Open Textbook Meets Community Colleges

Rice University's open educational resources Web site publishes a popular 2-year college text for anyone to read, reuse or remix -- free.
August 12, 2008

Proponents of the open textbook movement have long envisioned a world of free (or almost free) educational materials, available to print or download, written by experts for others to read, share, improve or modify as they see fit.

For one popular textbook, at least, that vision is now a reality.

Connexions, a prominent online "open educational resources" hub based at Rice University, announced Monday that it has published a statistics textbook online that's widely used in transfer-level community college courses. Officials at the site hope the zero-dollar price tag will help students deterred by ever-increasing textbook prices.

The book, Collaborative Statistics by Barbara Illowsky and Susan Dean, is not only available as a full download. The content between the covers has been sliced and diced into "modules," Connexions' basic building blocks, that any student or instructor can rearrange or adapt for their own use. Developers of the project also plan on adding videos of class lectures by Illowsky as well as other supplementary classroom materials, effectively uploading an entire course experience to the Web.

Rice's announcement says it is "believed to be the first complete package of free textbook and course materials available online in the United States." (That's an assertion that might be challenged, especially if the course materials are in the public domain already, although most proponents of textbook reform would be pleased to see competing claims on this topic.)

"This is a big deal for community colleges because there are many students who can’t afford to go to school not necessarily because of tuition but because of the costs of textbooks and what have you … it really enhances their educational opportunities," said Joel Thierstein, Connexions' executive director.

He expects “close to 1,000 students in the fall” to be using the free version of the book in classes across the country. The text has been used for over a decade in California community colleges in courses accepted as transfer credits by the University of California system.

"We’re anticipating that this is just the very first step of a project to provide a similar concept in other disciplines to community college students for free as well, so this is a first step of many," Thierstein added.

The authors first reacquired the rights to their book and published it themselves for a period, he said. More recently, the rights were transferred to Rice, which obtained them with backing from the Maxfield Foundation, which is chaired by an alumnus and trustee. Connexions, which since 1999 has been a major resource for educators to upload, share and collaborate on freely available class resources, now offers the textbook content online under a Creative Commons license. Readers can also opt for an on-demand printed version, priced at $31.95.

The textbook was published in coordination with the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources, a group of colleges across the country started within the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California.


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