Open Source: The Textbooks of the Future

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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