Holding a whiteboard, the University of Maryland, College Park students scrawled their complaints and posed for a picture.
"My name is Justin and I spent $114 on ONE textbook," a student wrote. "My name is Jeff and I spent $736 on textbooks," wrote another.
The images, posted online by the Student Government Association in recent months, are designed to highlight the rapid rise in the price of college textbooks over the past decade. This semester, the University System of Maryland is exploring ways to bring that cost to zero with "open-source" electronic textbooks — the latest experiment in changing the way students in Maryland and across the nation are taught.
Unlike electronic versions of textbooks sold by publishers, open-source textbooks are made up of materials gathered from various sources and are not protected by copyright. They are often designed to be interactive, with links to source material and multimedia elements. The materials are licensed openly, so anyone with an Internet connection can access them.
A pilot program, which the university system estimates is saving 1,100 students a combined $130,000, is the latest in a shift on the nation's campuses toward digital learning. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California State University system and the Washington State college system are among those that have built libraries of free online course materials in recent years.
Still, open-source textbooks, which have been around for several years, face challenges and have not caught on broadly.
"I don't know if it's transforming higher ed yet," said Craig R. Vasey, a member of the American Association of University Professors who uses open-source materials in his logic class at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. "I think the textbook publishing business is still doing very, very well."
In fact, the textbook industry is also working to offer cheaper alternatives to hardcover textbooks and even partnering with open-source textbook providers.
Educators at all levels are still figuring out how to best use technology in the classroom. For example, Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance announced recently that the district would aim to place a tablet or laptop in the hand of every student within five years.
The pilot program is part the University System of Maryland's recent strategy to emphasize online learning. The system is also expanding its online-only course offerings. And this spring, the University of Baltimore launched its first online course open to anyone outside the state. The university system is also experimenting with "course redesign," in which more course material is presented online and class time is restructured to focus more on discussion.
Although the open-source textbook concept has been embraced by student groups such as the Student Government Association in College Park, university officials say the challenges include connecting professors with the materials they need for the textbooks and creating a system to assess the quality of the books.
Another complication: Many universities are bound to contracts with private companies to run campus bookstores, where many students purchase their textbooks. University System of Maryland financial records show that the bookstore contracts are not always lucrative, however — last year the system lost about $1 million.
Some students and a growing number of professors and university administrators say the cost of printed textbooks outweighs their usefulness. Textbook prices have risen an average of 82 percent between 2002 and 2012, about three times faster than the rate of inflation, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
High textbook prices are "quite ridiculous," said Jesse Fox, president of the University System of Maryland Student Council, which lobbied system officials to study open-source textbooks. Fox, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, added, "The only reason this is the case is textbook companies can do this. There's no check and balance."
The College Board estimates that the average college student spends $1,200 a year on textbooks, and the costs are often higher in fields like science or mathematics. The costs strain budgets as families struggle to pay for higher education, and sometimes students opt not to buy textbooks or put off purchases until late in the semester, which can jeopardize their grades, according to student groups, advocates and administrators.
"The traditional model of textbook is like a game of 'Survivor,' " said Meenu Singh, a College Park student coordinating the textbook cost awareness campaign for the Student Government Association. "It becomes a game of outwit and outlast: Let's see how long we can last the semester without having to buy the textbook, or outwit by trying to buy cheaper editions."
The University System of Maryland's textbook pilot program stems from a partnership with Lumen Learning, a Portland, Ore.-based company that helps professors access open-source content, tests, graphics and other course materials that they can pull together into an electronic "book."
Lumen Learning is providing the service for free to the Maryland system and 19 other universities nationwide through grants, said M.J. Bishop, director of the system's Center for Innovation and Excellence in Learning and Teaching, who is overseeing the pilot program.
Eleven professors at the College Park campus, the University of Baltimore, Bowie State University and Coppin State University are participating, in addition to two institutions not in the state university system: Chesapeake College on the Eastern Shore and St. Mary's College of Maryland.
Scott Roberts, a University of Maryland, College Park professor who teaches an introductory psychology course, started writing his own open-source textbook for the class in 2010 and is participating in the pilot program. Faculty members are concerned about the burdensome cost of printed textbooks, he said, but the alternatives can be complicated and time-consuming.
Roberts estimated that he spent 80 hours pulling together open-source materials for his textbook, working late into the night to write some sections himself when he could not find good material. Before the pilot, he said, he found no centralized place where faculty members could gather open-source materials and relied heavily on Google searches.
He was motivated, he said, by frustration over textbook editions that were "constantly updated with little justification" and by the desire to save students money.
Roberts said traditional textbooks provide some value, but added, "The question is: Is it worth the cost that students are paying for it? If we can get the job done without it, I think we have an obligation to our students to do that."
Bishop, who believes open-source textbooks will become more common, said the Maryland system could develop its own library of quality open-source materials. Still, she noted that quality control remains an issue.
"Anybody at this point can write a textbook and put it out there for consumption," she said. "It's still sort of a crapshoot, frankly, if the textbook you just downloaded is going to have the kind of quality that you want for your course."
Advocates for open-source textbooks complain that publishing companies drive up costs by "bundling" textbooks with CD-ROMs containing software that adds little value. Publishers also often release new editions of textbooks, making it difficult or impossible for students to resell their books after a course ends.
The textbook publishing industry is "not opposed" to open-source textbooks and is even partnering with some providers, said David Anderson, executive director of higher education at the Association of American Publishers. But he said traditional textbooks can cost up to a few million dollars to produce, and he is skeptical that such an effort can be re-created on a large scale for a product distributed for free.
Anderson said traditional textbooks are usually written by several academics and are peer-reviewed to ensure they are accurate, free of typos and well-sourced. "When you're looking at open-source textbooks, that may or may not be the case," he said.
Anderson said the industry has already developed cheaper alternatives to the hardcover, full-color textbook: three-ring-binder editions, black-and-white editions or options for students to buy individual chapters electronically. He pointed to CourseSmart, a company offering a $200 package deal that enables students to rent electronic versions of six textbooks.
Though the concern over textbook costs is a perennial one, efforts by state and university officials to reform the system have been largely unsuccessful. In 2005, state lawmakers directed the university system to evaluate a "textbook consortium" that would coordinate purchases with an eye toward reducing prices.
But the university system ultimately said the consortium would be unworkable. Among the reasons: Universities had an obligation to honor their contracts with bookstores, creating such a system was too expensive, and the measure could run afoul of federal anti-trust laws.
Student advocates for open-source textbooks point to a study released in January by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization. About 65 percent of the 2,000 college students the group surveyed across the country said they opted not to buy a textbook because of the cost, and nearly all of those students were concerned it would affect their grade in the course.
Roberts said the Introduction to Psychology open-source textbook he created is now in use by about 700 students each semester. The students he's surveyed are generally pleased with the experience, he said, with the exception of a few who prefer to have a printed textbook to write in.
There are other benefits to open-source textbooks, he said. "Right now, if a study comes out, it can take a year to show up in a textbook. We can update it overnight."
In contrast to the work it takes for a professor to create an open-source textbook, textbook publishers can make a teacher's job easy, Roberts said. Professors who assign a textbook can get a package of PowerPoint slides and prewritten exams from a publisher, saving them time designing the course.
Roberts also said publishing company sales tactics can be aggressive. Salespeople will walk into a professor's office unannounced to pitch a textbook, he said, or cold-call them.
"They come and find you," he said.
Robert Javonillo, a Coppin State professor participating in the pilot program, said his Introduction to Biology students seemed "relieved" to learn that their assigned course materials would be free. The hardcover version of the textbook he assigned before costs $158. He said the open-source materials have been high-quality, with the exception of some of the illustrations, important for learning about biology.
"Maybe one of the bigger issues is in certain academic circles, the rigor of a course is judged by the textbook you use," he added. "If you stray from that, you might be met by some furrowed brows."
Javonillo said it's too early to tell whether the different materials have affected his students' learning.
"I'm optimistic about this lowering the cost of college attendance in the near future, but I'd be curious about what the publishing companies are going to do in response to this," he said.
"You can't beat free."
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