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Professors Put Textbooks Online to Reduce Costs

The rising cost of textbooks—along with the rise of easy-to-use publishing tools online—has helped drive the popularity of open-source materials and professors’ taking a do-it-yourself approach to textbook publishing. Here are three professors who wrote their own textbooks and are distributing them free.

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One year ago, students began coming to the philosophy class of Brendan Myers at Heritage College, in Gatineau, Quebec, without the required textbook.

“I made some remarks, of course, about needing the textbook to pass the class, and they told me that they couldn’t afford it. They needed to spend the money on food, and they would borrow the textbook later from a friend,” he said. “So I decided that one small way that I can help reduce the cost of education without political lobbying work is to write my own textbook, and they wouldn’t have to pay for it.”

After writing said textbook, titled Clear and Present Thinking, Mr. Myers e-mailed the PDF to his students and began using it in class. Then, inspired by a friend who had raised money for a novel through Kickstarter, a crowd-sourcing fund-raising Web site, he created a campaign to support the cost of a professional-caliber version of his homemade textbook. The money will pay for additional contributors, designers, and editors, he said, as well as add-ons like a French version and an audiobook.

Mr. Myers hopes to complete the textbook by December, and then he plans to write to philosophy journals, such as Ethics or Mind, and ask their peer-review boards to critique his work. He added that he hopes that his textbook is adopted at other colleges in Quebec’s CEGEP program, which is similar to community colleges in the United States. He is already in contact with other groups interested in using his book; they include a religious-education organization interested in teaching logic, and a video-game business that wants to use it to teach the concept of the prisoner’s dilemma.

As of July 6, the Kickstarter campaign had raised nearly $15,000, exceeding the original goal of $5,000. The campaign ends July 7.

Given the success of this initial campaign, Mr. Myers said he will consider creating more textbooks, specifically for introductory-level college classes, via crowd-sourced fund raising.

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For Gregory Carey, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, putting textbooks online is more than a helpful gesture for students—it’s an experiment in new ways of disseminating information.

“Technology is moving so fast that printed books in certain areas can be out of date very readily,” he said. “Having something online allows you to readily update it each year.”

Mr. Carey was originally told by a traditional publisher that his book about quantitative methods in neuroscience could be priced at about $200. He decided not to pursue a publishing deal. Instead, at a Universtiy of Colorado Faculty Council meeting in March, he proposed putting his and other textbooks online and making them free to students. The idea was well-received.

“The university president has expressed interest in the idea of exploring mechanisms for professors to publish textbooks online, and to receive appropriate academic credit for it,” Mr. Carey said.

The education policy committee of the Faculty Council plans to further study the idea in the fall. Though Mr. Carey stressed that the project is still in its early stages, and there are no concrete details, the idea is to build a site where professors can have their work peer-reviewed online, with royalties paid to both writer and editor.

In this system, students would either have free access to the textbook, or they could download relevant chapters (instead of the entire text), he said. For this fall, his students can download a PDF of his book free from a password-protected Web site.

“The one thing that I am really hoping to learn by putting my book online is to see how well this can act as a model in the University of Colorado system,” said Mr. Carey. “I hope that the students will look upon it favorably, at least in terms of helping them with their pocketbooks.”

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Only 40 students were required to use Herbert Hovenkamp’s innovation and competition policy casebook, but the text has been downloaded more than 1,000 times since being posted online this spring.

Mr. Hovenkamp, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, wrote the casebook a year ago for a new, niche course on antitrust and intellectual-property law. Most casebooks are expensive, he said, but it is especially difficult to find a reasonably priced casebook for a small, specific class like the one he would be teaching. Writing his own book and putting it online seemed like the best solution.

“We squeeze our students so hard—we have massively increased tuition over the last 10 or 15 years—and so with book prices and these other ancillary costs, this is one area where we can perform a fairly useful service for students,” he said.

Mr. Hovenkamp has received positive feedback from his students, two-thirds of whom do not print the book, he said. The students praised the book’s portability, and that it is very up-to-date. Mr. Hovenkamp agreed that the casebook’s electronic format makes it easy to revise; he is now updating the book for its second edition, to use when he next teaches the course in January 2013.

“I’m in my 60s, and there’s lots of things I’d rather write than casebooks, so I don’t think I’ll be doing another one online,” he said. “But if I were 25 years younger, I would certainly think more seriously about doing it. It’s a valuable service to students, and there’s different models that could be successful.”

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