(MintPress) – In an effort to help alleviate the rising burden of costs on students, Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a proposal into law that would provide free open-source digital textbooks to students and create a database operated by the state to host the books. The legislation is another step toward helping students access educational […]
(MintPress) – In an effort to help alleviate the rising burden of costs on students, Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a proposal into law that would provide free open-source digital textbooks to students and create a database operated by the state to host the books. The legislation is another step toward helping students access educational materials during a time when accessibility to higher education has come with growing costs, as some college institutions are providing free online courses that come with certificates of completion.
Brown’s law aims to help students who struggle to afford some of the most common textbooks used at universities across California. The state will host 50 digital textbooks in the initial stage of the program while establishing a California Digital Open Source Library to provide the web space needed to host the books. Access for students is slated to be available at the start of the 2013-2014 school year, once the California Open Education Resources Council finishes soliciting bids to produce the textbooks.
The law also benefits teachers and professors outside of California, as the digital textbooks are to be placed under a Creative Commons license, meaning other educators will have access to the materials to use in their classrooms. Timothy Vollmer, contributor at Creative Commons – a publication dedicated to protections and freedoms of authors, artists and educators – called the program “a most welcome example of open policy that aims to leverage open licensing to save money for California families and support the needs of teachers and students.”
California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who authored the initial bills, said the goal is to cut down on costs for college students in California, where percentages of tuition increases have gone well beyond double digits and the cost of higher education nationwide has increased significantly.
“Many students are paying more than $1,000 every year on their textbooks, sometimes having to choose between buying the books they need or paying for food and other living expenses,” Steinberg told the Los Angeles Times.
Textbooks have proven to be big business for schools, and some educators have stepped up to fight schools’ efforts to require texts for certain classes. In the case of Mike Tracy, the battle to save students some money ended up costing him his job. Tracy, a former instructor at the Art Institute of California – Orange County, was fired for not complying with the school’s directive to require students to purchase a digital textbook. He noted that he didn’t think the textbook was necessary for the particular class and that the school was only trying to increase its bottom line.
“I have used digital texts in other classes, but my chief objection to selecting a text for this class is that there is no need for a text,” Tracy told the Huffington Post.
The chance to learn
Over the course of a year, many universities have begun providing free access to online versions of their top courses. The concept has taken off and grown exponentially, as online destinations such as iTunesU and Coursera offer downloads of lectures and provide for online community communication. Coursera has become a leading aggregator of free online college courses after being founded by Stanford University earlier in the year. The project currently contracts with 32 other universities in both the United States and abroad, including Johns Hopkins University, the University of Edinburgh and Columbia University.
“Classes offered on Coursera are designed to help you master the material,” the company says. “When you take one of our classes, you will watch lectures taught by world-class professors, learn at your own pace, test your knowledge and reinforce concepts through interactive exercises.”
And with courses in the sciences, medicine, English and communication, the experience allows for schools to receive much more feedback and gauge how people learn best in today’s education environment and allow for improvements, said Coursera co-founder and Stanford University professor Daphne Koller.
Koller said that nearly 100,000 people enrolled in the free courses within weeks of their release and that tens of thousands have received certificates of completion from the respective universities – giving those who went through the course tangible evidence of their accomplishment.
“One of the greatest opportunities of this technology, one that is yet untapped, is the window that it opens into understanding human learning,” Koller wrote in a piece for CNN. “The data that one can measure is unprecedented in both the level of detail and in its scale. Thus, we can apply data analytics in entirely new ways to understand what works and what doesn’t, ranging from general educational strategies to specific design choices for a given course.”
Other institutions are going at it alone with free online courses, which is the case for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T). The program, M.I.T.x, provides students with an official certificate of completion after finishing a course’s workload. And while it doesn’t quite compare to a traditional degree or diploma from the school, it can act as a leg up for students in an increasingly competitive job market.
M.I.T. said it hopes to gauge student interest and offer courses based on student and faculty suggestions. It already provides students to access forums to talk with others who are taking the class and online laboratories with mock experiments to create as close to a tangible classroom as possible. M.I.T. President Susan Hockfield said the idea for the program stemmed from motivated students not always having the means or financial resources to go to the school they want to.
“M.I.T. has long believed that anyone in the world with the motivation and ability to engage M.I.T. coursework should have the opportunity to attain the best M.I.T.-based educational experience that Internet technology enables,” Hockfield said.
Decrease in accessibility
With ballooning tuitions and increasing student fees, the prospects of higher education are becoming more of a distant dream for students. It is a problem that has been acknowledged by President Barack Obama, who earlier in the year said college costs are too high, noting that education funding needs to be a higher priority in budget talks.
To account for the spiking tuition rates, universities have adopted a high cost/high aid model to keep enrollment rates up. The justification argues that students from wealthy families can afford the tuition hikes, saving the bulk of the financial aid for lower income students. But many schools have seen their enrollment rates fall because of it. In 2004, the University of Miami-Ohio subscribed to the high cost/high aid theory and saw a record 13 percent drop in in-state enrollment and a 10 percent drop in out-of-state enrollment.
Sallie Mae senior vice president of public policy Sarah Ducich said a poll conducted by the student loan borrower found that while a vast majority of families think college is still a necessity, financial restrictions and growing tuition rates are causing many to rethink the course of their education.
“College is the thing. When we asked these families, these families are dedicated to the prospect of college. I mean, we have a 98 percent agreement in the value of college as an investment in the future,” Ducich told National Public Radio. “That’s an unbelievable value proposition. But I think what’s happening is we’re seeing cost enter into the equation at more points.”
For Koller, she noted that the great interest generated by the free online college courses demonstrates the demand for alternative education options during a time when student loan debt has outpaced total credit card in America.
“In many parts of the world, including large parts of Africa, Asia and South America, good education is often not available because of lack of capacity,” Koller said. “Even in the United States, where education is arguably there to be had, it may not be within reach. Since 1985, tuition costs have gone up 559 percent, almost double the rate of the escalating costs of health care.”