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California lawmaker proposes free digital library for public university courseware

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Initial proposal would dedicate $25 million to funding 'open source' digital courseware for approximately 50 courses common to the state university system.

As the Massachusetts Institute of Technology joins Stanford University in a plan to offer free online courses -- ones for which students can even earn certificates -- a law maker in the state of California is pushing an equally ambitious plan: a scheme to offer eventually all California university and college textbooks digitally. For free.

The Sacramento Bee reports that the California senate's president, Darrell Steinberg, wants to use the e-book format to help combat rising fees within California's public university system. The plan broached in early December would use $25 million in state education funds to acquire open-source course material for 50 "lower-division" courses at the University of California, California State University and community colleges. The goal would be to get that first courseware together by 2014, and then publish that material as an alternative text that students could use instead of having to pay anywhere from $600 to $1,000 for textbooks.

The Bee quotes Steinberg's rationale: "What we need here is a statewide push to say this is the policy of the state of California, that all students are going to be able to access quality instructional materials at a greatly reduced cost."

There are of course many things that will make this transformation a tough one to support.

Not the least of which is the suggestion that e-books might be harder for students to process than paper editions.

Earlier this year, researchers from within the California public university system published research suggesting that about 49 percent of the students within the system preferred e-books. One of the biggest challenges for students was how to highlight the concepts that seemed most meaningful to their coursework as well as how to make their own notes. Of course, the Kindle Fire wasn't on the market when the study was conducted, nor is this the generation that grew up managing many of their assignments through the computer, like many of my friends' elementary-school-age children.

Textbook publishers certainly aren't all that thrilled, either. The California plan would essentially be pitting publishers against "free" materials that are subsidized by taxpayers, an idea that is certain to raise objections.

I would imagine the experts who pour years of knowledge and intellectual property into textbooks are also watching this development closely. Should those experts really be expected to share that knowledge for free? It kind of brings a whole new meaning to the phrase: "Publish or perish."

Certainly, the idea that a better business model can be created around digital courseware is one that has merit, although I'm not certain that the government should be involved. As my colleague Joe McKendrick reported extensively during 2011, digital libraries are becoming an increasingly relevant topic for debate, one that we are certain to hear far more about during 2012. Here are some related stories for background:

(via The Sacramento Bee)

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure