Open Source: The Textbooks of the Future

By Josh Catone
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In America, where I live, and across much of the northern hemisphere, kids are heading back to school. I’m no longer in school, but everyone in my family save for me works in one. One of the biggest issues facing schools today is how to keep textbooks up to date in a cost effective manner, and make them more manageable and affordable for students. K-12 science textbooks, for example, published before August 24, 2006 likely talk about the 9 planets in our solar system. Except two years ago, the science world decided that there were just 8 planets.

How does a school system cost effectively update all those text books? “The problem with our textbooks is that their granularity is simply too large. It only takes one paragraph to be wrong, for the whole book to have to be reprinted,” says the non-profit CK-12 Foundation. And it can take anywhere from 1 to 6 years for school systems to update those textbooks.

The solution, according to Jane Park at Creative Commons, is open textbooks. Park calls open source, collaboratively created textbooks, the “textbook of the next generation.”

CK-12 has their own open source textbook site, Flexbooks, in which all materials are CC BY-SA licensed. The Wikimedia Foundation has operated the Wikibooks site for five years, which now has 31,000 plus pages of free and remixable course materials available. In fact, there are a large number of open textbook projects underway. Esther Wojcicki published a good overview of many of them last April for the Huffington Post.

Open textbooks have been endorsed by a recent study from a handful of Student Public Interest Research Groups entitled, Course Correction: How Digital Textbooks are Off Track and How to Set Them Straight. “Open textbooks are the right way to take advantage of the benefits of digital textbooks, so faculty and institutions should do everything they can to bring more open textbooks onto the market,” advises the report. “For faculty, this means giving preference to open textbooks whenever pedagogically appropriate. For institutions, this means providing incentives to faculty authors and pooling resources to develop a viable infrastructure to support open textbooks.”

Creating free, cheap, or open source education materials for students only solves half the problem, though. Distribution is an equally important issue. We talked about a solution for that a couple of weeks ago, when we wondered if digital textbooks would work for students. Pairing a low-cost, durable eBook reader (and costs are continually dropping in that area — Chinese computer maker demoed a $98 subnotebook this week, for example), with open textbooks would be great for students.

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  • TheBuzzSaw

    I fully support this. In the years to come, I plan on donating to any open textbook causes. The current cycle of authors selling textbook for absurd prices to poor students needs to end.

  • hfinger


    It’s not the authors who set the absurd prices but the publishers. Authors get about 10 to 12.5 percent of the cover price. But under the current publishing model, profits (if not for these, why would publishers bother), the cost of printing a large quantity of books, many of which will ultimately be pulped, warehousing them until they are all sold or pulped, and margins to retailers plus the costs of freighting orders and returns, is where the major costs are.

    Clearly a new model based on print-on-demand at widely dispersed outlets for physical books, or wikis or PDF files for electronic books is way to go as it cuts out the most costly factors in the traditional publishing and distribution set-up.

  • damienharrison

    Ive been looking at the Sony e-book reader but have been put off for a while as for some reason ebook prices are not much cheaper then the printed version, this I feel is a sense of greed in the publishers themselves as most of the costs involved are no longer their.

    For this initiative to take off the publishers have got to stop their greed!!

  • StevenHu

    It is not about greed, but about what the market will bear.

  • Colleges solve the “updated” textbook problem by just requiring the students to buy new texbooks each year, lol. Electronic textbooks would be nice, especially since the paper versions are simply so expensive. My Calc textbook was $100 in print and $30 for the eBook version, exept my professor required the print version so I didn’t have much of a choice. It would have been nice otherwise though, lol.

  • gmtt007

    I think another problem of high price is, the publisher makes a book too fancy driving its cost high. Why a text book has to have hard covers, glossy paper, too colorful? Why not print in soft cover with cheap paper – specially when a book has a self life of no more than 2 semesters anyway? If the publishers and schools want to make money by cornering the students that is one thing (because student have virtually no other good choices), but if the publishers and schools want to promote education and keep the price low by cutting all possible corners that is another thing, and I think former is what is in existence. I am hopeful that in this era of e-communication time is not far away when the students will get relief of this scheme.

  • Anonymous

    I think the idea of “open” textbooks sounds great. Anything I was required to buy in college was a big waste of money and a system like this just stomps all over anything I was required to use for textbooks in college. If colleges don’t embrace systems like this, it just shows how out of touch they are with current technologies, in my opinion.

  • I think that this sounds like a great idea. All the money I spent on books in college was pretty much a waste of money. If the colleges don’t embrace something like this it just makes them look out of touch with technology, which is not a good thing for colleges, in my opinion.