Sunday, August 03, 2008

BoSacks Speaks Out: Free Textbooks Coming Near You

BoSacks Speaks Out: This is an amazing little article. The portents are huge for text book publishers, but might just have some traction for other publishing styles as well. What if educators banded together and formed their own network (publishing house)? It is not so far fetched. I am skeptical about a full open source text book implementation, because someone, somewhere has to get paid. But there are ways of incorporating both open source and capitalism. It is a new business model and one worth thinking about. It's not for everybody, but in the "long tail" style of doing business it doesn't have to be.

They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.
Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987), The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

Free textbooks coming near you
Brittani Lusk - Daily Herald

Textbook options: fork out the cash and buy the shiny new book, forget the book altogether and rely on class notes, or read it online for free.

Fall semester begins at Brigham Young University and at Utah Valley University in a little more than a month. Students will be looking for the cheapest way to get their hands on class materials, and they may have a new option.

Textbooks with open licenses are complete, scholarly college texts written by the same type of people writing traditional books, but these books have a twist. They've been placed online with the author's permission under an open license that allows students and instructors to read, print and even customize the text for free or a small fee. Students, professors and other advocates nationwide, including students and professors in Utah County, are pleading with authors to participate in the open textbook movement. One UVU professor is even writing an open textbook simply on principle.

Fighting the system
"I'm so upset about the whole textbook issue that it's actually motivating for me on the basis of just my values," said UVU professor Ron Hammond. He said his book "will be an act of community service to the whole country."

The UVU sociology professor, who last year stopped using traditional textbooks, has written six chapters of a sociology textbook that will be available online when he and his students finish it at the end of the year.

"I just finally got fed up," Hammond said.

He periodically publishes scholarly work in academic journals and isn't worried about losing royalties on the new book.

Some book publishers have contended that the work he is doing isn't real scholarship and his online manuscript won't be a real book. Hammond disagrees with the textbook company representative that criticized his work.

"This book is going to be better than the book that's on the market in terms of currency, because it's got links," Hammond said.

In his book, Hammond plans to link to current data from the Census Bureau and other government agencies. That gives him a real-time edge because most traditional books, he said, are usually one to two years behind when it comes to numbers. Having the book online allows Hammond to update the research whenever it changes.

Behind the cause
Hammond is one of more than 1,200 college professors across the nation, including at least three from Utah County, who have signed a statement of intent pledging to use open textbooks when available. The Campaign to Make Textbooks Available posted the Faculty Statement of Intent on its Web site,, earlier this year.

"It really shows that textbooks don't have to be expensive," said Nicole Allen, director of the campaign.

She said the key to decreasing costs that have been rising at double the rate of inflation for at least the last two decades is changing the market by adding more competition. That's where open textbooks come in.

"Students have to buy whatever textbook they're assigned," Allen said. "So publishers can choose whatever price they want."

She said finding a textbook online and printing it themselves gives students the choices they need to fight back.

"You can get it on pink paper," Allen said. "The idea is that students have more options."

Students in Utah have been lobbying their professors to use more open-source, free material. Kelly Stowell, executive director of the Utah Student Association, called the effort a grass-roots movement aimed at recognizing professors willing to use free materials.

"We'd like to recognize and reward professors," Stowell said.

At UVU, student leaders have been meeting with their professors and school administrators pitching the idea. Student Body President Joseph Watkins said the reception has been good.

"Everybody that we've spoken to is more than happy to help out," Watkins said.

Watkins said the students might gather the information and put professors using open-source materials into some sort of database so students can pick and choose which professors to take knowing who uses books and who doesn't.

In addition to Hammond, UVU information systems and technology professor Jeff Cold signed the statement of intent, as did BYU professor David Wiley.

"If I have an opportunity to get them a textbook for free, I will do so," Cold said.

Wiley has been using open source material in his classes for years.

"I made a commitment to myself a number of years ago that I wold only use free or openly licensed materials in my courses, and have stuck to that commitment since," Wiley wrote in an e-mail.

He's even written an open book and makes all his course materials public.

A new way of thinking
Cold said he'll use open textbooks when they're available, but he doesn't have a vendetta against book publishers.

"I think that at times, textbooks can be expensive. I don't think the publishers are gouging students," Cold said.

His interest in open textbooks is their timeliness. In information systems, technology changes before the books can be updated. Cold doesn't like teaching students to use operating systems from a book that is sometimes two versions old.

Hammond said the Internet model will help solve the lag that paper books face as well as serve his Google-generation students better.

"They want to know what they have to know and then they go find it," Hammond said.

He said the textbook learning model that worked in the past is fading.

"The point is that we can't say to them, 'Do it the way we did.' "

Hammond said he was once worried that material found on the Internet wasn't the same caliber as written material and that perhaps students wouldn't gain the skills they needed if they only surfed the net.

"I used to [think that], but I don't anymore because our society is computers-based and Internet-enriched," Hammond said.

He said students need the computer skills and should develop them.

"We don't know, but it looks like the paper version of knowledge is on its way out," Hammond said. "The Internet version of knowledge seems to be much more powerful, much more efficient."

Wiley said an open license doesn't automatically make a book better, but open texts have more potential because they can be added to and customized.

"You have made it possible, now, for others to make the changes they need to make in order for the text to really speak to their students. So open textbooks aren't automatically of higher quality than traditional texts, but they have the opportunity to become better over time," Wiley wrote.

Making it work
One pair of former publishing company employees is attempting to make open textbooks into a business model that serves the students and the book authors better than the publishing companies.

Eric Frank and Jeff Shelstad both left publishing companies to start Flat World Knowledge, an open textbook publishing company.

"Basically we're, as far as I know, the first commercial open textbook publisher," Frank said. Frank is the chief marketing officer for the company he founded and plans to offer open textbooks in the spring of 2009. Right now the company is testing and researching its products.

Wiley has been working with Flat World Knowledge as its chief openness officer, helping them with licensing issues and developing strategy.

Frank said when the system is up and running, students will be able to view books online, print them for about $30 or download an audio book for about $25. Students could also purchase PDF versions to print themselves.

"Our model here is, you decide," Frank said.

Flat World also plans to offer a smattering of study aids in an a-la-carte format similar to iTunes. Students can purchase one study aid such as a podcast or set of flash cards for 99 cents each. Instructors will also be able to customize a textbook by rearranging chapters or only giving students certain pieces of the text.

Frank said book authors will be as compensated or more compensated than they are by publishing companies because authors will continue to receive royalties on their book several semesters after it is released.

Frank said the traditional model, where students buy a new version of the book and then re-sell it, causing used books and pirated works to circulate, only allows authors to receive royalties on new books sold. That results in a steep drop-off in royalties after the first semester. Frank said that drop shouldn't happen in the Flat World model.