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Textbooks built to fit student budgets

Schools, nonprofits, and publishers go digital in an effort to create less-expensive textbooks.

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Others are thinking even more radically about textbooks. Richard Baraniuk, a professor of electrical engineering at Rice University in Houston, has founded Connexions, a nonprofit website featuring free “open source” textbooks. Their authors ask for no payment, only that they be given credit for their writings and that the material remain free of charge. A 300-page textbook on the fundamentals of electrical engineering, for example, can cost $120 from a textbook publisher, Professor Baraniuk says. To print out a similar free Connexions textbook would cost about $20.

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Baraniuk started with his own textbook on signal processing, which has been accessed at Connexions (cnx.org) more than 2.8 million times.

“Basically the whole system is broken, the system by which we conceive of writing books,” he says. The material in Connexions is divided into chapter-like modules of information, some 6,500 so far, that can be accessed individually or combined to form about 350 full textbooks.

Giving students traditional textbooks is like taking them to a clothing store and giving them all the same suit off the rack, despite their obvious differences. “In the future, each individual book is going to be customized to each individual child ...  and that’s hard to do with the traditional model,” he says.

The CK-12 Foundation, in Palo Alto, Calif., is trying to do something similar for younger students. CK-12 (ck12.org) already has created 15 free open-source textbooks that it calls “flexbooks” for use in high school classrooms – and hopes to have more on the way. The foundation uses high school student interns, as well as classroom teachers and experts, to vet the content of books. Students or teachers can easily search and customize the content for their own purposes, making flexbooks “the next evolution of the textbook,” says Neeru Khosla, who founded CK-12 last year.

She envisions, for example, that students might print out only the material that they will need for the next week or two and carry it bound as a single book in their backpacks.

Traditional textbook providers are also responding in a variety of ways, including a project called CourseSmart, founded and run by five of the largest publishers. Thousands of books, about one-third of the most popular college texts, can be accessed or downloaded at about half the cost of traditional texts, according to information on the website (coursesmart.com).

Hegarty says he talked with several textbook publishers in the course of setting up the new program at the University of Texas.

“All of them admit that their former model for publishing textbooks is changing before their eyes,” he says. “This is all in its infancy, which is probably one of the most exciting parts.”

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