The University of California and the University of Washington have each started programs to offer their students a catalog of free and freely available open source textbooks, and now the University System of Maryland is following suit.
The university system has launched a pilot program where it is testing the use of open source textbooks. 1,100 students are participating in the pilot, which is spread across a number of universities in Maryland.
Unlike digital textbooks sold by Coursesmart, Inkling, and Amazon, open source textbooks are assembled from materials gathered from various free sources, some public domain and some not. Several non-profit groups like the CK-12 and the 20 Million Minds Foundation are working with educators to develop and distribute open source textbooks, which are usually released under a CC, GPL, or other license which allows for free use, sharing, and distribution.
11 professors are participating in the university system’s pilot, including ones at the University of Baltimore, Bowie State University, Coppin State University, and the University of Maryland College Park as well as professors at two institutions not in the state university system: Chesapeake College on the Eastern Shore and St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
The pilot is supported by a partnership with Lumen Learning, a Portland-based startup that helps educators find and access open-source content, tests, graphics and other course materials which the educators can use to create textbooks, study materials, and other curricula. According to M.J. Bishop, director of the system’s Center for Innovation and Excellence in Learning and Teaching, Lumen Learning is providing the service for free to the Maryland system and 19 other universities nationwide through grants.
Bishop, who is overseeing the pilot program, believes open-source textbooks will become more common. She also thinks the university system could develop its own library of open source materials, both to make adoption easier and to assure quality.
“Anybody at this point can write a textbook and put it out there for consumption,” she said. “It’s still sort of a crapshoot, frankly, if the textbook you just downloaded is going to have the kind of quality that you want for your course.”
Early reports have generally been positive. Robert Javonillo, a Coppin State professor participating in the pilot, told the Baltimore Sun that his Intro to Biology students were relieved to learn that their assigned course materials would be free. The last time Javonillo taught the course he assigned a textbook which cost $158. He said the open source materials that were used in his textbook have been generally high quality, with the exception of some of the illustrations.
But in spite of the occasional successes, open source textbooks still face challenges and have not bee widely adopted. “I don’t know if it’s transforming higher ed yet,” said Craig R. Vasey, a member of the American Association of University Professors. Vasey uses uses open source materials in his logic class at the University of Mary Washington, but he notes that many do not: “I think the textbook publishing business is still doing very, very well.”