Open education, open source, and the dilemma over e-textbooks

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Forty years ago, John Holt wondered whether an educational revolution as profound as open education could survive unless it became part of a wider and deeper movement of social change. Until open source and the concept of an open education began to take hold, John Holt's vision of an open education seemed to be a pipe dream.

In 2009, Open High School of Utah made history by becoming the first public school to rely completely on open content for its instructional subject matter. This created flexible, student-centered learning. Still, the textbook industry has great power over education from kindergarten to graduate school.

Around the world, governments, technology leaders, and textbook publishers are calling on the adoption of e-textbooks. Tom Malek, an executive at McGraw-Hill, recently declared that college students should be forced to buy new e-books instead of new or used paper textbooks. In February 2012, the Federal Communications Commission and the United States Department of Education released the Digital Textbook Collaborative, a group of technology companies and textbook publishers to help accelerate digital textbook adoption in schools with little input from educators. In South Korea, there is a great push to digitize textbooks in elementary, middle, and high schools by 2015.

Proponents of digital textbooks claim that they are cheaper, make it easier to update content, and can be more interactive than their paper counterparts. Though American university students spend over $4.5 billion on textbooks, they spend very little on digital textbooks. Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and other technology leaders have been closely eyeing the adoption of digital textbooks as a source of revenue.

Textbooks in general (whether paper or digital) have their critics. These critics contend that there are many inherent problems with textbooks and their use. First, the concept of an inclusive, authoritative textbook is flawed and outdated. Second, controversial events or topics are often ignored or subject to the interests of various political groups. Third, multiple viewpoints or perspectives are often discounted for an overarching, unified single account.

In Lebanon, for instance, history textbooks end at 1943, the year the country gained independence, and few schoolchildren question this absence. Likewise, some major science textbooks in South Korea's secondary schools have deleted examples of Darwinism. These kinds of practices pose problems for digital textbooks, too.

Critics of textbooks also point out the diminished role of women and minorities--even in modern texts. For example, high school and college textbooks frequently contain little information on the impact of women's involvement in subjects such as history or science. This implies that women were of little importance or consequence, which has an impact on future generations. The lack of female representation in math and science textbooks is a particularly thorny issue.

Additionally, rather than aiding or increasing critical thinking, critics of textbooks complain that textbooks are static. Books foster a  singular type of learning that leads to rote, fact-based learning primarily based on written words and numbers rather than images or audio. This often leads to a controlled, fixed mindset and can suppress our natural sense of discovery and curiosity.

Though textbook adoption is often hotly contested, especially at the high-school level, textbooks play a critical role in the dissemination of knowledge and the transmission of cultural values.

Today, textbooks remain the principal means of instruction. They become the basis of, the structure, and the sequence of knowledge, from kindergarten to higher education. For many children, textbooks are their first introduction to the written word. And yet, many textbooks contain biases, intolerances, stereotypes, and inaccuracies that renders them obsolete and an outdated medium in this bigger age of open source and digital technology.

Children in the US and across the globe have no intellectual freedom with regard to textbook adoption--policy makers or state leaders make these decisions. Few students in higher education have a say in textbook adoption, either. Instructors in higher education are often required to use a textbook, which may already be selected, or strongly recommended or advised to do so. Does requiring that higher-education students buy digital textbooks compromise intellectual freedom?

While open textbooks are freely available and accessible, three academic publishers–Pearson, Cengage, Learning, and Macmillan Higher Education filed a copyright lawsuit with start-up Boundless Learning in March 2012 over intellectual property rights and copyright infringement for producing free and open textbooks as alternatives to printed material.

Boundless Learning aims to connect students to high-quality, open-licensed and free educational content. However, different types of open education resources (OER) already exist. The lawsuit seems to point to the overriding dilemma with the concept of textbook adoption.

Students have access to a tremendous amount of OER material, including courses, course materials, lesson plans, and library collections or archives. OER bypasses the textbook approach to learning. Despite the publishing industry's pending lawsuit against Boundless Learning, it does not prevent teachers or students from using OER themselves or directing their own learning through sites such as OER Commons or Curriki.

Knowledge conveyed in digital textbooks cannot cope with the social changes brought on by open source or the intellectual freedom that ensues. Textbook-based learning is often an interpretation of or an arrangement of a set facts based on an author or editor's viewpoint.

Sets of facts are not protected by copyright law and can be freely obtained and exchanged today using open source. In contrast to textbook-based learning, open source allows users to create content and knowledge and share it with others. For instance, students can learn about the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692 from reading the original court documents and applying their own interpretations.

Similarly, students can study math by using material from OER Commons, Curriki, Open Math Reference, Khan Academy, or any open educational resources available today.

These materials--and the many others like them on the Internet and in libraries today--allow students to direct their own learning experience. There is no need to rely on a textbook or teacher for direction or arrangement of facts.

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Carolyn Fox is an educator, librarian, historian, and an un/homeschooling mother. She lives in Massachusetts with her UK husband and son.


There was a big hype over e-textbooks, but putting a book on a computer screen is like broadcasting a 75-minute lecture: you can't just take old teaching styles and apply them to new technology. You need to make a new kind of courseware with a new generation of teaching styles in mind from the ground up!

Moreso than e-books in OER collections (which are important) I would love to see modular educational apps - specialized apps that teach specialized topics. It's kind of silly to use these multimedia iPads and Nexuses to read the digital equivalence of print media. OER can't just follow in the footsteps of the established big players if it wants to compete. It needs to take the initiative and lead the way in changing the playing field itself.

"You can't just take old teaching styles and apply them to new technology."

I call this the "add technology and stir" approach to integrating technology in learning environments. Such an approach fails to acknowledge that the medium is the message--that the technology itself is complicit in defining the aim, potential, and outcome of educational practice and experience.

There's a viable alternative that combines the advantages of open content with the best editorial development practices of traditional publishing so it works for all parties – students, faculty, institutions, bookstores and authors. That’s our mission at Flat World Knowledge, publisher of openly-licensed college textbooks. Our business model is built on the principle of access, affordability and personalization. Publishing our content under a Creative Commons open license makes all three possible.

Thanks for writing, Carole. Don't miss our <a href="">previous coverage of Flat World Knowledge</a>.

Carolyn, this is a terrific article. Great analysis of copyright, open education, and the failings of traditional textbooks. At Boundless, we're working on a lot of exciting updates that will make the product even better for students. We'd love to share more, or even re-blog this article on our blog if you're open to it. Feel free to send me an email.

Ariel Diaz
CEO, Boundless

Hi Ariel,

While it is awesome to ask, the article is CC BY-SA. You are, by definition, welcome to reblog the article, as long as you adhere to the Creative Commons license.

Interesting. Attempts to access the Boundless System as a non-aligned student gets me the message: "We are still in a closed Beta at your school. Help us spread the word (through facebook or twitter) in order to get priority access."

On a different note, my experience with e-textbooks from other publishers is that they want to charge the most the traffic will permit. E-textbooks rentals for a period of one year are typically priced just under the cost of the hardbound text. Most publishers do not even have an option for purchasing the e-textbook outright. Also, the DRM systems employed to enforce the term of the contract are very cumbersome and intrusive.

Dale Lobb

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