$2billion for OERs could end the textbook industry as we know it…

The quite excellent work that has been done by Cable Green and others at in washington seems like the pinky toe into the water of today’s announcement of 2 billion US dollars being funneled into OER for community colleges and ‘other qualified institutions of higher learning’. The difference, of course, being that Cable’s has a plan, (and i think an awesome plan) and this is just money to support plans… either way. There is now BIG money out there to encourage people to build stuff they have to give away. muhahaha etc…

So, uh, dave… what does this have to do with textbooks
Cable’s project, and one of my hoped for results from this project, is about the creation of free (or next to free) textbooks for introductory courses in education. One of the most maddening part of being in the edtechosphdere is that we all know that if someone could just pull it together, we could have really nice, compelling textbooks that could provide nice free education to people. Five years ago, we were asked by the Nord Family Foundation to look into the idea of creating wikitextbooks for schools and pretty much came up with the fact that we just weren’t ready. This kind of commitment from the government, money at that scale, that much commitment to the idea of creative commons… this tells me that we might be ready to rid ourselves of the $150 introductory textbook and move to open content.

My dislike here is for a specific kind of textbook
I am not speaking about the collections of copyrighted, existing texts containing articles written by experts in a field. While I’m not crazy about this kind of copyright, it’s an entirely different argument. The works contained in those ‘textbooks’ are sifted from existing work and you are paying for the work of collecting these texts, pulling them together, and paying the rights (ideally to the authors…) to those who own them. It’s unfortunate that things work that way… but they do.

The kind of textbook that i mean is the one that is created to introduce people to various standard tasks in a field. Some of them are works of art written by a dedicated author after a lifetime of experience teaching a subject… at least, I’ve heard people claim these exist. I’ve never seen one. More likely they are factory built collections of barely passable material recycled from the 30 previous years of the same kinds of textbooks assembled by people treated like drones, with ‘authors’ who are paid at the end of the process for the rights to use their names, and then a $150 price tag is slapped on top of them.

They are not all like this. But certainly enough of them are to make the bar for being able to afford them ludicrously high. This kind of money (used wisely etc…) could fuel the kind of open textbook movement that could actually get entire states/countries to move to an open standard for textbooks, thereby saving crazy amounts of money, and making me happy (which is, of course, the main goal of any country)

Why I think this could be the end

  1. The US government support of Creative Commons removes the risk from trying it out. The biggest impediment to innovation, in my experience, is the inability for government educational professionals to shoulder the risk of innovation. We have long said “no one ever got fired for hiring IBM” and this has stayed fairly true in our industry. The open innovators have been outliers. And looking down the face of the public and answering the “but if it’s free doesn’t that mean it isn’t worth anything” question has always been a problem. No longer. Someone else bigger leaped first.
  2. This is enough money. In LAK11 we just read the bigger is different article from the 70’s. When this kind of money steps out onto the playing field, innovators from around the sector (and certainly outside of it) will come running. With this on the table even the most suspicious administrator will be tempted. (there are a host of problems associated with this… but that’s for later in the post)
  3. They aren’t alone. A host of funders have moved into the open game in the last few years (if not on a governmental scale) and there are a large number of people with skills to provide excellent advice. Just today I received an email from Doug McManaway (who admittedly works for a social media comms agency on behalf of the funder) pitching the http://nextgenlearning.org/ wave 2 funding. With Hewlett, Gates and a host of others putting money into things that people can’t sell… we have a chance to reach that tipping point (if you’ll forgive the expression.

Ideally… what does this look like?
These will, of course, vary from person to person and from circumstance to circumstance. There are some trades here in Canada, for instance, that have a rigidly standardized testing process. Let’s take welding as an example. The Red Seal in welding test is exactly the same across the country. The curriculum is created in almost every single school, updated 100 times over in 100 places. This is a super easy scenario for creating a standard curriculum saving everyone (except the publishing industry) a pile of money.

There are any number of introductory courses that generally fall along standard lines. There are concepts in math, philosophy, biology, computing, english… that are pretty consistent across general lines. There are already likely way more OERs out there than we need to create first year textbooks for these, but, as i mentioned earlier, this kind of support gives the green light for more people to risk the innovation. These OERbooks might fall along general topics lines with a grab bag of options that separate instructors could choose from for each topic. Doing intro to Python? Use a little MIT syllabus, mixed with some OERs from connexions, one from Dr. Jimmy, one from Jane the python geek and two of your own. Doesn’t matter. And, I might ad, this is already happening… just not on a broad scale.

The third option is for different groups to create their own unique books and release them to the public. One of the biggest criticisms to the OER move is that it will remove the choice from instructors from choosing texts. This problem will start to fall by the wayside if 20 different groups create competing complete open textbooks. In the end, I think this is the model with the best likelyhood of success. One company steps up to host the site where we can all vote on our favourite first year philosophy open textbook (I’m looking at you Creative Commons!) and we’re done. Anyone can find a complete open textbook that is free to students.

And if the idea doesn’t happen?
The PROBLEM with throwing lots of money at a problem is that it attracts a number of people who aren’t otherwise interested in the problem you currently have. Two billion dollars is enough money to attract ‘professionals’ form other fields who are looking for a payday. I imagine there being sharks flying in from dimly shielded existing textbook companies claiming to provide “more scholarship” or “better rubrics”. I fear that this might sound appealing to the people giving out the money who are likely to have come from a system where this has always been the way of judging the ‘value’ of a given piece of content.

Broadly speaking, large amounts of money rarely solves any problem. The model that Cable is running out west sounds really great to me, all the more due to the collossal amount of money that already been spent on OER projects that didn’t really get very far. More money thrown on a bad plan doesn’t make that plan better. I hope they call Cable and few other smart folks out there and get good advice.

There is also the tricky problem about how we deliver these textbooks to students. If we are giving web based textbooks to people who don’t have computers… that doesn’t help very much. How are we going to deal with stale content? How is it going to be maintained over time? How are all those people out there who are worried that students will simply copy and paste out of textbooks into answer keys going to learn that that doesn’t qualify as instruction? ๐Ÿ™‚


I like the idea of free textbooks. Particularly for those topics at the entry level where we all pretty much agree on what needs to be taught. It gives us a chance to open specialties to people who might just want to peak inside or to those who might want to engage. I think the textbook industry (at this level) is an artifact of an earlier time when we needed to package knowledge in ways that could fit in a truck. I can’t believe i’m saying this… but Senator stevens was right… the internet is not a dumptruck. We don’t need them anymore. I imagine that this will cost good people jobs, and that they’ll have to move elsewhere… and that sucks. The emancipation of millions of people, however, I think is worth it.

We really need to do this, I think, and I applaud the government for taking a run at it. I just hope they engage the open community for help. Please. We’re all out here ๐Ÿ™‚

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

9 thoughts on “$2billion for OERs could end the textbook industry as we know it…”

  1. I agree with about 90% of what you say here, with two notable exceptions. First, I don’t think attracting entities with a profit motive is bad. The problem hasn’t been with the profit motive; it’s been with the incentive structure. The combination of a thinly capitalized market and the reliance on physically printed tome that put the means of production and distribution into the hands of a few corporate entities has encouraged the formation of unhealthy monopolistic relationships. The textbook industry is by no means unique in higher ed in this regard. If people and companies can make a profit once by producing content that can be re-used many times, where’s the harm in that? I agree that there is a major issue of whether the content is quality, but that issue is present whether the entity producing the content is for-profit or not-for-profit. Again, it goes to incentive structures. If grants are awarded based on good criteria, you’ll get good results. If not, then not. It’s not who’s applying; it’s what’s required of them.

    Second, while I agree there is going to be a major shake-up in the textbook industry, just like there are going to be major shake-ups in the LMS industry and in the college and university “industry”, that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of any of these types of entities. It does almost certainly means a thinning of the ranks in each category. It means that all of us that endeavor to serve education in a variety of ways are going to have to earn our keep and justify the money that we get. There will be less and less money to just make education happen; you’re going to need to prove that you’re doing your part to make education better.

    Personally, I think it’s a thrilling and terrifying time to be working in any of these niches.

  2. I don’t think the profit motive is bad. I think it can be. I have a profit motive in my work… i go to work in the morning etc… your distinction is an important one and I agree with it.

    As for the end part… yeah. I know. I just like the sound of it ๐Ÿ™‚

    txs for the comment.


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