Open-sourced textbooks could ease college costs

The University of Illinois is developing a textbook that can be adapted by any other college. It could finally break the back of textbook prices.

While it wouldn't be the first open-sourced textbook, it may well be the first not to focus on open source and the first spearheaded by a major university. 

The University of Illinois is going to use a $150,000 federal grant to create textbooks using open-source software so they can be easily customized to the needs of students at all three UI campuses.I wrote back in April about the open-source textbook created by open source professionals for use in any university that wanted it. The idea was that anyone would be able to join the project and add to it. It was developed on an open-source platform, with a Creative Commons license and, as they explained, "patches welcomed." 

The first UI book might be similar - the three campuses have courses focused on research into sustainability. On the Urbana campus, the focus is wide - engineering, liberal arts and sciences and agricultural, consumer and environmental sciences; in Springfield, environmental sustainability is the primary focus; Chicago is home to research in engineering and liberal arts, according to the university.

Charles Evans, the university's associate vice president for academic affairs and project head, said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who secured the grant for the university, had hoped the textbooks could be free to students. It appears that's unlikely to be the case, but they will carry a minimal cost, he said, and will be available in printed and digital versions.

Even better, the textbook could then be used by other universities, and adapted to their specialties. That textbook on sustainability could be used by Malcolm X. Community College in Chicago once chapters or assignments were added on its program on urban recycling. Each college or university interested in the book could take it, add what was appropriate, delete chapters it deemed unnecessary and add homework assignments or questions specific to its focus at the end of each chapter.At the same time, the students — and educators — will get a nice education in open source. That'd be nice, as one of the biggest issues involved in such an endeavor is copyright. Educators tend to be rather proprietary about their knowledge and needing to get credit for it. Of course, so much of their job security depends upon published research, so that's understandable.

Hopefully those copyright issues can be resolved, as their employer is behind the project, and the University of Illinois' first open source textbook will be complete by the time the one-year grant ends.

With the ever-skyrocketing cost of college textbooks, that could be none too soon for students.

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