New Hope For Open Source Textbooks

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Editor’s note: Verne Kopytoff is a technology journalist who lives the the Bay area.

A college textbook can cost a staggering $200. Over four years of study, students can easily spend thousands of dollars on books on top of a hefty tuition.

The situation is not much better in public elementary, middle and high schools, where taxpayers pick up the bill. California spends around $100 on every math and science book for its 2 million high school students, for example.

But textbooks don’t have to be such a financial burden.

Free digital open source textbooks are a promising alternative for states looking to cut costs and for universities trying to spare students from the soaring price of higher education. A growing number of laptop computers and tablets in the classroom provide an even greater opportunity to switch.

Indeed, the fledgling open source textbook movement is getting extra attention these days. Experiments are underway in a number of states and districts.

Last month, Utah’s State Office of Education said it would start a program to make open source textbooks available to students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Washington State’s legislature is considering a similar program.

The idea of open source textbooks is not new. They have been around for more than a decade, a period in which the major commercial publishers hiked textbook prices faster than inflation.

Until recently, however, open source textbooks gained little traction, in part, because of the byzantine process for approving school books. State and local school boards, which insure that books meet standards, are not known for innovative thinking.

California’s experiment with open source books started in 2009 when then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, facing a huge budget shortfall, endorsed a digital textbook initiative to quickly bring digital textbooks in the classroom. The effort, however, fell far short of the revolutionary change that he had hoped for.

A state body evaluated a number of digital high school textbooks as to whether they met state standards. But the review served as merely a guide for local school districts, which have the ultimate say in which books they use and are under no requirement that those books be open source.

Nor does it help the cause that most open source textbooks—produced by a mix of non-profits, academics and a handful of companies—lack the polish of the major commercial publishers like Pearson and McGraw-Hill. Anyone scanning the books will immediately notice a shortage of graphics, maps and photos that are standard in the more expensive books and important for making dry subjects interesting to students who may be half asleep in class.

One source of hope is a new initiative from Apple that offers publishers tools to more easily create digital textbooks and then sell them in Apple’s iBookstore for iPads. Kno and Inkling, two start-ups, offer competing platforms.

All three companies welcome working with publishers of free textbooks. In fact, a free open source statistics textbook from 20 Million Minds Foundation, a publisher of open source textbooks, is already available on Kno.

But, as it stands, major commercial publishers dominate the school market and charge exorbitant prices. They issue new editions every few years, making older books obsolete.

Buying their digital versions is only marginally cheaper. Some publishers even require buying a hard copy to get online access.

Contrast that with open source textbooks which are available for free online. Hard copies can be printed for free or, in some cases, ordered for around $25.

Printing books remains an important, albeit inconvenient reality because most schools can’t afford to give laptops or tablets to every student. Schools that do forego digital miss out on some of its inherent advantages.

Digital books can be updated quickly with new information like Pluto’s demotion from the 9th planet in the solar system to a dwarf planet. Teachers can also add new lessons based on what they plan to cover in class.

Open source is a bit of a misnomer for the books because it brings to mind images of Wikipedia, where anyone can edit an entry. But for a few exceptions, open source books are edited by paid experts and peer reviewed before being published.

The “open” refers to the licensing, which is less restrictive than with traditional textbooks and allows for free distribution for non-commercial purposes and copying.

Neeru Khosla, co-founder of CK-12 Foundation, a non-profit open source textbook publisher, said that the toughest part of open source textbooks is dealing with the state bureaucracy. California’s lengthy review of digital textbooks gave good grades to six of her organization’s books, although it’s unclear how many of them are being used in the state’s classrooms.

“It’s all about politics,” Ms. Khosla said.

Ms. Khosla, the wife of Vinod Khosla, the prominent venture capitalist, co-founded CK-12 five years ago (Mr. Khosla is a board member). In that time, people have downloaded more than 1 million of the group’s textbooks, which are intended for high schools.

It’s a good start. But there is clearly much more progress needed for open source textbook publishers to reach a broader public.

Competing against the major publishers is tough, even when making textbooks available for free. The major publishers have the big marketing budgets, the experience and the deep pockets to create study guides and other material that supplement the textbooks.

Sanford Forte, founder of the California Open Source Textbook Project, expects that in 10 years, open source textbooks will rise from an insignificant share of the market to up to 25 percent. But he does not foresee major publishers imploding during that time, though he said that they will likely have to adapt.

“They are being forced to change,” Mr. Forte said. “But I don’t see the open source movement completely replacing the commercial publishers.”