Can the founders of Sun Microsystems finally break our textbook habit?

The time is ripe for a drastic change in the educational textbook market. Can the CEO of the now defunct Sun Microsystems make it happen?

Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems, has been a long-time advocate of free, open source textbooks and educational materials. Now that Sun is no more, he and Vinod Khosla (co-founder of Sun) are more actively pursuing their efforts to radically change the way educational materials make it into kids' hands and, hopefully, taking us closer to a point where our reliance on expensive, dead-tree textbooks goes the way of their former company.

McNealy and his social learning/textbook site, Curriki, were profiled by the New York Times yesterday and he called out something that most of us already know: the cost of textbooks is unacceptable and open source models can completely disrupt the multibillion dollar industry to the benefit of worldwide education.

As he told the Times,

“We are spending $8 billion to $15 billion per year on textbooks” in the United States, Mr. McNealy says. “It seems to me we could put that all online for free.”

Curriki itself is certainly worth a look, although the Times article notes that McNealy is having a hard time raising the necessary capital to make it really competitive with more traditional publishing approaches. Interestingly, while many textbooks are largely aligned with California and Texas state standards (since they are the largest textbook markets and tend to set trends for rest of the country), materials on Curriki can be aligned with standards in all 50 states.

Similarly, teachers and content experts can easily contribute materials to the site:

  • Publish your best curricula for the world to see and use.
  • Use materials in the Curriki repository to build your own curricula.
  • Get expert feedback on resources you contribute.

A closely related project (financed by Vinod Khosla and run by his wife, Neeru) is CK-12. I featured CK-12 a while back when they were the first open source textbooks to meet approval in California.

The point of both of these efforts is to bring the very open source software principals that drove Sun to first change its business model and then, ultimately, to weaken it enough to become an acquisition target, to the development of learning tools and texts. McNealy, in fact, hopes to create an open source toolkit for robust assessments and an ecosystem for the free and open development of high quality learning materials.

What remains to be seen is whether he and other like-minded individuals can break the stranglehold that textbook publishers have on schools. This requires a real change in mindset for teachers, administrators, parents, and students, the vast majority of whom regularly use technologies that render textbooks obsolete, yet continue to insist upon dead-tree textbooks in classrooms and backbacks. Say what you will about Sun Microsystems and its ultimate demise; McNealy is right on this one.

Knowledge is everywhere, from MIT's OpenCourseware project to Wikipedia. Content experts and great teachers set aside mandated textbooks every day in favor of their own materials and those they have culled from the best resources available. Textbooks as we know them are an anachronism...Here's hoping Mr. McNealy has more luck with Curriki than he did in the final years of Sun.

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