Monday, April 23, 2012

U of Minnesota Opens Up to Open Source Textbooks

St. Paul, Minn. — The University of Minnesota bookstore has one of the largest textbook departments in the country, with rows of shelves piled high with titles — everything from Algebra One to Nuclear Physics.

Students can buy Shakespeare's books for less than $10, but that's only because the literary rights have long ago expired. The average price of the store's books is about $50 and some titles fetch as much as $225 — another sign of the rising price of college education.

Paying for textbooks is becoming such a burden for college students, that today the University of Minnesota is launching an online project to hunt down free textbooks to replace the pricey ink-and-paper versions. It's part of a national movement to cut the cost of textbooks.

The university has an extensive used and rental program to help make textbooks more affordable. But students like Hengyi Huang try to avoid the campus bookstore altogether.


Obnoxious or not, commercially printed textbooks dominate the market. There's a growing effort to change that, as dozens of so-called open-source textbooks are available online for free.

But such books have been slow to catch on, said David Ernst, director of academic and information technology for the College of Education and Human Development.

"The open textbooks are out there," Ernst said. "And they're scattered."


"The second reason is that they don't know what is quality when they do find them," Ernst said.

Written by experts in their fields, open-source textbooks generally allow users to edit the texts or make "mash-ups" from several books.

Ernst is leading a new project at the University of Minnesota that will review open-source textbooks and collect the ones that pass muster in an online catalog. He said the project will concentrate first on the most widely taught courses, like introductory biology and math.


"There are some sites that list reviews of open textbooks but I think this one is significant because it's actually developed by a Big Ten, well-respected university," said Allen, director of the research group's Make Textbooks Affordable Project.

The catalog is part of a national effort to create cheaper alternatives to commercially published textbooks. Some educational foundations have paid scholars to write free textbooks. Other publishers offer electronic versions for free, but charge for printed copies.


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