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Investment Into Open-Access Textbooks Could Save Students Millions

Next year, Florida students might be able to start saving on college textbooks if the state grants a request to invest in an open-access textbook program.

The textbooks could save students upward of $150 per book, which adds up to a $77.5 million for the 500,000 students enrolled in the state's Calculus I system alone, according to the results of a pilot program for open-access textbooks.

These savings depend on whether the Florida Legislature accepts a 2015-2016 budget request from the Board of Governors for a $227,000-investment in an open-access textbook initiative called Orange Grove Text Plus.

If accepted, the money will go to University Press of Florida, a system-wide press that prints textbooks for 11 universities in the Florida system.

Meredith Morris-Babb, the director of UPF, said she believes open-access textbooks can replace the standard model with more affordable versions for students in core curriculum.

Unlike e-textbooks, open-access is free for anyone to view online. Teachers can also take what is available and add anything that fits course objectives.

“Open-access is not e-textbooks,” Babb said. “There is a huge difference.”

E-textbooks can cost nearly the same price as their hardback counterparts, but they have more bells and whistles like interactive online content, high-quality graphics and photos.

Charlie Mitchell, a theater appreciation and advanced improvisation teacher at the University of Florida, said he would meet with other professors and complain about the textbooks they had to use.

“Sure, they had nice features and all, but they were never worth the amount of money you were shelling out,” he said.

Mitchell decided to switch to open-access and collaborated with eight other theater professors to write their own textbook. This semester is his first time using the text, and students haven’t noticed any difference in quality.

For first addition, new textbooks on Amazon, Mitchell's students were paying $140 on average. Now, his students can have the material for free online or buy a paperback copy from the UFP for $25.

"And I don't see a dime of that," Mitchell said.

That is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of open-access: funding.

Usually, publishing representatives walk the halls looking to sell textbooks to professors with large classes like Mitchell’s. If he agrees to use one of their books, the publishers will have 600 guaranteed sales that contribute to paying the book’s authors.

If open-access is used in the classroom, a $5-fee will be added onto students’ tuition along with the option to buy a hard copy essentially worth its weight in paper, but this hardly goes to the authors for their work. Therefore, the money needs to come from somewhere other than the students’ pockets.

UF Provost Joe Glover, for example, sponsored Mitchell’s book, which allowed Mitchell to pay his co-authors $500 each. For other books to succeed, more funding will be needed to get professors involved.

Babb said the bulk of the $227,000 will be going to funding projects and starting the core curriculum.

Lynne Vaughan, the director of the University of Florida Bookstore, said open-access isn’t a new concept. It has been available for a long time but is underutilized because the material is never updated.

“But two plus two is always going to be two plus two,” she said. “So, courses like (math) lend themselves well to (open-access).”

Vaughan said books end up open because copyrights exceed their lifespans and are no longer valid. This is either due to failure to have copyrights renewed or publishers moved the content into a newer package.

When Amanda Phalin first became a lecturer in international business at UF, she reviewed all of the major publishers’ textbooks and their online material to find what she considered the best for her students. Price was a factor for her, too.

“It absolutely came into play when I was searching for a book,” Phalin said. “That is the main reason I switched to e-textbooks.”

Her first book was from Pearson.

Phalin’s Pearson representative came to her one day and offered her a full online program with no hardcover. She agreed but only if it saved her students money. And it did.

Publishing companies are beginning to make everything digital for a number of reasons, but with potential programs like Orange Grove Text Plus getting the funding they need, textbooks prices may drop.

“The big losers if this doesn’t get funded,” Babb said, “are the students.”

Thomas is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org