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Rice U. Hopes Mix of Grants and ‘Add Ons’ Will Support Free Textbooks

Rice University this year started an unusual textbook-publishing venture whose books are free to download thanks to a mix of grants and revenue from optional “add ons,” such as homework problem sets.

Although it has published only two titles—for introductory courses in physics and sociology—officials announced on Tuesday that more than 13,000 students had downloaded them in the 10 weeks they’ve been available.

The project is called OpenStax College, and it grew out of Connexions, a free Rice-based platform that allows anyone to create and publish e-textbooks.

Unlike Connexions, OpenStax invests money to create select, peer-reviewed textbooks written by professors, said Richard G. Baraniuk, OpenStax’s founder and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice. Although the textbooks are free for download, students can also buy print versions or purchase copies with add-ons.

The add-ons are part of OpenStax’s long-term financial strategy. The nonprofit group plans to build an “ecosystem” of corporate partners that sell the textbooks with extra features, Mr. Baraniuk said.

When students buy copies with the additional features, OpenStax and the partner company each will receive a portion of the revenue. The first two books already offer the online homework option through WebAssign and Sapling Learning, and David Harris, OpenStax’s editor in chief, said he expected to announce more partnerships in the coming weeks.

For now, OpenStax is still operating in “phases” that depend on outside funds. In this first phrase, grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, and the Maxfield Foundation will pay for five textbooks to be published. The next three books, which will cover anatomy and biology, are scheduled to be published in the fall and winter.

“We’re trying to create the books that will save the most students the most money,” Mr. Baraniuk said. “The primary way that we selected the list of books to create is according to the total number of students enrolled in the U.S. in a given class, multiplied by the average book cost for those students.”

The company is also in talks with other organizations to support the second phase, which will print 20 books, Mr. Baraniuk said.

The textbooks have been adopted at universities including the College of William and Mary, in Virginia; Miami University, in Ohio; and the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Mr. Harris said. He added that OpenStax hopes to save one million students a total of $95-million within five years.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by caswell_tom]

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