California’s Open Textbook Bill

Interesting legislation coming out of the California State Senate (PDFs, SB1052 and SB1053). President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has brought forward two bills to try to address students’ textbook woes. Here’s what they do:

The first step (cue Republicans warning of bureaucracy) is to create a commission of 9 faculty members, 3 each from University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges. This commission is tasked with creating a list of the 50 most widely taken lower-division courses (there will be some work here in trying to figure out whether overlapping courses are the same or different). Once this list is drawn up, in order for a bookstore to carry a book for one of these courses, the publisher must provide at least 3 copies for the library. OK, this part is a little underwhelming;  it’s always nice to have reserve copies, but that’s just a band-aid.

Flatworld knowledge, All Access Pass (PDF, epub etc.) for $34.95The more interesting part of the bill is the attempt to drive production of one open, Creative Commons-licensed textbook for each of these classes. The bill’s drafters clearly took some time to figure parts of this out. There would be an RFP and grant process administered by the commission—they don’t assume that these textbooks would come from nothing. Traditional publishers would be invited to submit bids along with everyone else. Digital would be free, print copies would need to be provided at low cost.

Textbooks would be licensed under Creative Commons, allowing derivative works, so you could remix/adapt content. There’s also a bit about the textbooks needing to be provided in XML or a similar format. This is smart; you don’t want publishers providing something free but then charging for every alternative format (Flatworld Knowledge does this, providing a Web-based version and then charging for PDF, ePub etc., though their prices are low). A companion bill provides for the establishment of a California Open Source Digital Library, where all this stuff would presumably be made easily accessible and preserved.

So, yes, interesting stuff. The risks are pretty clear:

  • You can’t always commission a good textbook. Publishers in the current system don’t win every time. Someone gets a book contract, writes a textbook, and nobody adopts it. When publishers get a hit, they milk it, with a new edition every couple years. So it could be that the RFP looks good, but nobody likes the textbook once it’s written.
  • Publishers could just start to milk the ancillary materials, and charge $150 for access to online problem sets, quizzes etc. They’ve already started this process, right? Many students can’t buy used textbooks for a lot of classes because they need a bundled code for the online portion. There’s nothing in the bill about the CC license being non-commercial, so students could continue getting reamed, just not by the textbook itself. Presumably this question would be dealt with by the commission in the RFP process.

We’ll see. The publishers don’t like it, but then they might end up competing to get the grants—that’s always motivational. The college bookstores won’t like it for sure, but there’s probably not a lot they can do. In any case, it’s great to see people looking for solutions here. Links to the bills are at the top of the page. I didn’t see anything in depth in the LA Times, Sac Bee or other papers, but UC Berkeley’s Daily Cal had a good piece back when the legislation was first introduced.

The bill is now out of the Senate, so it then needs to pass the Assembly. And there’s no funding in the bill itself—that would need to be part of California’s always smooth-sailing budget process.

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