According to a recent Salt Lake Tribune article, a student leadership group at the University of Utah is looking into using “open-source textbooks,” which can be downloaded and used by students for free, as a possible way to save students money, perhaps as much as $500 per year. As most college students will tell you, an extra $500 per year can go a long way.
As noted in the article, one potential obstacle to any such endeavor is the time required by university professors to put together such textbooks. Though one advocate quoted in the article notes that sufficient material is already available for lower-level courses, those materials would have to be updated over time, and upper-level courses still require similar textbooks.
One solution to this issue might be to require university professors to help create and maintain open-source textbooks for the classes they teach as a condition of their employment. Some may complain about such a requirement, but since university professors’ living – and especially their grant-funded research – is highly subsidized by state and federal tax dollars, it does not seem unreasonable to require that they devote some time to making higher education a little more affordable (and therefore accessible) to the society that their livelihood depends upon.
In any case, it is encouraging to continue to see groups and individuals involved in public education (K-12 and higher ed) recognizing the innovative and cost-saving potential of digital learning. One can only hope that they will similarly recognize and embrace the ability of digital learning to change the culture of public education – so that instead of a culture centered on the financial interests and pedagogical restraints on employees of the system, we could have one centered on the academic interests and learning capacities of students in the system.