Why textbooks should be open source

In the past few years, there has been a push for open source content, and enough resources have been created so that schools can completely do away with the traditional textbook. However, adoption of open source content has been low, and the vast majority of schools are still relying on tradtional textbooks.

Here are some reasons besides "they will cost less" that school districts (and educators) should be pushing for open source content for schools.

  • Reduced cost for transportation if in digital form
    Schools can download the textbook and (if necessary) print it out on campus as they need it, which means they can pay for bandwidth, which most schools already do, instead of paying for shipping.
  • Authors paid for hours worked, not for uncertain future sales
    I’m an author of a textbook. It has not seen wide adoption, partially because it is a 1st edition, and partially because the market for the textbook I co-authored is pretty much saturated with a competitors product. I spent many hours writing this textbook, and have worked out that my wage for writing the textbook works out to about $2 an hour. In an open source model, you can release the book once it is published, and just pay the author for the time they’ve worked. Given the enormous savings to school districts after the restrictive license has been removed, this actually makes fiscal sense too.
  • Easier to keep updated since anyone can legally make revisions
    Textbooks can be immediately updated as soon as our knowledge of an area increases, or if an error is found in a textbook. Compare this to the speed it takes to update a typical textbook where the only incentive to update the textbook is to increase sales.
  • Can be provided easily in any format
    Most textbook are provided in one or two formats, meaning that once you buy a textbook, you are locked to the mode the textbook is available in, whether that is paper, or a pdf. When the textbook has an open source license, it can be legally reformated for any device.
  • You can be altruistic and provide curriculum to those who really need it
    There are lots of places in the world which can not afford to create their own resources for their schools. Although there are cultural implications to sending them our Westernized resources, the open source license means they can customize the content for their needs. The creation of open source content is therefore also a charitable activity.
  • Pick and choose what you want/remixable
    If the resource doesn’t work for you, you can fix it. You can mix multiple resources, and you can customize the content to whatever your needs are. Try doing that with a traditional textbook. This gives teachers more autonomy over the materials they use.
  • Redistribute resources
    Even if you print an open source textbook, the total cost of the textbook is maybe $10. You don’t really care as much what happens to the textbook if it only costs $10. You can take all of the people and resources that were involved in the storing, shipping, and tracking textbooks and use them more efficiently elsewhere.
  • Doesn’t need to be just paper
    A digital "textbook" could be so much more than just paper…
  • Collaborate between countries
    As someone who doesn’t live in the US, I certainly know how much licensing gets in the way of sharing resources across the border. So often we have to wait ages for resources available elsewhere in the world to become licensed for us in Canada. With an open source license, which much more easily be transfered from one country to another, this access barrier is dropped. Now we can collaborate across cultures and across borders much more easily than ever before. This will also allow for cross-cultural exchange. Imagine being able to download chapters about the American Revolution from the US and UK perspectives.
  • Less work for each district
    School districts can share the work for creating content. While some of these resources will be specific to a particular part of the world, much of what we teach in different parts of the world is almost exactly the same. Each school district can therefore do a little bit less work and focus on maintaining their own regional specific content.




  • Truth in advertising: I work for an education publisher that includes textbooks amongst our offerings

    That said, I bring a sense of the business as well as being an educator to the topic.

    1) Reduced costs

    I appreciate that the assumption of reduced costs is from shipping, not from authoring/production of the textbook. An astronomical portion of the textbook cost is sales and marketing. My premise is that books cost more than they need to because the people selecting the books (teachers) are not the people paying for the books. Publishers spend a lot of money on freebies, useless ancillaries, and perks to get our books into classrooms. I have more than once been asked by a teacher “What will I get if I pick your book?” The Texas instructional materials director took great pride at a conference two years ago that Texas schools get all of their teacher laptops and LCD projectors from publishers as a part of textbook adoptions.

    So yes, open source would save shipping, but that is hardly the reason that textbooks are too expensive.

    2) Author pay

    It is an incredible challenge to author a successful textbook. A handful of authors have made and continue to make a great amount of money from the traditional royalty system. A work-for-hire system would be beneficial for most potential authors. It would also deprive authors of the potential to make much more. A few publishers have gone to a work-for-hire system with great success.

    3) Easier to keep updated

    Digital publishing will make this a reality whether it is open-source or proprietary.

    4) Provided in any format

    This will benefit the few, but publishers are already pretty willing to be flexible if the market demands it.

    5) You can be altrusitic

    True enough; I know my company works to benefit all learners in all communities, but we are a business

    6) Pick and choose

    True enough, but few teachers and schools seem to want to spend the time to do this. Many teachers do ad hoc supplementation, but few are willing to do the work to create a consistent and viable curriculum taken from many sources. Many teachers want someone to do the work for them. The video talks about the horrors of teachers being asked to parrot a textbook curriculum. My experience is that many teachers wouldn’t find that so horrible. Teachers ask publishers to tell them how to differentiate, assess, and teach. We are expected to provide lecture Powerpoints, worksheets for every possible student type, and self-graded assessments.

    That all said, this seems to be the model the US government through the Common Core would like to move to. That is, a repository of open-source materials written by grant-funded writers from which schools and teachers could create a curriculum.

    7) Redistribute resources

    It isn’t just about writing and manufacturing a book. Instructional design, art production (and permissions), and developing teacher support materials are also part of the cost. Is these considerations all rolled into the open-source materials?

    8) Doesn’t need to be paper

    True enough; open-source will exploit digital opportunities more quickly because open-source doesn’t need to wait for the market for digital resources to grow. The possibilities for digital instructional materials is vast and it will be the open-source community that will lead.

    9) Collaboration between countries

    Probably very true

    10) Less work for each district

    Yes, and no; right now the districts don’t create very much content, so going open-source will create more work. Even if the US model I mention above works and districts are merely adapting and selecting content, that is still a greater task than the current reality of selecting proprietary textbooks (and often asking publishers to do any desired localization).

    I don’t think comments are supposed to be as long as the blog, but I think it’s worth considering the reasons the current system (as dysfunctional as it is) exists.

  • David Wees wrote:

    1. Marketing costs

    I have the feeling that if textbooks were free, marketing them would be a much different prospect, so what you are suggesting as costs that aren’t reduced in shipping would be greatly reduced by the lack of marketing. It would be the responsibility of school districts to find suitable open source resources, and then share these options with teachers. The open source movement in software has actually resulted in quite a bit of competition as different groups of people each think their solution is the best, and compete with other people offering similar solutions.

    2. Author pay

    If the vast majority of authors don’t receive enough pay for what they are doing, why are they doing it? Yes, a very small number of authors actually get really good money for selling textbooks (I’m thinking Stewart of the Calculus textbook fame), but most receive far less for their efforts than they deserve. If schools paid authors a fair wage for their work, and then licensed the work as open source, the only people who would lose out in terms of costs would be the publishers.

    3. Easier to update

    The thing is, I can update the textbook myself if it is open source, and I can share my updates back to the community. I can’t update a textbook under the traditional licensing model because it’s not legal for me to do so. I have to go through the publisher to see my updates in place.

    4. Creating resources

    If you go far enough back in time, pretty much every teacher created all of their own resources. We now rely on other people to create resources as a matter of convenience. However every teacher customizes resources, whether it is choosing which questions to use from the textbook or collecting resources from multiple textbooks. Almost every math teacher I know does not rely on a single source of information for their work. I just think that open source licensed content is easier to pick and choose from.

    5. Redistribution

    Yeah, those would all have to be included as part of the model. The artwork in the textbooks I’ve seen has been mostly flush, designed to make the textbook stand out against other textbooks. Euclid’s Elements was used for at least a thousand years, and it has no frills.

    6. More work

    I think you are right on this one. It’s more accurate to say that although going open source is more work, that work can be shared among many people and between many school districts.

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