The open source textbook conundrum

The open source textbook conundrum

Summary: 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.

TOPICS: Open Source

text books image from Digital JournalFlat 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?

Topic: Open Source

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Copyrights

    There's another issue, which is copyrights. I run a group of religious websites and one has a chart I prepared comparing Protestantism and Catholicism. I occasionally check the Net for links to my sites. I was quite surprised to find that the chart has been included in a curriculum for high-school-level home-schooling from a major California university. I don't have a problem with it being used (it definitely comes under the "fair use" exception because it is a small part of both my site and the curriculum), but I was never contacted about copyright permission, etc.--something that definitely WOULD have happened if a commercial publisher wanted to use the chart.
    • If the chart is reproduced...

      you have a case. A license of some sort would sort you. Have you checked the Creative Commons licenses?

      If, on the other hand, there's just a link to the chart then there's no issue.
  • What?

    I thought all information wants to be free. Isn't that what the FOSS maniacs have been trying to tell us for years?

    They couldn't be wrong, could they? You mean there might actually be a cost to obtain information? I demand to know what Richard Stallman is going to do to ensure there is never any money exchanging hands for information.
  • Yes, textbook authors and editors are mercenary people.

    Everyone does not choose to give of his talents like an open source volunteer.

    The line paraphrased is from Gilbert's libretto for The Gondoliers:

    Duke. ... (To Luiz.) Where are the halberdiers who were to have had the honour of meeting us here, that our visit to the Grand Inquisitor might be made in becoming state?

    Luiz. Your Grace, the halberdiers are mercenary people who stipulated for a trifle on account.

    Duke. How tiresome! Well, let us hope the Grand Inquisitor is a blind gentleman. And the band who were to have had the honour of escorting us? I see no band!

    Luiz. Your Grace, the band are sordid persons who required to be paid in advance.

    Duchess. That's so like a band!

    Duke. (annoyed) Insuperable difficulties meet me at every turn!

    Duchess. But surely they know His Grace?

    Luiz. Exactly ??? they know His Grace.

    Duke. Well, let us hope that the Grand Inquisitor is a deaf gentleman. A cornet-a-piston would be something. You do not happen to possess the accomplishment of tootling like a cornet-a-piston?

    Luiz. Alas, no, Your Grace! But I can imitate a farmyard.

    Duke. (doubtfully). I don't see how that would help us. I don't see how we could bring it in.

    Casilda. It would not help us in the least. We are not a parcel of graziers come to market, dolt! (Luiz rises.)

    The reaction of many desirous of earning an income might be considered hostile by Mr. Stallman.
    Anton Philidor
    • RE: textbook authors and editors are mercenary people

      I can vouch for that.

      In the early '90s I had agreements with some publishers of custom text books. In 1995, someone at two of my largest clients decided that the production budgets could be cut. My compositing skills were deemed no longer necessary as desktop publishing software had evolved to the point where slave labor, i.e., graduate students, could perform the task at virtually no cost. Couple that with print shops learning to use PDF files instead of requiring camera-ready copy, and I was out of that particular line of work. As this was my niche at the time, it became a struggle for me to survive in the world of commercial art and ad layout.

      My library of fonts and stock photos, research, illustrating and typesetting skills, not to mention investment in software, computer hardware, including high quality laser printers, lost considerable value, to me at least, overnight. What used to cost my partner US $1,000.00 to as much as ~$6,000.00 per book became an unnecessary production step, despite the loss of quality and readability. The finished product didn't look as professional, but was deemed adequate by someone, probably the author and/or editor.
  • RE: The open source textbook conundrum

    I am one of the founders of Flat World Knowledge. The post reflects a misunderstanding of our business model.

    Our textbooks are written by expert authors - leading scholars in their field, and/or successful textbook authors at major houses. They write the book completely. It is fully edited, peer-reviewed, and professionally developed, just like it would be at Prentice Hall, McGraw Hill, Cengage (the founders have been editors at all three), etc. Our authors update and maintain the books, just as they do in the traditional model. And, critically, they get paid a royalty rate above the industry average. On what?

    While we make our books available online for free, we sell offline formats like softcover print, audio, etc. We also sell digital study aids directly to students. Our authors are paid royalties on all of the above. Our authors will be at least as well compensated, if not more so, than they are under the traditional model (which kills authors because they write the book, get paid one time when it is sold new, and watch the same book get resold 5x in the used book market until they are forced to bring out a new edition).

    The open source model only comes into play for individual college instructors who can modify the book FOR THIER OWN COURSES, which increases the value to them. They can make their modified version available in our catalog for others to review and use if they want, but that is their choice. Key to the model is that the original, expert version will always be available for adoption.

    Thus, the model is a win for everyone. Students get lower cost options. Faculty get more flexible books. Authors get compensated more effectively, given that the traditional industry has lost control of how to monetize their intellectual property. And Flat World Knowledge makes a profit to continously reinvest in the business.

    We have signed up over 30 top academic authors in the past year, many who have top sellers at major publishers. They see traction in the model.
    • Thanks for writing and stay in touch

      Please feel free to stay in touch with me. I appreciate your writing and explaining more of what you're doing.

      How are you doing on the other side of the equation, on getting your books specified?
  • RE: The open source textbook conundrum

    Ufraner, what's to stop a second-hand market developing in the offline format open-source texts?