NORMAN — If University of Oklahoma student Mandi Gatlin had enrolled in Introduction to Sociology last year, she could have expected to pay between $50 and $100 for the course's textbook.
But because she enrolled in the class last semester, Gatlin got her book for free.
Gatlin, 18, was one of about 700 students who used a new kind of free electronic textbook in the class last semester.
The book, which was published online as a part of a Rice University program, is one of a handful of titles the program offers. But developers say they expect to see it expand over the next few years.
Students could access the textbook using several different devices, including downloading a PDF version to phones or e-readers or reading a web-based version on a laptop. Students also had the option of printing out the portions of the book they needed and using them like a physical textbook.
“It's worked great,” Gatlin said. “It's really convenient.”
This semester wasn't the first time Gatlin had used an e-textbook. But in the past, Gatlin, of Tulsa, had to buy the physical textbook to get access to the electronic version.
Having access to the e-textbook was a bit more convenient, she said, but requiring students to buy a physical copy eliminated any cost savings they might have hoped to see.
Research shows Gatlin's experience with e-textbooks isn't uncommon. A study conducted over four semesters at Florida's Daytona State College showed students who enrolled in a pilot project that used commercial e-textbooks paid nearly as much as they would have paid for physical textbooks.
According to the study, which was released last year, students who used e-textbooks in many of the college's courses saved only $1 over students who bought the physical copies.
Kelly Damphousse, Gatlin's professor in the course, said he began using the free e-book after being frustrated at the high cost of the textbooks he had been asking students to buy. Most sociology books cover the same material, he said, but the price tends to be from $60 to $150 even for a paperback book with no photos.
To make matters worse, he said, companies tended to publish new editions each year, so students couldn't buy used copies or sell their textbooks back to the bookstore at the end of the semester.
So Damphousse, the associate dean of OU's College of Arts and Sciences, began looking elsewhere for a cheaper option for his classes. He considered writing his own book using open-source materials.
But then he came across Rice University's nonprofit OpenStax program, which offers free online college textbooks. Besides the fact that it was free, Damphousse said he was attracted to the book because it seemed to move easily across platforms, so it would work for every student, no matter what kind of technology he or she had available.
“Everyone in my class has equal access to the book,” he said.
Making the book free and openly available could help student performance in the class, he said. In semesters past, he has noticed that many students don't buy the book because it's simply too expensive. OU places copies of the book in the library, but that still isn't ideal, because the number of copies is limited, and students still need to go to the library to find it, he said.
Richard Baraniuk, a Rice engineering professor and the founder of the program, said the project is limited in scope for now. OpenStax offers only five titles, he said, but he hopes to see that number expand with additional funding from private foundations.
“Just imagine a textbook where every kid gets their own book, because every kid is different,” he said. “That's really the future of education.”