UCD chemistry professor wins $250,000 grant for online textbook

The assignment: Look past the traditional textbook to make information more accessible and affordable for the college student. Show your work.

Six years ago, UC Davis chemistry professor Delmar Larsen took a crack at a solution. His idea was an open-access e-textbook network that would combine the coursework of faculty, students and other academics and be available free to anyone with access to the Internet.

His mantra: “Think outside the book.”

“The idea was to address the rising cost of education – it’s really grown a lot,” Larsen said. “A text about six years ago was about $200 for what I thought was a mediocre text. I felt bad about that and wanted to address that. ... It got to the level of helping (students) out with a text that was free.”

Today, Larsen’s ChemWiki network draws more than 2 million visitors a month – the most visited website on the Davis campus, say university officials. After years on a bare-bones budget, the network just received a $250,000 infusion from the National Science Foundation.

The grant will help Larsen and other educators develop similar e-text networks for science, technology, engineering and mathematics to provide students with easier, less costly access to course materials.

Known as the Dynamic Textbook Project, it’s one more part of an evolving open education movement that hopes to use technology to make college more affordable and accessible for more students. Key to the project is wiki – the Web application that allows people to collaborate on a website to add, modify or delete content. Students wrote the first ChemWiki entries, but Larsen soon got permission to add online material posted by other chemistry professors. As time passed, post-graduate students, doctoral candidates and faculty also contributed to the site.

Larsen ultimately received permission to fold in more than 35 sites of online textbooks on general, organic and physical chemistry. Student editors integrate other online materials into the ChemWiki.

Because the site contains links between different subjects, students can bounce from online textbook to online textbook inside ChemWiki instead of juggling standard textbooks. UC Davis biology major Sophia Muller said it also opened her eyes to the links between disciplines.

“I was surprised to see the overlap,” Muller said. “It’s easier to see the connections between different fields.”

UC Davis will share the new funding with a consortium that includes the Bay Area’s Sonoma State University, Diablo Valley College and Contra Costa College, Michigan’s Hope College and the University of Minnesota-Morris. The money, UC Davis officials said, will fund an expanded wiki network as well as a side-by-side classroom comparison of ChemWiki and a standard chemistry textbook at UC Davis next spring.

The spring study will split a UC Davis general chemistry class in half. One group of students will study from a standard textbook. The other students will use ChemWiki. Evaluators from the university’s School of Education will analyze the results.

High textbook costs have long concerned students and education advocates. A number of campuses have instituted book and e-book rental options, including the California State University system’s Rent Digital program, which provides access to digital texts at significant savings over new print textbooks.

New college textbook prices soared 82 percent from 2002 to 2012, at the same time that tuition and fees rose 89 percent, according to a U.S. Government Accounting Office report released in June. The same study showed 81 percent of colleges made textbook information available online to its students in the fall 2012 term.

“Textbooks are going up each year. It’s a big deal for students. It’s a big burden,” said Elisha Goonatilleke, who graduated from UC Davis in June with a degree in chemistry. She said she regularly shelled out $200 or more for each textbook she needed for her chemistry classes and leaned heavily on the free ChemWiki website for her laboratory work and other study. Goonatilleke now edits content for ChemWiki.

Richard Baraniuk, a professor at Rice University in Houston, and a leader in the open education movement for nearly 15 years, testified in mid-September before a House subcommittee on what he called the “access crisis.”

The engineering professor in 1999 developed Rice’s e-textbook authoring and distribution platform, Connexions, to offer free educational texts online. His new project for Rice, OpenStax College, is building a library of free online textbooks for the nation’s 25 most popular courses including biology, economics, physics and statistics.

“High text costs are putting high-risk students at greater risk. If they can’t afford the book, they won’t buy the book,” Baraniuk said in a telephone interview. “If you can address the high price of texts, you can make a major impact on high-risk students’ lives – they can graduate sooner, get a better job, register for more classes.”

Those in the textbook and higher education retail industries, however, sound a more cautious tone on open education.

The National Association of College Stores, an Ohio-based trade group, supports expanding the use of open access course materials to supplement standard texts. But, the group added, open access initiatives “should recognize economic barriers, limited technical aptitude, restricted access, various disabilities and differences in learning styles ... will prevent many students from being able to use Internet-only accessible content.”

The Association of American Publishers, in its response to the June GAO study, maintains publishers are responding to rising tuition and falling graduation rates by expanding the numbers of low-cost texts and electronic texts, saying “the publishers’ primary focus is on meeting the needs of students.”

But Goonatilleke of UC Davis expects open education to soon become the norm.

“I think this will be the future,” she said. “Not only UC Davis, but other students will benefit from this as well.”