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The Internet and a New Law Are Changing How Students Purchase Textbooks

by Caitlin Emma | Oct 6, 2010 10:00am
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Posted to: Education

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University of Connecticut bookstore

Thousands of college students across the country are skipping the bookstore and heading to their computers this fall to pick up their new open-sourced textbooks.

Open-sourced textbooks are providing professors and students with an alternative to the old hardcover, expensive texts students often sell back at the end of the semester. 

“We see students with their schedules walking up and down the bookstore aisles trying to determine what courses they could afford to take,” Hal Plotkin, the senior policy advisor for the U.S. Department of Education, said during a conference call last week. 

“After classes end, students are encouraged to sell their books back,” he said. “When have you ever been in an educated person’s home and asked, ‘Where are your books?’ and they say ‘Oh, we sold them back?’” 

According to a new study by the Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), open-source textbooks allow students to view books for free online, download them and print them out at an affordable cost. Students can also purchase affordable text supplements like additional copies or enhanced features. 

A group of professors, open textbook advocates and students struggling with high textbook prices talked about open-source textbooks on a conference call with the media last Thursday. 

Mason Carpenter, a textbook author and professor of management and human resources at the University of Wisconsin, said the ability to purchase additional supplements keeps open textbooks sustainable. Carpenter writes both traditional textbooks and open textbooks through the publishing company Flat World Knowledge. He said he receives the same royalties from both. 

D. Steven White, a professor of marketing and international business at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said he recently switched to open textbooks for all his students. 

“Students would come to me after failing the first exam and ask to borrow my copy of the book,” he said. 

White said he will save his fall students about $11,000 collectively and his spring students $14,000 by switching to open textbooks. 

The report by the StudentPIRGs found that on average students pay about $900 a year on textbooks. The open-source textbook brings the cost down 80 percent to $184.

Rick Hancock, an assistant professor in residence of journalism at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, said he paid about $900 for his son’s books during the first year of college.

“As a parent, I know what it’s like,” he said.

Hancock provides his online journalism class with an open textbook because he said he loves the accessibility. He said with technology like iPhones and Blackberrys, students can always access the text.

“And it’s free,” he added.

Students facing financial hardship agree.

“Choices are what make open textbooks right for me,” said Donald Pass, a student at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif. Pass said his wife is currently out of work and he has children, making textbooks unaffordable.

“Open textbooks allow me to take my books everywhere. I can read it on my smartphone or print it out,” he said. 

Callers on the conference call lauded the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act because federal provisions beginning July 1 will help lower textbook costs.

The legislation requires publishers to disclose certain information about textbooks and supplemental materials to faculty members as they decide what books to require. It also requires institutions to list the prices of the books during the pre-registration and registration periods. 

The research in the StudentPIRGs study found that faculty is often uninformed about the cost of books, preventing them from considering student cost. The federal reform encourages a competitive market by requiring publishers to inform professors of textbook prices and revision histories. 

StudentPIRGs plans to hold a National Day of Action on October 21. They will meet with PIRG chapters and professors across the country, educating them about open textbooks and the new federal law. 

Connecticut’s PIRG chapter at the University of Connecticut is participating. 

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