LibreTexts plans to develop a complete set of free “open educational resource” textbooks for students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

A growing number of students pursuing degrees in chemistry and other technical fields may soon have access to free online textbooks for their core classes, thanks to a $4.9 million federal grant award that will benefit the leading developer and distributor of open textbooks, the LibreTexts Project.

LibreTexts is based at the University of California, Davis, which says it will use the award to expand the service over the next four years, transforming it into a “next-generation hub” for the production and distribution of open educational resources (OER).

Often written by teachers and students, OER textbooks and course materials are typically made available with permissive licensing that allows them to be freely redistributed.

With the cost of textbooks and course materials rising faster than college tuition and fees, OER textbooks are seen as a promising avenue to cut the cost of obtaining a degree (see article, “How college students (and their teachers) are taming textbook costs“).

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students attending 4-year colleges spend about $1,263 a year for books and supplies, and textbooks for students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are among the most expensive because they become outdated so quickly.

LibreTexts employs a crowdsourcing model that allows textbooks to be continuously updated. Because the materials are online, errors can be corrected quickly when flagged by students and teachers, backers say.

As a first step to building a library of course materials for students majoring in career and technical education (CTE) fields, LibreTexts plans to focus on developing all of the textbooks needed for students to complete a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with “zero textbook costs” (ZTC).

“This will be the first comprehensive set of ZTC OER textbooks for a STEM bachelor’s degree curriculum,” backers said in their grant application. “Given that chemistry is a ‘central science’ and plays a supporting role to many other degrees, the complete Chemistry LibreTexts will have broad impact and will be a powerful example for other fields to follow.”

UC Davis will also use the grant to expand LibreTexts libraries in physics, mathematics, biology, statistics, psychology and neuroscience, and distribute them “nationwide and internationally.”

The LibreTexts Project is a consortium of 12 campuses including UC Davis; Hope College (Michigan); Saint Mary’s College (Indiana); the University of Arkansas, Little Rock; and Prince George Community College (Maryland). Seven California community colleges are members: Contra Costa College, Diablo Valley College, Los Medanos College, Sacramento City College, American River College, Cosumnes River College, and Folsom Lake College. The California State University system is also a partner.

Although open textbooks are catching on, publishers like LibreTexts must expand their catalogs to cover a broader range of subjects if they want to capture more market share — and convince teachers to use their course materials.

OpenStax, an OER publisher based at Rice University, now has a 16.5 percent adoption rate among faculty teaching introductory-level classes that “rivals that of most commercial textbooks,” according to an extensive survey by Babson Survey Research Group.

A longtime news reporter and editor, Matt Carter is out to help consumers find the information they need to make informed decisions about their personal finances. He's an avid producer and consumer of news and analysis about new business models and tools, market trends, and politics and regulations. Email: [email protected]