Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Open Textbooks: A Diversity of Voices in Open Learning

Creative Commons SemaforoaImage via WikipediaOpen textbooks are textbooks that are released with an open license, preferably with a Creative Commons "attribution" license. The textbooks under that license should be free to students and free to instructors to download, reuse, and remix. In other words, the least restrictive license possible. If an author spends years of hard work developing  ideas, why should he or she just give them away? There are a lot of reasons why , but they do not have to just give it away. There are a number of compensation models including grants, stipends, release time, tenure, etc. There is still a paradigm in this culture where corporations will be happy to pay for your ideas, repackage them, and sell them to others for a high price, and yes, you may even see some of that money. The problem is that the corporate business model is no longer sustainable. It will be for a while, but at one point, you have to accept that fact that by participating in that model, we are participating in a model that is more and more exclusive. Students have to walk away from the table because of the costs of education in general and the cost of textbooks in particular. There are ways to compensate authors for their work and cutting out most of the middle-man. There are commercial models for open textbooks but unless they are, in the words of the Open Textbook bill "made available free of charge to, and may be downloaded, redistributed, changed, revised, or otherwise altered by, any member of the general public" then they are only kind of open. Commercial corporations will still be screening the content, screening the authors, controlling the access, and setting the price. Why should an academic community give that much power to the book trade? There is too much concern about making the model sustainable for corporations and not enough concern for making education open for students

I can give you numerous examples of people embracing a new idea but attempting to solve a problem using the old paradigm. My favorite is a boss I used to have who would ask me to post information on the internet and then look at the webpage and say, "that is great, now print off 60 copies and distribute it out to the other departments." And we are this kind of cross-roads - we have a perfect storm of technology, ideas, and people, and we are ready for a change. As an instructional designer, I am interested in bringing instructors together to share their work and experiences and letting "textbooks" or OERs be the natural outcome of those communities. Instead of working on a single expensive book that benefits one person (the book publisher), lets foster a community of open scholarship that sustains the on-going work. Maybe we can even mentor students into the process.

The real value to the authors of open texts is that they are not drawing on their own work alone but they are getting access to a community of authors, revisers, practitioners, researchers, and adapters; a community of scholarship that will support the work of the textbook. A commercial textbook cannot take into account the social conditions of your community. A traditional commercial college textbook cannot be adapted to the deficiencies or advantages of the local high school. You can, for a price, however, buy "supplements" which is the commercial publisher of not-quite-entirely-unlike open textbooks hole card. Why let book printers in another state determine the needs of your community? I believe that a community of scholars can support an online English grammar better than any book publisher trapped in the two-year publishing cycle model. These conversations and decisions should be happening in colleges, not corporate boardrooms. Grammar, for instance, should not depend on a single authority, but should be recognized as the dynamic and living voice of the language. A community of open scholarship can take into account the evolution of language that is always going on around us. 

We need to recognize the value of having a diversity of opinions working on these problems. Characterizing these kinds of discussions as "bickering about licensesis just the kind of attitude that does not foster critical academic inquiry which is exactly what is needed for the sustainability and credibility of open textbooks. Critical thinking, apparently, is bad for business. I am not interested in stopping businesses or starting some revolution, but I think this is a great time to bring teachers together as communities of open scholarship (we have the technology, grants, and people) and not allow ourselves to be blinded by the pittance that corporations will offer us to look backwards. 

Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. The approach you suggest is quite interesting. I'm in mass com, and watching the media industries scramble to find "the next business model" completely skips over the philosophy of shared or dialogic culture to fall in the commodity line. In a way, we should have seen it coming, when advertising from the mid-1970s on was populated by business guys (almost always guys) taking airplanes, sending packages, having meetings, with no real object at the center of their activity.
    But I believe what you are suggesting requires a rhetorical solution: how would you get people to identify with a de-commodified idea of knowledge? How is it related to power in a culture where there is little but instrumental value?

  2. Very interesting article. I think the real challenge is to cut middlemen out of the textbooks business. However, I think authors should still be rewarded for their effort. Financial rewards, in particular, might be a powerful incentive to write better textbooks. I am writing a digital textbook on probability theory myself. At the moment, it is completely free, but I think it is wiser to keep it copyrighted: if one day I change my mind and I decide I want people to pay to access some of its parts, I can still do it; I think this does not diminish the benefits of giving most of it away for free.

  3. Hi Marco,

    I agree with you - if you have a particular goal with your textbook - you should use the copyright appropriate for that goal. One of the problems with commercial textbooks is that the corporations decide on which is the best textbook in a given field based on their marketing criteria - and that does not always mean it is the best textbook from an academic perspective. My agenda is to open up education to as many students as possible and lowering the cost of textbooks can significantly help that. I am interested in any model that provides free textbooks for students but the next best thing to a completely open textbook is a mostly open textbook. Flatworld Knowledge offers textbooks to students free online, charges moderately for hard copies, and still manages to compensate their authors.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    --Geoff Cain