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If a Text is Free, Why Should You Pay For It?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Washington State’s Open Course Library is a simple and elegant move to take advantage of freely available online resources to save students taking classes at the state’s 2-year colleges thousands of dollars in book costs. It also potentially saves the state millions in subsidized textbook costs. Why didn’t someone think of this sooner?

The Open Course Library
Washington, which has no income tax, still strives to provide social services for its residents including subsidizing textbooks for students at its community colleges. The state legislature has found an interesting way to save itself and its students quite a bit of money. The solution is to launch an open course material initiative to provide students with a more affordable method of acquiring their course texts (The Chronicle, Jan. 9, 2011), to provide instructors with resources to teach their most popular courses, and even to provide a completely free educational alternative for those who want to avoid the college experience altogether.

The initiative is funded by a $750,000 matching grant from Washington native Bill Gates (through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). The program aims to develop an openly-accessible repository of the course materials for the state’s most popular online courses. Course developers have been scouring the Internet since January looking for free content in order to create their courses, which have a mandatory $30 cap on required materials.

Beyond texts, the program aims to compile complete online courses including syllabi, activities, and assessments. All are being designed by experienced instructors and may be modified by those who choose to incorporate them into their teaching. This is not to say that course design has been easy: Many developers report having difficulty locating free online texts that are not dated, particularly in the sciences. Though some report that publishers have approached them offering their textbooks within the budgetary constraints of the program (The Chronicle, Jan. 9, 2011).

What is Available?
Thus far the project has netted 43 courses in Phase 1, that are openly available for download, with 39 more planned for development in 2012 as Phase 2 of the project rolls out. The courses already available online include:

  • Art and Music Appreciation
  • Calculus, Algebra, Pre-calculus, Economics, and Accounting Studies
  • Cultural Anthropology
  • Engineering Physics
  • General Biology, Chemistry, and Psychology
  • Intro courses in Business, Literature, Logic, Oceanography, Geology, and Statistics
  • Physical Anthropology
  • Public Speaking
  • Technical Writing

These and other offerings pull from a variety of fields and represent one of the most comprehensive libraries of free online courses available anywhere. I chose to look over a few of them to see what they actually offered and was impressed with what I found.

The resources for one course, “Introduction to Literature I,” featured a $30 print textbook, syllabus, online video and audio lectures by Paul Fry from Yale University, weekly discussion topics, learning modules, quizzes and tests, and a list of instructor resources. I found the materials to be thoughtfully put together, well-integrated, and of high quality in general. Overall, this seems like a class that any instructor could download and modify to their own purposes with a very minimal amount of work. In addition, I feel that interested individuals could easily go through these materials at their own pace. They might need occasional guidance with some concepts (particularly in science or more advanced courses), but could do most of the work independently. A resourceful and motivated person who can’t afford college could learn a lot on their own using these materials.

Implications for Other States
If every state were to follow Washington’s lead and place their most popular courses – particularly those that can be delivered for free or extremely inexpensively – online, we would experience an astronomical growth in the high quality educational content available to the average citizen. This might be enough content to make college unnecessary to some extent if people are willing to fully embrace the free content that is available online. At the very least, by following the model already established by Straighterline.com, students across the country might be able to do most of the coursework for their freshman year for free or nearly for free. Talk about reducing the cost of higher education. Students could potentially cut their college costs by 25% before they ever set foot on a college campus.

In addition to the cost savings, a universal, online freshman year would help to weed out students who really do not fit in college, and help the rest determine their course of study without any of the usual floundering that occurs before a major is declared. When you further consider initiatives like the MacArthur Foundation’s digital badges you can start to envision a model for higher education in which it could look radically different than it currently does without undergoing major changes in the way the system operates. Students would reduce their costs and be better prepared when they do finally arrive on campus by working on these and similar free online offerings.

My colleague Michael Keathley recently wrote a post which explained how investing in education is the best solution for fixing our struggling economy. A more widespread adoption of Washington’s Open Course Library would be one realistic and cost-effective way to invest in education that could really make a difference, not just to higher education, but to our society as a whole.