The Growing Adoption of Creative Commons Textbooks

Ten years after its creation, governments are turning to the Creative Commons license to reform their education programs.

College students in the aisles of the Georgetown University bookstore.
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The philosophy behind this goal is simple. "The public should have access to what it paid for," says Green."Free access and legal access to what it bought. The tagline is 'buy one get one.' If you buy something, you should get access to it." And it shouldn't come as a surprise that Creative Commons activists have identified education materials as a prime target for their view. Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York announced that student loan debt had surpassed auto loans and credit debt, coming in at an estimated $1 trillion. And a not-insignificant contribution to this burden has been the rising cost of textbooks.

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A 2008 California State Auditor report found that the average annual cost of college textbooks was up to $905, and the costs are increasing at four times the rate of inflation. According to the report, textbooks can comprise 60 percent of total student costs at community colleges, and one survey revealed that seven out of 10 college students will avoid purchasing a required textbook because of price. The Twenty Million Minds Foundation, a California nonprofit that advocates for and creates its own Creative Commons textbooks, estimates that California college students alone spend $186 million a year on textbooks, and it predicts that adoption of open textbooks could save them up to $162 million.

Government officials and legislators, many dealing with cash-strapped budgets, have not been blind to these numbers. Over the past few years both local and national bodies, in an effort to reduce costs, have adopted open education resources, and the results so far have been encouraging.

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David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham University in Utah, has been immersed in the OER community predating the creation of the Creative Commons license. He was inspired by a group of technologists who met in 1998 to rebrand the free software movement as "open source," and he later worked to develop an "open content" license that would allow content creators to share and distribute their content easily. "The only difference was that all of us who were initially involved weren't lawyers," he recalls. "We were just making stuff up. It was scary, because there were hundreds of thousands of people who were using these licenses, and if any of them actually went to court, who knows what would have happened?" Imagine his relief then when the Creative Commons license was formed. "I put a big notice on our website saying, 'please everyone, run away from our licenses as fast as you can. Here are real lawyers that have done something similar but way better.'"

For the past several years, Wiley has been involved in a number of projects that have slowly introduced open education resources to his home state of Utah. He is a founder of the Open High School of Utah, a charter school that is taught entirely online and only uses open education resources in its curriculum. Currently, its students score, on average, among the top 25 percent of schools in the state on standardized tests. Since 2010, he's worked with a number of public schools in the state to introduce a pilot program of open textbooks for middle and high school science classes. Those science faculties who participate in the program meet once a year to review current open textbook options and pare them down to fit their needs. "We have them start from this 1,200-page biology book," he explains. "It's like any high school biology book you would see, but because it's open source, teachers can go in and adapt and change it so it meets their needs." From there, the districts simply use a print-on-demand service, like Amazon's CreateSpace, to distribute the books to students.

So far, the pilot program has reached about 6,000 students, but starting this Fall that number will expand to as many as 75,000. And while the primary focus has so far been on the sciences, there have been recent pushes for similar programs in language arts and math.