Wednesday, July 23, 2008

E-Texts and Free Texts: Are Open Textbooks the Next Great Things?

At my school we recently spent tens of thousands of dollars on textbooks for only a handful of our courses. With some books weighing in at a hefty $170 per unit, it isn’t hard to imagine how schools, districts, and in the case of many independent schools, families, spend exorbitant sums each year on textbooks for their students.

Perhaps, though, appearing just over the digital horizon, help is on the way. Perhaps the reign of ten-pound and hundred-dollar textbooks finally is drawing to an end. Perhaps textbooks soon will go the way of handwritten letters and 8-track tapes. Perhaps, textbooks will be replaced by e-texts and free texts known as Open Source textbooks or Open Textbooks. How? Let me explain.

For starters, a recent article in TIME magazine and a recent story on NPR tell of a company, Flat World Knowledge LLC, whose goal is to stage a coup in the textbook industry. Flat World will offer free, yes free, textbooks beginning in just a few short months. These texts will be available to anyone via their website. To be fair to all you cynics, Flat World remains an unknown entity so I’ll offer something else to you for free.

If Flat World isn’t good enough for you (yet), would you be interested in a chemistry textbook, Concept Development Studies in Chemistry, developed at Rice University? How about a calculus text, Calculus, from MIT? Did I mention these are free?

So, how are these organizations offering free textbooks when textbook publishers keep telling us how expensive textbooks are to produce? The answer is in Open Source. Open Source is a term that computer geeks recognize immediately. Open Source generally refers to software and/or source code that is available for public use, public manipulation and public collaboration. The Open Source philosophy has been adapted to the written word and electronic information and adopted by institutions and organizations like MIT and Connexions. (In fact, MIT has taken it a step farther and offers not only free texts but also Open Source model courses called OpenCourseWare.)

Open Source communities like Connexions tend to organize information in modules and then link the modules together to form collections, courses or texts. Authors who wish to contribute can contribute their ideas and allow others to use their ideas with Creative Commons open-content licenses. Connexions, just one example of an Open Source community, is a great site organized into a number of subjects and it’s fully searchable.

Am I ready to toss my traditional textbooks in lieu of e-texts available for free online? No, but I am intrigued. How great would it be to tell parents of Calculus students at your school that your department is supplementing the adopted Calculus text with a text from MIT! And, to sweeten the deal, the MIT text is on a flash drive that the students can take wherever they go! And, best of all, the MIT text didn’t cost families or taxpayers anything at all!

So, the elephant in the room… The most obvious weakness at this point in the world of Open Source texts, perhaps excluding texts from universities such as Rice, MIT, Texas A&M, etc., appears to be quality control and quality assurance. The same arguments used against Wikipedia could be applied to some Open Source texts, modules, etc. However, if a trained educator helps students discern which are trustworthy and which may not be as reliable, e-texts suddenly seem more appealing. To take this a step further, if a trained educator, an expert in one’s field, evaluates an Open Source text or module before presenting it to students, the e-text becomes a potentially valuable tool (worth every penny paid for it). Another obstacle or challenge you may face with Open Textbooks centers on textbook adoption policies and procedures. Judy Baker of Connexions offers advice on Open Textbook Adoption that may help you overcome such a challenge.

In light of this discussion, where do you see textbooks in five years? Ten years? Are Open Source texts a viable option for schools? Have you used Open Source texts and, if so, what has been your experience with them? Are you intrigued by Open Source texts and modules for your school? Should the next generation of educational leaders be willing to take risks on ideas like Open Textbooks?


noJ said...

Nathan - full disclosure - I am one of the founders of Flat World Knowledge. I wanted to address two of your very good and thoughtful points:

1. Free ebook vs. traditional book: one of the key technological advances that makes this a non-issue is print-on-demand. For example, a FlatWorld book will be available free online, but also available in black and white print for about $29, color print for about $50, audio, kindle, etc. My point? You can get access to a digital version AND a print version for 1/4 of the price of a traditional book.

2. Quality: this is a major issue, and I will only speak for FlatWorld here. We come from Prentice Hall and McGraw Hill where we produced many of the top selling books. At FlatWorld we will develop our books similarly. They will be from leading authorities only. They will be peer-reviewed. They will be professionally illustrated, designed, accuracy checked, supported by teaching supplements, etc. We fully believe that open textbooks will only work if the quality IS comparable.

Thanks for the chance to clarify, and thanks for your support of open textbooks.

Nathan Barber said...

Thanks for the input. Once educators understand that ebooks are peer reviewed and used successfully in schools willing to think creatively, I believe ebooks will become a viable option. Open texts, beacuse of the nature of the open access to contributors, may take slightly longer to catch on. Either way, discerning educators will treat these like videos, the internet, etc.: keep and use what works and what has value and disregard the rest. Thanks again for the input.

Phil said...

Good post, yet again Nathan. I tend to think that e-texts will become a larger part of the future. When asked, some of my students still prefer hard copies of textbooks, however.

At the same time, I've contemplated doing class without a textbook, and using mostly on-line docs and photocopies of docs--or at least given the opportunity I'd certainly give it a go.

james said...

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