In summary

Before California uses taxpayer funds to develop “free” online textbooks, lawmakers should consider another possibility.

By Fred M. Beshears, Reno

Fred Beshears worked as an educational technologist at UC Berkeley from 1987-2007.

Re “Newsom calls textbooks “racket,” proposes money to create free ones”; Jan. 13, 2021, Education

In 2007, I presented a plan for addressing the high cost of textbooks to a House committee that was looking into the problem. My plan proposed that funds be made available to buy out the high quality online course content routinely developed by the British Open University, a public distance education program started by a Labor government in 1969. 

They’ve been in the business of developing online courses ever since, and they have a governance structure designed for distance learning. Further, they have an enrollment large enough to create an economy of scale, which is necessary if in-house content development is to be cost effective.

The main pushback I received from faculty and others was that faculty in the U.S. may not voluntarily use the Open University’s content. Generally speaking, faculty in the U.S. cannot be forced to use the content because that would be a violation of their academic freedom.

This is not a problem at the British Open University because their senior faculty are hired specifically to develop content, and their teaching faculty are hired with the understanding that they will use the content developed by the senior faculty. Unlike Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan, the British Open University doesn’t leave faculty buy-in up to chance.

Now, one alternative Newsom’s plan, and to my old idea of buying out the British Open University, would be to create a nationwide Open University in the United States, one patterned after the British Open University. Further, we could fund this university so it could be tuition-free, and we could give it the mandate to put its content in the public domain. That would kill three birds with one stone:

  1. Students in the U.S. could have the option of a tuition-free education,
  2. The content developed by the U.S. Open University would be used, at least by their own teaching faculty, and
  3. The content could also be used by all schools as an alternative to commercial textbooks.

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