Coursera to offer students free online textbooks, with conditions

First came free online courses. Now come — with a few conditions — free online textbooks.

Coursera, a provider of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, from dozens of universities, announced Wednesday a partnership with several publishers to provide portions of certain textbooks free for students to use while they take the courses.

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The course materials — from publishers including Cengage Learning, Macmillan Higher Education, Oxford University Press, SAGE and Wiley — would be available through e-readers from the student-services company Chegg.

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller said MOOC students would not be able to print or download the free texts available through the deal. But she said there would be significant benefit for a global learning community that has flocked to free online education.

“So many of our students really can’t afford the price of a textbook,” Koller said. For many, she said, “even a $30 or $40 e-book is the cost of a month or two of wages.”

Koller said the agreement will help instructors who felt restricted in what they could require students to read. She also said it will help publishers market full versions of their books to those interested in buying them.

Coursera, based in Mountain View, Calif., launched in April 2012, and the company has more than 3 million registered users. Along with edX and Udacity, it is one of the most prominent MOOC providers in a fast-emerging market.

Cynthia L. Selfe, an English professor at Ohio State University, said the textbook agreement will benefit thousands who are taking a MOOC on Coursera that she teaches with a group of faculty. The course, Writing II: Rhetorical Composing, started in April. It will soon add instructional materials from the publisher Bedford/St. Martin’s, Selfe said, as a result of the deal.

“Remember, this is a course offered for free,” Selfe said. “You can imagine that many of the people might not have access to a lot of the learning resources they might want or need.”

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