Open Textbook bill

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One of the best sessions at the Big Ideas Fest education conference in California last week was delivered by Hal Plotkin, a senior policy advisor in the US Department of Education.

What could be more fascinating than watching a high school dropout explain how open textbooks, sponsored by the US Government, might be used a tool of the administration to rebuild America's credibility with the world?

The belief in the potential of the open textbook model runs deep in Washington right now, and the clearest indicator of that belief is probably Bill S. 1714: Open College Textbook Act of 2009.

Go read it. Unlike most bills, it's short and sweet -- at least, it is for now, since it's freshly written and sitting in committee. To be specific, it's sitting in the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions -- or HELP for short, haw haw!

If you're interested in the continuing progress of this bill, there are a couple of things you can do.

TODO the first: you can subscribe to the bill at This is a seriously awesome step forward in the transparency of government; if there's a bill that you care about, you can be notified whenever there's any activity regarding that bill just by subscribing to the bill's RSS feed.

Unfortunately, nothing has happened with this bill since its initial reading on September 24th, 2009, and its subsequent referral to committee. Since most bills never make it out of committee, citizens who want to see this bill passed should advocate directly to senators on its behalf.

Which brings us to TODO the second: take a look at the members of the committee and see if any of them are from your home state. As it happens, both of my senators (Kay Hagan, D-NC and Richard Burr, R-NC) are on this committee. How lucky! If one of your senators is on the committee, send an email to their office and ask the status of the bill. Is it undergoing active discussion? Are they planning on bringing it to the floor any time soon? And so on. If you express interest, you may very well get a direct response. I received a phone call from Senator Burr's office upon my initial letter to him; a staffer called to let me know that the bill had come into his committee. So they are definitely listening.

Most people say that government doesn't work for the people -- but most people never give it an honest shot. If you care about Open Textbooks, this is your chance to get involved directly. When constituents talk, senators listen; I've got the voicemails to prove it.

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Greg DeKoenigsberg is the Vice President of Community for Ansible, where he leads the company's relationship with the broader open source community. Greg brings to Ansible over a decade of open source product and community leadership, with the majority of this time spent building and leading communities for open source leader Red Hat.


Thanks for sharing this info on open textbook and for providing deeper education on how to get involved. The combination of intriguing content, links to valuable resources, and education on how/why getting involved is possible (and the pit falls) make this the kind of content that would keep me coming back to the site again and again. :)

I'd love if you posted an update if this bill goes anywhere...

Hmm, this could be very helpful to student's pocketbooks but I do wonder about the overall cost to taxpayers. Once the government issues grants to multiple qualified entities to produce (and maintain) these, subsidizes a bit of marketing and probably adds a bit more to make e-book readers available to low-income students are we really going to be left with a pricetag that is much lower than the $800+ per student that is currently being spent and will it be for an equally high-quality product? Also wondering if taxpayers will be called upon to provide additional subsidy indirectly if textbook publishers raise the cost of elementary and highschool textbooks to help make up for their loss on the college textbooks.

I would prefer to see this come about as an organic initiative on the part of professors and schools around the country (and the english speaking world), rather than something managed and funded by the government.

In addition I hate to see lobbying get such a strong voice in what is made available as open textbooks.

Creating content is only the first step. What incentive is there for a professor to use it in their courses? The publishing industry will fight this like any other group that has their source of income threatened.

There's definitely two halves of this equation: creation incentive, and usage incentive. I suspect that we'll be talking a lot about this difference, and about the implications.

I am 23 years old, a student who works 30 hours a week, half of which is an internship program. I've taken out student loans, but California's budget crisis has left me with skyrocketing tuition, cut classes, and obscenely expensive books.

This bill is something I am very interested in. Is there anything I can do if none of the senators are in my state?

...keep reading; there will be more opportunities coming. Especially if you're in California.

I usually hate shameless plugs, but would like to get some feedback from the open source world on a "recently" completed masters.

I think I raise some interesting issues, esp. related to the general awareness of open source concepts in public education.

What I am hoping is that those of us with technical background from the open source world of software development start to bring those concepts to public education. To be successful with an "Open Textbook" project, educators will have to start to develop common platforms for instruction, and common processes for actually creating [online] curriculum that is easy to adapt and improve.

My project write up is here:

and a context setting piece is here:

Feedback welcome.

Bob, I haven't yet had time to fully read your work, but my initial impression is "exactly right".

A couple of points to consider, and maybe you'd be willing to consider them in a column here on OSDC:

1. Why did you choose a non-commercial clause for the materials produced in your study?

2. If Moodle installations had a "share by default" policy, in which teachers could push a single button and send Moodle resources to a central server for all to share, do you think that teachers would use that functionality?

Great stuff.

Greg -

Thanks for the feedback. When I was bantering about these issues on Moodle, I do remember one of the active developers noting that they could/would create a "share coursework" button, or some kind of tool. I don't know if that got picked up on or not. I think that would also only solve part of the problem... I think a lot of the effort would have to go into training teachers in both open source based
pedagogy, and introducing them to a variety of standards based frameworks. SCORM, IMS, etc go a long way to help encourage that. It would be both fun and interesting if this kind of idea really caught on, and all standardized tests, both national, and regional were converted into a shareable, common format, that could be tied to assesments, such as SCORM quizzes, etc. If you are at Red Hat, and would like to help sponsor something like that, I would love to discuss.

One of the more academic, yet interesting points of the effort was to tie these ideas both to Vygotsky and Engelbart.

...and mind you, this is what I've heard from those trying to learn it and use it -- is that it's a DoD standard that is as complicated as any other milspec standard. Seems to me that SCORM is useful only as an invisible standard that is as good as the tools that support it and mostly hide it from view.

Put another way: SCORM is kinda like SGML -- another complex, milspec standard. Maybe we need simple, intuitive tools that allow teachers to create SCORM-compliant content -- or maybe we need another standard altogether. In the way that SGML begat HTML, maybe SCORM can beget a simpler, more useful standard.

I see that someone's working on a set of SCORM modules for Moodle: how's that going? And where's the conversation about Vygotsky taking place? *That* would be a brilliant thread to follow -- ZPD driven by a software-based decision/learning tree.

I also think that it's worth driving the "share coursework" button idea hard, and would be willing to advocate for some limited RH resources to help make it happen (although it doesn't seem like it should be that complex). I agree that the cultural issues will definitely be present, but until there's a *reason* to make that cultural shift, no one has any reason to try.

If there's a big Moodle conference going on anytime soon in the US, I'd love to see you there.

Actually SCORM is very easy to create using a tool like eXe Learning editor. Take a look at for a working example of how standardized tests "could" be turned into online learning environments in a moodle framework, with the aide of an editing tool like eXe. It's only a working module, but should provide some additional context. There are some Camtasia videos there that I created to show some of the features of eXe, but the eXe developers have provided a lot of material themselves.

SCORM is only one of the output formats available in eXe.

I used it because it packaged the assessments up nicely, in a way that they could be easily added to Moodle, and the "grades" tracked at a high level. One issue I had was that the granularity of the assesment reporting was at the test, and not the question, so you could determine a score, but not a specific area. Hence you would have to design to break learning modules into specific skill specific areas. Not a bid deal for the simplicity.

Some publishers are entering the ebook arena, but many are keeping the dead-tree tradition alive. As an educator, and as a grad student, I would like to see the price of textbooks go down, but as a textbook author, I wonder about the incentive-to-create side. I have written three texts but only one of them went through traditional publishing route.
The reason given for textbooks being so expensive is that they are a special product with high cost per piece to print. Equivalent page-counts in novels should, and often do exhibit lower cost at retail. Many writers make little or nothing on their textbooks, but the hope of royalty does drive the creation process to some extent.
Ebooks give a much lower cost-per-piece, as almost all the costs are front-loaded into creating the first instance. The value of the information remains the same, but perhaps an opensource distribution model will actually drive the quality up, as it does with many FOSS projects.
Open-source eTextbooks could have input from many more writers and editors, and all commits could easily be vetted by a (one hopes) highly qualified change board using a wiki structure for development. New material would be easy to include without getting a budget referendum.
I am already using open-source or community commons books for Linux and Python classes I teach, and customizing them for my local needs with additional examples.

Keep the Government out of the textbook business. This business belongs in the marketplace- public competition. The textbook generating business (updates, new ideas) moves much too fast for the government to be able to handle the load. though the government isn't already in the textbook business. Except, of course, that federal, state, and local governments:

* Pay for the *vast* majority of textbook purchases;
* Pay the salaries of the *vast* majority of teachers who use these textbooks;
* Set the standards for textbook acceptance.

Since the government is already paying that money anyway, I would contend that the government has every right to expect more out of the textbook industry -- which, right now, is completely dominated by a very small number of players who have zero incentive to innovate.

I guarantee you that the government doesn't want to write textbooks. They just want more, and better, options about how to spend the gigantic sums of money they already spend.

We certainly agree the competition is the marketplace is good. Do you think we're getting that now? I don't.

State and local school districts are Consumers of text books.
Text book companies are Producers/Generators and produce in accordance with Consumer desires.

Consumers should then buy what is the best value and thus we have competition. Competition lowers cost and increases quality.

The Federal Government and State Government is incapable of being an adequate Producer/Generator. Maybe they are also poor at setting quality standards or poor at buying smartly if there is a problem with textbook today. It is not "rocket science".

It's pretty to think that there's actual competition in the textbook industry -- but iI would argue that a handful of players hold 99% of the market and use that power to define what is "acceptable" to the education consumers does not constitute "competition". Where I come from, that's called "the fox guarding the hen house".

Or maybe you think there's a *good* reason that plain ol' books cost $10-20, but textbooks cost $200. Explain that dynamic to us.

I got my last provers back in 1967 so I certainly do not remember everything. But I do not remember ever, repeat ever, having to go through an entire textbook. It was always selected sections of a text which constituted the course material. Maybe it was different in liberal arts courses.

So why are there textbooks? Only bits and pieces of them are needed for course work. Why are there not just those sections instead? Why commission a complete text and evaluate the total content when only pieces of it are ever used?

And why do students have to pay for an entire book when at little as a quarter of it will be used? Why not just publish each section separately and sell them separately?

And while we are on the subject when has enough progress been made to warrant revising the entire text? Why not instead keep all the old sections in print and only create only a section or two on what has progressed?

Once having the sacred sheepskin do we ever learn from a textbook again? We read papers instead. If we need to learn a new subject we find material which relates that subject to our specialization not the generalities of a textbook. So why are students deprived of specialized booklets and required to buy entire texts to get the parts needed?

And if done this way how far is each section from public domain material? There are only so many different ways to say a thing. Consider programming languages. Ever tried counting up how many "Getting started in _______" there are for each language? Ever notice they all appear to agree with essentially the same examples for that language? Is there really a need for more than one or two of these for each language? Is there really a need for three or four a year each and every year for each language?

They all say about the same thing. They might as well be public domain. The way they are they give the appearance of being rewritten to avoid copyright infringement not to produce intrinsically better material.

So lets get passed the archaic idea of textbooks and start producing materials which reflect the selected parts of the books which are in fact the only parts taught. That will reduce the costs for students. For some subjects texts that went out of copyright a century ago are still the last word on the subject. Geometry really has not changed much. A 2010 text is going to cover the same material as one from 1910.

Why is a law needed for folks to do Wik-Textbooks? Why not just write, or is that a felony?

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