Maya Kostyanovsky was very much the typical community college student. The child of immigrants, she was attending De Anza College in Cupertino, California, as the affordable choice on the road to her ultimate educational goal, law school.

So when the opportunity arose last fall semester to use a free online textbook for her introductory statistics class instead of paying $85 for a hardback copy, she – along with many of her classmates – leapt at the chance.

“Cost is definitely a factor,” says Kostyanovsky, a San Jose resident who came to this country from Russia with her parents when she was five years old. “My mom is a single parent. My father died three years ago. If I can save something, it’s really nice. If I really needed it, my mom would pay for it. But if I can save that money, it’s a huge help.”

Thanks to a pilot effort called the Community College Open Textbook Project that the Foothill-De Anza Community College District created in spring 2009 with the support of the Hewlett Foundation, Kostyanovsky was able to make her college education significantly more affordable. She went online to a site called Connexions at Rice University – another Hewlett grantee – where she could read, annotate, and print whatever she wanted from Collaborative Statistics, by Barbara Illowsky and Susan Dean. A teacher’s guide is also available, along with a syllabus, practice exams, calculator instructions, and lecture videos. If Kostyanovsky had preferred, she could have ordered a bound, print-on-demand version for $31.98.

Use Spreading Across the Country

All told, by the end of the 2009 spring semester, Collaborative Statistics had been adopted for use in at least forty-three course sections at eight colleges in the United States and a high school in Ontario, Canada. At De Anza alone, 680 students in seventeen sections of introductory statistics used the open textbook and saved approximately $80,000 total, according to Judy Baker, dean of Foothill Global Access, Distance and Mediated Learning, and one of the leaders of the open textbook project. That savings is particularly important for community college students, who often are the first in their families to attend college, and for whom the cost of textbooks can be an even higher barrier to attending than the cost of tuition. And that’s no small issue in American education. Community colleges educate 44 percent of the nation’s undergraduates and half of the nation’s teachers.

“The first year was about showing it could work and lowering the cost to students,” says Baker, who has created a Web site for all things community college and Open Educational Resources. “But we also wanted to have a voice in the movement.”The pilot project is part of a broader initiative that the Foothill-De Anza Community College District embarked upon in mid-2007 to explore the potential of Open Educational Resources for use by community college students everywhere. The initiative, called the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources, now has ninety-three community college members in the United States and one in Canada.

The Start of an International Movement

That movement began in 2001, when the Hewlett Foundation helped underwrite MIT’s efforts to put its undergraduate curricula online. To date, Hewlett has made more than $50 million in grants in support of a broad range of Open Educational Resources projects around the world. The Open Educational Resources movement works to make high-quality educational materials freely available to everyone and, through the creative use of copyright laws, permits those using the resources to improve the materials, as well as re-edit them to make them more suitable to individual teaching situations.

Victor Vuchic, the Hewlett Foundation’s program officer for Open Educational Resources grants, says that last point is crucial. Research shows that small changes in the way material is presented can make a significant difference in what education researchers call transferability of learning, the ability of a student to take material that’s being studied and apply it in new situations.

Vuchic says that open textbooks like the one Kostyanovsky used enable students to comment on difficulties in the text so authors are able to make continuous improvements to it, much the way that open-source software lets a community improve the product.

Adds Baker, “If this is leveraged properly – and we’re not there yet – we can use Open Educational Resources to create a more valuable learning experience.

“If it’s a dead tree [that you put the information on], you can put a higher price on it, but you can’t search for specific content or easily find inconsistencies in it,” she says. “This gives us a bigger tool chest from which to draw upon to learn. It enables instructors to ‘think out loud’ by annotating chapters with their thoughts about how to connect and value the information in the text.”

Returning Control to Educators

More broadly, Baker says, the use of open textbooks enables educators to regain control of educational content that has been largely usurped by publishing houses.

“What’s happened in higher education is that the publishing industry has dominated faculty decisions about course content,” she says. “And with more part-time adjunct professors teaching in community colleges, more instructors are stuck with those content decisions, using a text someone else picked. It’s the tail wagging the dog.”

Baker says that by her count there are about 250 textbooks now in the pipeline in various stages of preparation for use as open texts. “The quality remains to be seen,” she says, adding that twenty-nine of the books have been peer reviewed for quality and thirty for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that the books be available to blind and otherwise disabled students.

It may seem surprising that textbook authors would give up some copyright controls and royalties to make their books available as open textbooks. But Baker and others point out that relatively few such authors write texts that become nationally used and generate large amounts of revenue. And for many, the rewards far outweigh other concerns.

“A lot of professors who bought back rights from their publishers say they have gotten all kinds of comments on how to improve their books that became open texts,” Baker says. “It’s made the books much better, and the authors would admit they learned more about how to improve their texts in one year open than they learned in fifteen years with all rights reserved. And since they are not dealing with print, they can make the changes on the fly.”

It seems likely that the movement will continue to spread.

In May, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced the first-in-the-nation initiative to vet open textbooks for use in California’s public schools. And earlier this year, U.S. Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois introduced federal legislation that would provide grants to support textbook authors who want to make their work available as open textbooks.

For Maya Kostyanovsky, who has completed her work at De Anza and enrolled this fall at San José State University to continue her studies, the growing availability of open textbooks is good news.

“I definitely would use more, if they were available,” she says. “It worked really well for me. It was easy to hop online and do what I needed. There was nothing I couldn’t do.

“And it was great to be able to print what I needed and not have to drag along the whole heavy book.”