Open Source Textbooks: History and Recent Developments

On May 6, 2009, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched an initiative to make available free digital textbooks for high school students.  California’s Secretary of Education, Glen Thomas, was responsible for ensuring that digital resources were available for use in high school math and science classes this September.  According to Governor Schwarzenegger, California’s budget crisis motivated the initiative, which is supposed to “reduce education costs, help encourage collaboration among school districts and help ensure every California student has access to a world class education.”  This post outlines various models that have been implemented in response to the initiative and elaborates on related endeavors.

The idea for open-source textbooks is not new.  In 2002, the California Open-Source Textbook Project attempted to produce a history textbook using Wikibooks.  It was then estimated that such an initiative could save the State of California $200 million per year.  However, to date, the project has yet to produce a complete book.  In resurrecting the open-source textbook dream, Governor Schwarzenegger specifically asked developers to submit their digital textbooks to the California Learning Resource Network (“CLRN”), which was established by California’s Board of Education over 10 years ago to store online educational resources.

In response to the initiative, various nonprofit organizations and leading textbook publisher Pearson Education attempted to release material that would be up to CLRN’s content standards.  Surprisingly, the nonprofit organization CK-12 Foundation seemed to fare the best, submitting seven complete books, which all scored particularly well, while Pearson Education’s biology text book fell flat when compared to the content standards.  Interestingly, the highest rated books were almost always written by single authors or in small teams.

In addition, Flat World Knowledge has expanded on the open-source textbook initiative by targeting college students.  The company recently announced that it now has approximately 40,000 college students at 400 colleges who will use their digital textbooks this fall.  Flat World Knowledge co-founder Eric Frank argues that the shift in demand to cheaper, digitally available textbooks is, in part, the result of college faculty realizing the significant financial burden placed on their students.  He argues that by using the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence, faculty are unencumbered in the sense that any professor can simply register on Flat World’s site and let students know the book is available.

However, others such as Chris Anderson, author of Free, argue that the future in free online digital textbooks lies in the realm of crowd sourcing, which would not only bring down the cost of textbooks, but also improve their quality.  In fact, Sun Microsystems founded the nonprofit Curriki project, which is built on the XWiki platform and designed to allow users to create and change content through a user-friendly interface.  However, Curriki’s textbooks were among the lowest scoring of the book submitted to California’s board of education.  Curriki spokesperson Peter Levy argued that the low score was partly due to poor communication between the Board of Education and Curriki.

In any event, it appears that the use of open-source textbooks is slowly becoming a reality.  It remains to be seen whether the digital textbook world will be populated by single authors, or whether the wiki-style textbooks will increase in quality such that they are well suited for academic study.