Furthermore, textbook prices are rising at four times the rate of inflation, charges the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs). Twenty-nine percent of students at Daytona State College, a Florida community college, said they'd failed to buy a required book because of the cost; nearly a quarter took fewer classes because they couldn't afford the books.
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Digital texts—interactive and easily updated—will cut costs and improve learning, predicted Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a digital learning conference.
Apple recently launched its digital textbook app, as well as an easy way for teachers to write digital textbooks.
But e-books aren't much cheaper than traditional textbooks, according to the Daytona State study. In one community college course, students saved only $1 per semester by using e-textbooks.
Furthermore, Apple's digital books require an iPad, a device many community college students can't afford, complains Geoff Cain, director of distance education at College of the Redwoods in California. "All I see is an expensive tool designed to lock out poorer students and colleges."
[Read more about Apple's entrance into digital textbook market.]
To radically lower college costs, students need "open" learning materials—e-books, videos, simulations, and more—that are available for free, Cain argues. For example, math instructors at College of the Redwoods created their own e-books, with online tutorials and quiz banks. Students can use the online version or a CD for free, or pay a small cost for a printed copy.
Cain sees students who can't buy their books until their financial aid check comes in, two weeks into the semester. Or they don't buy the book at all. There are media-rich alternatives online, he suggests. Authors often include openly licensed images, audio, or video. "One example, of course, is Khan Academy in YouTube," Cain noted in an E-mail. "Students often find materials in sites like Connexions and Merlot.org to be helpful," he wrote, because they get to see and hear the information their teachers are giving them in written form.
Washington state's technical and community colleges have created an Open Course Library with digital textbooks, syllabi, activities, readings, and assessments for the most popular classes. Instead of buying a $200 chemistry textbook, students can use an open-source version for no more than $30.
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Students in the library's first 42 courses will save an average of $102 per course, adding up to more than $1 million in 2011-2012, according to Student PIRGs. That's more than the cost of creating the materials, Student PIRGs notes.
"The Open Course Library could save students millions, both within Washington state and across the nation," said Nicole Allen, Student PIRGs's textbook advocate.
California may create its own virtual online library. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has proposed funding open source textbooks for the 50 most widely taken lower-division courses. E-books would be free; a printed copy would cost $20.
While textbook publishers question the quality of open-source learning materials, advocates say the new materials will be better.
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"Improved teaching and learning are important benefits of open licensing, perhaps more important than affordability," says Jacky Hood, co-director of the Community College Open Textbooks Collaborative.
Open-source books rely on "a community of authors, revisers, practitioners, researchers, and adapters," College of the Redwoods's Cain writes.
Open Education Resources (known as OER) has a friend in the U.S. Education Department. Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter, a former community college president, has been advocating open-source books for years. Any learning materials community colleges develop with federal job training funds will be released with a Creative Commons license, which means others can use, revise, and "repurpose" without payment.
"This is an effort led by pioneers," said Kanter in an interview with Tom Caswell, who runs Washington's Open Course Library. "It's very easy for faculty to use textbooks that don't have the latest information in them. OER solves that problem. They can add chapters and they can pull down other free chapters from other places in the world. ... I think it gives faculty access to 21st century tools. However, I think everyone's still on a learning curve."
Joanne Jacobs writes Community College Spotlight for The Hechinger Report, an independent nonprofit education news site. Jacobs also blogs about K-12 education and is the author of Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds.