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Free textbooks? Federal government is on track with a pilot program.

Open-source textbooks have emerged as a cost-effective solution for cash-strapped college students. They can download the material free or print copies for a nominal price. (Scott Anderson/NewsTribune via AP)
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The federal government’s first major investment in the free use of textbooks remains on track, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Monday in a letter examining a pilot program by the Education Department.

Congress designated $5 million in the fiscal 2018 budget to support the creation or expansion of open-educational resources: peer-reviewed academic material released under an intellectual property license that permits free use. The money is an outgrowth of legislation Durbin introduced in the fall.

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Weeks after the bill was signed into law in March, Durbin and other Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos urging her to use the legislation as a road map to carry out the pilot program.

Lawmakers listed several conditions for the creation of the program. They include using the full $5 million, giving special consideration to projects with the greatest potential to save students money and creating materials and licensing them to the public.

Frank T. Brogan, acting assistant secretary of postsecondary education, wrote Durbin last week to say the Education Department will adhere to the conditions outlined in the senator’s letter and that the agency supports development and sharing of open-source materials.

“Without a well-designed dissemination, faculty training and product assessment plan, these resources could end up sitting on the shelf, so to speak, and not providing the full benefit to students,” Brogan wrote.

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The Education Department official said the agency has begun the process of seeking input from the public. After reviewing the public’s responses, the Education Department will launch the competition early this summer, inviting colleges to submit grant proposals.

“If implemented properly by the Department of Education, this $5 million investment will save college students across the country millions of dollars,” Durbin said in a statement to The Washington Post. “I hope they will not squander this golden opportunity to make college more affordable. I’m encouraged by what we’ve heard from the department so far, but I’ll be watching and so will students across America.”

Proponents of open-educational resources have said the investment from Congress could further efforts to save students money on course materials. The cost of print textbooks soared 65 percent in the past decade, although prices are moderating, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Academic publishers have maximized profits from college textbooks by setting high prices to recoup their investment and to offset limited sales.

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Against that backdrop, open-source textbooks have emerged as a cost-effective solution for cash-strapped students. Open-educational resources include many of the same digital textbooks, streaming videos, tests and software that are produced by big-name publishers. Students can download the material free or print copies for a nominal price.

OpenStax, a nonprofit tied to Rice University in Houston, is one of the largest providers of open-source books. The company relies on funding from philanthropists, such as the Gates Foundation, to produce peer-reviewed digital textbooks for free and print versions for up to $55.

In addition to universities, a few states are funding open-source textbook programs. Colorado and Georgia provide grants to support the adoption of open-educational resources at their public colleges and universities.

Widespread adoption of open-source textbooks is ultimately up to professors who select and assign course material. Instructors are warming to open-source courseware, with a recent study by the Babson Survey Research Group, part of Babson College, reporting that the share of instructors using such material grew from 5 percent in the 2015-2016 academic year to 9 percent the next year.