Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

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.