OpenStax College plans free textbooks for popular college courses

February 8, 2012

(Credit: Rice University)

The Rice University-based open-education platform Connexions today unveiled a bold plan to shake up the $4 billion college textbook industry by providing free online publisher-quality textbooks for five of the country’s most-attended college courses.

The OpenStax College textbook initiative, which is funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the 20 Million Minds Foundation and the Maxfield Foundation, will publish its first two books — College Physics and Introduction to Sociology — in March. Two biology textbooks — one for majors and one for non-majors — and a textbook for introductory anatomy and physiology will be published this fall.

“If we capture just 10 percent of the market with these first five textbooks, an estimated 1 million college students in the United States could save $90 million over the next five years,” said Rice’s Richard Baraniuk, the founder and director of Connexions.

“We are investing the resources necessary to create professional-quality textbooks,” said former publishing executive David Harris, the editor in chief of OpenStax College. “In terms of quality, our free books will be competitive with texts that currently retail for $150 or more. Furthermore, because our content is openly licensed, faculty will be able to easily modify and adapt OpenStax College content to meet specific course needs.”

OpenStax College is a nonprofit, but Harris said the organization is forging partnerships with for-profit companies that will provide homework, testing, tutoring and other services that college students need.

“OpenStax College believes the future of education lies in greater access for more students, and free high-quality books are a key to that,” Baraniuk said. “By lowering the barriers for students, we’re creating new business opportunities for the market. In particular, we’re developing a self-sustaining ecosystem of companies that will provide services around our content.”

Harris said OpenStax College will announce its first partnerships Feb. 15 at Connexions’ annual conference at Rice.

OpenStax College is powered by Connexions, a Rice University-based open-education platform launched in 1999 that draws more than 1 million visitors per month. Connexions allows anyone to publish, modify and use free, high-quality online educational texts.

OpenStax College books will be available for free online via computers, tablets and smartphones. Connexion’s print-on-demand feature will make it possible for students to order low-cost print copies. Baraniuk said a full-color edition of its 600-page introductory sociology textbook will sell for about $30.

“Open textbooks have the potential to save students millions of dollars,” said Hewlett Foundation Program Director for Education Barbara Chow. “By focusing on the highest-volume college courses first, OpenStax College will have the broadest possible impact, and it will reach a large and diverse set of students.”

In a related blog post, Science 2.0 Dynamic Patterns Research reports that the traditional business model for scientific journal publications is about to change with the rise of open access scientific publishing.