Professor tries to make books more affordable

By Viola Zhou

Dr. Walter Wilcox doesn’t believe education is a luxury for a few. In fact, he thinks everyone should be able to access high-quality textbooks.

Wilcox, a professor in the Physics Department, started the Open Text Project 12 years ago at Baylor with the aim to share free physics learning materials with those who cannot afford them. Despite great challenges, he has uploaded five books to the project’s website.

Wilcox wrote four of the books. He has also posted quantum mechanics notes he took as a teaching assistant at University of California, Los Angeles in 1979.

Thousands of viewers around the world download the materials each year. Many viewers are located in India, Brazil and Italy.

“A lot of this was developed for people who don’t have a lot of money,” Wilcox said. “Maybe that explains why it gets a lot of views in India. That’s very comforting to me.”

Wilcox said he is critical of commercial publishers, because they deliberately raise the prices of books to increase profits.

“Students are more and more pressed economically these days,” he said. “Prices are raising everywhere. Books are a major factor in students’ budgets.”

According to Baylor’s Student Financial Services, the budget on textbooks for one full-time undergraduate student reaches $500 per semester in the academic year of 2014-2015.

However, Wilcox said it was not an easy decision for him to start this project, considering he would upload his own work for everyone to access.

“I was very nervous at first,” Wilcox said. “I’m giving away all my ideas. I thought I was ruining all the chances I would have to write a book, because I was just giving them away.”

He said he still decided to do it because he wanted to share what the world had given to him with students all over the world.

Each of the books on the Open Text Project website took Wilcox years to complete.

“I do feel frustrated sometimes, because it’s hard to do all these things,” he said. “I have to know everything, even how to make an index for a book. Commercial places have a lot of people working for them. I just have me.”

Monroe, La. junior Mason Everett, who helped Wilcox develop a unit converter on the project’s website, said he appreciates what Wilcox is doing.

“It would be nice if a lot of textbooks were free,” Everett said. “It can be a few hundred extra dollars per semester. You can get some money back by renting or reselling your books. But it’s still money out of pocket that you can use for other things.”

Christopher Thron, assistant professor of Math and Physics at Texas A&M University Central Texas, collaborated with Wilcox on some of the website’s content. He said the trend of expensive textbooks will change, but authors should still be paid for their work.

“My own preference should be something in the middle, something not so expensive,” Thron said. “More and more professors are turning to self-publishing rather than publishing companies. Self-published books can be much cheaper.”

Thron said he is using the open textbooks concept in his linear algebra class. He is able to make videos based on those textbooks and modify content without violating copyright.

The concept of open textbooks has become a new business venture in Europe. Wilcox said he gained royalty by giving his materials to, a company that makes money by offering free textbooks with advertisements inside.

“Companies like Bookboon are doing the thing that I thought should be done,” Wilcox said. “They found a profitable and successful model to give away educational materials. It’s absolutely amazing.”

He said he hopes free online education will become the trend for the future and Baylor could play an active role in it.

“I hope Baylor will become more web-active, but it is difficult for them,” Wilcox said. “If they offer a whole bunch of free materials, students won’t pay as much to go to college.”

He said Baylor is trying to find a model to keep up with the pace of the Internet and his own work is supported by the Physics Department.

Wilcox said he is still trying to improve his project, which he said is one of his outlets for creativity and Christian activity.

“It’s something that has to be intentional, something that has to be thought out, something that has to be a life goal for somebody to do that,” he said.