The open source textbook conundrum

College texts must meet certain standards, and they require a certain uniformity. Every teacher will customize their course, and higher-level courses may not even have formal texts, but there are many human costs in the middle of course creation. Open source, as a model, often fails to account for these costs.

text books image from Digital Journal
Flat World Knowledge of Nyack, New York says it has funding for a roll-out of its open source college textbooks next year, adding a former chair of Simon & Schuster to its advisory board.

Flat World will offer its texts free online, and distribute them at low cost on other formats. They promise to build social learning networks where students learn from one another.

On the textbook creation side I have long been interested in Connexions, a Rice-based project  using open source and the Internet to automate the creation side of the textbook puzzle.

Somewhere in the middle lies the conundrum. FlatWorld likely has not completely solved that puzzle, as this article from Digital Journal, from which the picture was taken, shows it launching in the fall of 2008. 

As we have seen elsewhere open source takes costs for collaboration, marketing and distribution down to zero. This is a very good thing.

But it also takes money for editing, specifying and (often) vetting texts out of the equation. This is fine for a ZDNet blog. For a text on world history, not so much.

College texts must meet certain standards, and they require a certain uniformity. Every teacher will customize their course, and higher-level courses may not even have formal texts, but there are many human costs in the middle of course creation.

Open source, as a model, often fails to account for these costs. As we have seen with news and music, authors are often left out on their own. Can we do this on an elite level and still maintain high quality with some uniformity?

Getting people into the middle of all this, and creating a reliable pile of cash with which to pay them, remains a key barrier to the rise of open source and related tools in college coursework.

Somewhere between free and expensive is a business model that can pay these necessary costs and still work both academically and financially.

Think you can find one?

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