of the program, development or improvement of the tools to implement the program, research to evaluate the efficiency of the program and partnerships with other entities to assist in carrying out the program.

Access to these open resources are to be made free of charge for the public and must be “easily accessible and interoperable website” which will be identified by the Secretary of Education. It must also be in a readable, digital format that anyone can download, edit and redistribute.

The program must be reported regarding the effectiveness of the program, the impact of the program, the educational resources created under the grant and all the costs associated with the project.

The bill stated, “It is the sense of Congress that institutions of higher education should encourage the consideration of the open textbooks by faculty within the general accepted principles of academic freedom that establishes the right and responsibility of faculty members, individually and collectively, to select course materials that are pedagogically and most appropriate for their classes.”

The Secretary of Education will submit a report by July 1, 2016 to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions for the Senate and the Committee on Education and the Workforce of the House of Representatives reporting the creation of the act, the adoption of the program and the savings generated by the program. The Comptroller General is expected to prepare a report for the same committees examining: the change of the cost, the factors that contributed to the change in costs and the extent to which the program is used and the impact it has on the cost of textbooks.

PHOTO TAKEN by Jacklyn Kouefati