December 1, 2022

Library With Free Online College Textbooks Makes Debut


The Open Course Library (OCL) opened on Monday and it may provide a much needed counterweight to the high cost of textbooks and other educational materials.

The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) launched the online repository of ready-to-use digital course modules —- including textbooks, syllabi, and other resources — for 42 of the state’s highest enrolled courses.

All materials created through the program are freely shared to the world with a Creative Commons Attribution-only license (CC-BY), and they can be adapted and distributed.  The project, which was funded by the state and a matching $750,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will expand to 81 courses by 2013.

The cost for hard copies of these open educational resources (OER) is $30 or less per course. Full-time students currently spend about $1200 per year for textbooks, which is 25 percent of their total education costs,  according to SBCTC.

“The project aims to cut down textbooks cost, improve course completion rate, and provide faculty with new instructional resources, those are the three main goals,” said Tom Caswell, an open education policy associate for SBCTC and the project lead, on a press call.

Caswell said that other states were excited to pick up on the resources Washington is offering since the top enrolled courses are often the same regardless of the state.

“So this kind of course sharing is an efficiency that makes sense,” he said.

The material works across all learning management systems and can be customized.

“There is a big incentive for state legislatures, who regularly spend millions on student financial aid that is used to purchase expensive textbooks, to invest in creating openly licensed textbooks and curriculum that students can use for free and that other colleges will constantly add to and improve,” Cable Green, director of eLearning & Open Education for SBCTC, said previously in a report on the project.

Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who initially sponsored the legislation three years ago, said the project would have an impact on financial aid modeling since a large part of the metric is based on the cost of textbooks.

“The cold hard reality is that it really is the beginning of the end of closed, expensive, proprietary commercial textbooks that are completely disconnected from today’s reality,” he said. “We are moving toward an era of radical openness.”

Caswell said some publishers have decided to collaborate with the project.

“We did leave the door open to work with publishers and we actually had some really great results with Cengage and with Flat World Knowledge in particular who stepped up and were willing to work with us,” he said.

According to a study by the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), the Open Course Library could save students $1.26 million during the 2011-2012 school year, which exceeds the $1.18 million cost of creating the courses. If all the state’s 34 two-year colleges adopted these texts, the study estimates a savings of $41 million a year, but faculty members are not required to use the materials.

Lindsey Cassels, an esthetics sciences student at Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, Wash., took a class using OCL’s public speaking course materials. “It was the least expensive and most beneficial course I have taken, since the course materials cost us no more than $30 out of pocket,” she said. “It is outrageous to pay $200 or more per textbook. In a four-quarter program, it’s enough to make students drop out.”

The OCL sought out existing open educational resources such as MIT’s open courseware and Carnegie Mellon’s open learning initiative, and then OCL filled in any gaps as necessary.

“The most important thing about OER isn’t that it is less costly, though it is, but that it encourages and gives educators legal permission to take content and make it better,” Green said.

Some faculty members have expressed concern about the quality of materials produced in this fashion, but Michael Kenyon, the mathematics department coordinator at Green River Community College in Auburn, Wash., said he was satisfied with his decision to opt for an OCL precalculus text.

“Our two main criteria for choosing textbooks are quality and price. The authors have simply written a better book at a much better price,” he said.

Each course was developed and peer reviewed by a team of instructors, instructional designers and librarians.

The Saylor Foundation, a provider of open college-level courseware, also announced Monday that it had formed a partnership with SBCTC, and Saylor has begun innovating on top of what OCL has done. It plans to release web versions of 26 of the 42 courses.

“Cutting student textbook costs by more than half is groundbreaking,” U.S. Education Department spokesman Justin Hamilton said in a statement. “Lowering college costs increases a student’s ability to take more courses, finish their degree on time, and enter the workforce prepared for success in a global economy. That’s not just good for them, it’s good for the country.”

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.


  1. I can’t seem to find the link with the online textbooks – Where is it?

  2. Nice article, I hope more textbooks move to open source. Check out which has a growing database of free textbooks, and looking for people to contribute.


  1. […] Bring them books you know they will want. College library with free online textbooks makes debut. […]