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Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg announced today that he will push for legislation to create an online open source library to reduce the cost of course materials for college students across the state.

The Sacramento Democrat framed the proposed project as an effort to lower costs for students struggling to cope with higher fees and tuition rates at California's public colleges and universities.

"We know that the costs of higher education are skyrocketing. Fees have gone up significantly in recent years and we must do something about it," Steinberg said at a Tuesday press conference. "But too often overlooked are other costs that make higher education hard to afford."

Steinberg said the average student spends $1,300 a year on textbooks, a figure his staff said is based on projections the University of California, California State University and community college systems provide to students for budgeting purposes. Under his proposal, materials for 50 common lower division courses would be developed and posted online for free student access. Ordering a paper copy would cost $20, compared to the $200-plus price tag carried by some books.

Steinberg plans to seek $25 million to create his proposed Open Education Resources system, with some funding going towards soliciting course material contributions from academics, nonprofits, Silicon Valley developers and the book publishing industry to be shared freely within the system. A new council of faculty leaders from the California's public higher education system would be tasked with selecting the courses for the first round of open source textbook development and reviewing and approving the materials added to the library.

"There would be no mandate for faculty to use these books, but when given a more affordable, a possibly free option that does not sacrifice quality, they will do the right thing for students," he said.

The proposal builds upon existing models for open source course materials, which unlike traditional textbooks copyrighted by publishers can be shared at no cost and in some cases changed or updated by users. One open source library run out of Houston's Rice University now offers more than 1,000 textbooks and journal articles, including materials already used in some California classrooms.

The book publishing industry bristles at complaints of rising costs, arguing that advances in the digital realm have already reduced the cost of books for students nationwide. Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, said licensing options and online texts offered by many publishers have slashed prices as much as 60 percent from the traditional print editions.

"Student spending on course materials has either been flat or going down since the mid-2000s, and everybody's still quoting a study that was done on printed textbooks and was released seven years ago," he said, referring to a 2004 Government Accountability Office report.

Hildebrand said publishers believe professors "want top-of-the line materials that have been peer-reviewed and are proven to be of high quality," standards not yet guaranteed when it comes to open license materials.

"It's sort of like textbooks for Wikipedia," he said of general concerns he has heard about the open source books "Who's doing the fact checking? Where are the peer reviews?"


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