Free online textbooks promise to save students cash

By Cory Ray, @coryray_DE

Students may not need to pay for textbooks in the near future. 

K. V. Shajesh, a physics lecturer at SIUC, plans to use a free online textbook service for his Physics 203a course in spring semester. 

The development of free online textbooks is not completely new, said Leo Silbert, a professor of physics at the university. 


Shajesh and Silbert initially discovered the website OpenStax College, which offers free online college-level textbooks, via email. Silbert said they looked through material in a textbook on the site and decided it offered an appropriate level of material for the algebra-based college physics courses.

“The information you get from the books is completely equivalent to current textbooks,” Silbert said. “In my mind, there’s no difference. They’re not watered down; they’re just at the same level. They’re basically a real textbook for free.”

OpenStax College began in 2012 as an initiative by Rice University and was partially funded through the Bill Gates Foundation. The website features 19 textbooks free to the public about everything from biology to history to pre-calculus. 

The textbooks have been adopted by several institutions including SIU-Edwardsville, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Pennsylvania State University and Princeton. 

Shajesh plans to integrate the free online physics book along with the usual assigned text for his class, but said he will predominantly focus on the online version. 

Despite its advantages, Shajesh admitted the virtual textbook is not exempt from flaws.

“It may not perfect. Every textbook has its issues,” Shajesh said. “This textbook will have its issues, but it’s as good as the existing textbooks and it’s free.”


After learning of the resource, Silbert proposed using OpenStax College for in-class textbooks to the undergraduate physics committee, of which he is a member. 

“As far as I know, we’re the only people [at the university] talking about this kind of thing,” Silbert said. 

Silbert has polled students in physics classes to gauge their interest in switching from physical to digital copies since discovering the website. His data indicated students prefer physical copies of books to online versions, but are willing to use free online textbooks instead of expensive physical copies. 

Chase Campanella, a junior from DuQuoin studying physiology and enrolled in Physics 203a, agrees with the majority of Silbert’s findings.

“I’ve always liked the hard textbooks, but I don’t see any problems with an online textbook,” Campanella said. “Obviously, the free choice is usually the best choice.”

Similar to private vendors, OpenStax College provides lecture notes and slides as well as solution manuals for both students and professors. OpenStax has a common license, meaning books can be updated, redistributed and edited by users as long proper citations are made. 

Ultimately, using the open resource is up to the course instructor who, like Shajesh, choose their class books.

“The cost of textbooks is pretty outrageous,” Silbert said. “I’m all for trying to bring down those costs and if something appropriate comes out like this new textbook, I’m all for it.” 

Cory Ray can be reached at [email protected] or Twitter @coryray_DE