Free Digital-Textbook Venture at Rice U. Adds Users and Titles

A little more than one year after its debut, the digital-textbook program OpenStax College is set to expand by adding a sixth title to its slate of free online textbooks.

OpenStax, a nonprofit group based at Rice University, will add an introductory-statistics text in October. Five additional titles will be available for download by 2015, according to officials.

OpenStax doubled the number of professors adopting its textbooks during the past four months, bringing the total to 319 at 297 colleges and universities. The program is expected to save 40,000 students more than $3.7-million in textbook costs during the 2013-14 academic year.

“Year 1 has gone pretty spectacularly,” said Richard Baraniuk, who is the founder of OpenStax and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice. “We are in this for the long haul, so we set rather conservative adoption targets, realizing that it would take time to build a community-user base to really take this to scale. What we have been surprised about is how quickly this has happened.”

The venture started in June 2012 with two textbooks, for introductory courses in physics and in sociology. The content is written, peer-reviewed, and produced in-house by scholars and publishing-industry professionals. The texts are constructed in building-block like parts, so professors can tailor the material for their own courses—one OpenStax textbook has 50 variations, Mr. Baraniuk said.

The program was born out of Connexions, an existing platform at Rice that allowed users to create and publish e-textbooks. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others, provided start-up money. The goal is to save a million students a total of $95-million during the first five years.

OpenStax is also expanding its platforms. It currently has two titles on Apple iBooks for $4.99 per download, and there are plans to place all the OpenStax textbooks in the Apple iBook catalog. The iBooks have interactive features, including graphics, video, and quizzes. And students have the option to purchase the books in print.

The creation of OpenStax coincided with a national conversation about curbing the rising cost of higher education. Professors recognize that their students are under financial pressure, and educators are seeking high-quality materials at a low price, Mr. Baraniuk said.

OpenStax is working to build a catalog of 25 textbooks that will pack the biggest possible punch for students, Mr. Baraniuk said. Its offerings are being developed based on college courses with the most students in the United States—and those with the most expensive textbooks.

He added that free online materials are critical for students, especially those enrolled in community colleges, for whom the textbook is sometimes more expensive than the course itself.

“There are really alarming statistics that in a lot of college courses 70 percent of students decided not to buy the book,” Mr. Baraniuk said. “They go home at night to do the homework, and they don’t have the book to look at when they get confused and lost and need to look something up.”

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