Monday, October 1, 2012

California's Creative Commons Textbooks


Image courtesy of user opensourceway on Flickr
This week, a tip-of-the-hat to Matt Goode for the find.

California has just passed a law that will see state universities create and distribute 50 "open" textbooks, available both in digital download format and dead-tree hardcopy if you prefer.

I think the big news here is the Creative Commons license.  Essentially, the textbooks created here are open source.  Like computer code, you can download the textbook, keep the parts you like, remove the parts you don't, and add new parts of your own creation if you wish.  A movement has been taking off in the last two to three years with this kind of open courseware / open textbooks.  The Horizon Report, an annual "what's coming next" for education technology, identified in 2010 the use of open textbooks as encouraged within one year (the report issues one, three, and five year horizons to adoption).

The software industry had a huge crisis of confidence with "open" in the 90's and early aughts.  Microsoft fought hard to kill open source competition (namely Linux).  Early arguments against open source were that "amateurs" could not develop code of the same quality as paid professionals, that without funding open source could never develop bug-free and reliable software, and that nobody would be interested in devoting their personal time to the development of open source, etc.

We're already starting to see some of the same arguments from for-profit textbook publishers versus open courseware.  Susie Scienceteacher could never develop a textbook on her own that would be of the same quality as that produced by a professional author and a team of editors, and without funding Susie's textbook will never rid itself of errors or omissions, and why would Susie or anyone like her ever want to waste her time working on a free textbook that she will never make money from?  Meanwhile, some of the big publishers (Pearson, Macmillan, Cengage) are taking the Microsoft model and are suing companies that are trying to build libraries of open textbooks.  Open threatens their business model (so they assume), so it must be exterminated.

Free open source software (FOSS) won the war.  It took 10 years, but today FOSS powers (in part) almost every device and computer you see, and forms the foundation of some of the hottest technologies out there.  FOSS is on the Mars rovers, powers every Android smartphone, and has been fully vetted and accepted by governments and businesses the world over.  FOSS powers more than 72% of web servers on the Internet.

Last year, Microsoft admitted it was wrong, and has been a contributor to open source for the past several years.  It learned that there is a place for open, and a place for closed, and it has found a balance with Linux.

In ten years will textbooks be in the same boat?  Will students be using a hybrid textbook, part written by a professional author, part written by teachers, and perhaps even part written by students who've taken the class before?  I hope so.

I am proud to say that my high school and employer, McDonogh, is as always years ahead of this curve.  Marty McKibbin worked with his students for years to develop a textbook for use in his American History classes.  When I took his class in 2000, each student got a bound textbook titled, "What If?  Exploring the Paths Not Taken in American History."  The book was published in 1994, was entirely composed of essays written by McDonogh students, edited by Marty, and was featured in the Baltimore Sun in 1995.

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