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Free Textbooks From Rice OpenStax

July 27, 2016

Students and educators agree: textbooks are too expensive. While educators can request exam or desk copies, students confront textbook costs at the beginning of each and every semester. In my experience, the more expensive the textbook, the less likely students are to purchase and use it. That taxes class discussions—try discussing a text when students are working from PDFs or photocopies of dated editions—and it offends educators’ egalitarian sensibilities. Most of my colleagues do not want to contribute to our students’ college debt.

I have great gratitude for the labor required to produce effective textbooks, and I would not want to see those laborers displaced or devalued in a race for savings. But perhaps there is another way to promote that good work and to protect the pecuniary interests of students.

One such alternative—and a promising one at that—is a platform developed by Rice University. Since it launched in 2012, OpenStax has produced 20 textbooks in everything from anatomy and physiology to US history. By the end of next year, OpenStax intends to add five more textbooks to the 20 textbooks it has produced thus far, including for astronomy, microbiology, and American government. As open educational resources, each and every textbook is free—you read it correctly, free—to view, download, and modify as you wish. All content is sourced by publishing experts and vetted by dozens of peer reviewers, and textbooks can be viewed online, downloaded as a PDF, or purchased as an iBook or traditional print textbook. This year alone, nearly 392,000 students relied upon OpenStax textbooks, at a savings of almost $100 per student.

If this sounds too good to be true, you aren’t alone; I, too, was skeptical. I spoke with Nicole Finkbeiner, associate director of institutional relations at OpenStax, to learn more about the platform, its foundational support, and its future plans. While I don’t suspect that OpenStax will drive down the costs of all textbooks—at the moment, the group is focused on introductory texts—the platform is worth watching. OpenStax is an exciting alternative because it provides high-quality open educational resources (OER) textbooks as well as the support mechanisms through which institutions can promote their adoption.

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