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David Thornburg on Open-Source Textbooks

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation
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Editor's Note: Today's guest blogger is David Thornburg, Ph.D., a futurist, author, consultant and founder and Director of Global Operations for the Thornburg Center.

The world of education changed last month at 2PM EST on December 2, when NASA announced the discovery of bacterial life on Earth that can use Arsenic instead of Phosphorous in the construction of its DNA. This may seem like a very specialized announcement, one whose connection to our K-12 education is not immediately clear, but I think it has consequences well beyond the details of the announcement itself.

From December 2nd on, every life-sciences textbook in common use was immediately rendered inaccurate. Until the start of the month, students were taught that the six basic elemental building blocks of life are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and phosphorous. And now, as a result of a juried paper appearing in the prestigious journal Science, we find that, in at least one case, Arsenic can replace Phosphorous, making this a piece of information that needs to be made available to teachers and students any way possible. Our very definition of the requirements for life itself has been altered!

The Argument for Open-Source Curricular Materials

The week this announcement was made, Edutopia had an article on the use of open source curricular materials - a growing trend being driven, in part, by the extraordinary cost of commercial textbooks. The argument for open curriculum has many elements in common with the argument for the increased use of open-source software. The most obvious feature of free open source (FOS) materials is the lack of cost for the materials themselves - most open-source content is free of cost in digital form.

Historically there has been a tradeoff: low-cost (or free) comes at the expense of quality. (In other words, "There is no free lunch.") But FOS is different. Indeed, I've long argued that FOS software has the advantage of being free of cost, while, at the same time, providing greater value to the users.

This Lunch Is Not Only Free, It's Really Good

The pairing of high quality with reduced cost seems counter-intuitive at first glance, but makes sense once you look into the open source community more deeply. Many of the developers and maintainers of open source materials are people who use these materials themselves, and thus have a strong interest in keeping the quality as high as possible. Historically this has been true since the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary - arguably the definitive dictionary of the English language whose entries were (and are) submitted by language fanatics, making it one of the largest and earliest open-source documents.

More recently, Wikipedia came into existence using the same model, with the result that, in entries related to science, for example, Wikipedia's accuracy equals that of such well-known reference works as Encyclopaedia Britannica. This doesn't mean that every entry in Wikipedia is accurate, but that the entries related to academic pursuits are likely to be accurate because they are created and edited by people who want to rely on them in their own work. In other words, I may increase the quality of an entry in my field of study because I want to rely on others doing the same for topics in other field I want to explore.

Ability to Be Agile

And so it is with open source textbooks. Unlike commercial textbooks (which can cost over $200 apiece), open source textbooks are able to undergo constant revision as new developments emerge. This is especially important in the sciences where a new discovery can shift our view of the world overnight. How many textbooks have you seen that are still in use from the days when we thought of Pluto as a planet? Within and hour of the NASA announcement regarding Arsenic-containing bacteria, I sent an e-mail to a major textbook publisher and to a major provider of open-source textbooks (http://www.ck12.org). While it took over two weeks to even hear back from the commercial publisher, I was informed a day later by CK12 that the modifications to their life sciences textbooks had already been made.

In other words, anyone who downloads their free textbooks will have a more accurate textbook than one published by the mainstream commercial publishers - and the process of updating the textbooks took only one day!

The challenge of helping educators to be aware of breakthrough discoveries in their fields, and learning how to incorporate them in their classrooms remains. But at least there is a pathway to insure that students and educators have the highest quality materials possible. The fact that accuracy is accompanied by reduced cost is mere icing on the cake.

David Thornburg Ph.D. is an award-winning futurist, author and consultant whose clients range across the public and private sector, both in the United States and in Brazil. As the founder and Director of Global Operations for the Thornburg Center, he conducts research and provides staff development. His educational philosophy is based on the idea that students learn best when they are constructors of their own knowledge.

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Sue J's picture

Being able to search for terms would be a wonderful feature (indices sometimes just don't do the trick).

There is such an awful lot of sloppy, inaccurate drek out there. Granted, a fair amount of it has made it into textbooks. (E.g., Our current Geometry text has drawings of triangles with legs longer than their hypotenuses -- no, not *really,* but that's what the measurements assigned to them say.) However, I would love to collaborate with some nitpicky souls to put together selected resources and make a course or four that didn't require text purchase.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

David -

Great post and I couldn't agree more. I know that while many educators want to take advantage of free open source (FOS) textbooks, many cannot due to district/state policies. How do educators begin to make the case for FOS resources/textbooks? Are there studies out there on cost effectiveness? Are all FOS resources aligned with standards?

Looking forward to your thoughts,

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation

Great question, Elana. I just heard from David. He's out of the country, traveling back to the U.S. this evening and tomorrow; he'll be back online tomorrow night or shortly thereafter.

In the mean time, if anyone else has any thoughts about the best way to make the case for open source textbooks, please share. I would thing the price tag would help a lot, as would the commitment to higher quality that David mentions in the post.

That said, I wonder what mechanisms open source textbooks have to keep from being co-opted by special interests. Wikipedia had that problem and began gating the editing of many of their more controversial pages. Is there such a mechanism for FOS textbooks? Maybe it's not needed yet, but I can see a day when topics like the theory of evolution may need a little protective cover.

Chris Richards's picture
Chris Richards
Elementary Principal at Black Hawk/Burlington Community School District

I just sent out the two open source materials to my teachers yesterday. I gave them the instruction that it does not have to replace the current textbooks, but another source of information teachers and students can use. The rising cost of education and wanting to keep up with current ideas it is difficult to ride a textbook for seven years waiting for the new adoption. By using open source to supplement what materials we already have we can give students current information.

David Thornburg's picture

While the bulk of my experience has been with open source software (for which the advantages on all levels are amazing) open content is getting more well-deserved attention, starting with Wikipedia. There are those who are fighting against the shift - including some who are dealing with horribly small budgets. I find this confusing, but my guess is the reluctance has to do with the pressure put on going with a "brand name", even if the brand does not always have the best products.

CJMBS's picture
Technology Coordinator

I have been trying for sometime to have more open source options in my district. I was thrilled this year when all of the computers in my building had OpenOffice installed on them. I very often recommend that program to students; our free/reduced lunch rate is 85%. I was not aware of open source text books before but I am intrigued. As schools and states struggle with these harsh economic realities I am hoping that open source becomes more mainstream in education as a result. If anyone is aware of a district that has integrated open source successfully, software and/or texts, I would really like their name so I could investigate their lead.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

[quote]If anyone is aware of a district that has integrated open source successfully, software and/or texts, I would really like their name so I could investigate their lead.[/quote]

I'll do some digging within Edutopia's social networks and see what I can find!

CJMBS's picture
Technology Coordinator

As education is in the midst of major reforms, both in budget and practice, this an area in need of development. I do agree that in many places textbooks should be abandoned altogether, but until that shift is made this is a viable alternative. Of course, as course work becomes more technical and specialized textbooks have a place, however the vast majority of elementary education can easily shift away from this model. Thank you for your help!

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

I asked some educators on Twitter and I received two responses that look very helpful:

@edutopia Check out the Tightwad Tech http://www.thetightwadtech.com/. Their district in Texas uses a lot of open source programs. Good podcast too.

@edutopia I think they may be using OpenSim in Ramapo Central Schools.

After looking online, I found a webpage that has contact info to those that run the technology at Ramapo Central Schools: http://www.ramapocentral.org/technology.html.

Hope this helps!

[quote]If anyone is aware of a district that has integrated open source successfully, software and/or texts, I would really like their name so I could investigate their lead.[/quote]

Leah MacVie's picture
Leah MacVie
Instructional Designer | Canisius College

In my role as ID, I help instructors develop online courses. Textbook publishers are struggling and resisting evolution. Their e-books are limited, many do not offer supplemental resources such as Web site companions, videos, and podcasts for textbook interactivity, let alone content to help connect an e-course to the textbook.

E-readers are expensive: But many e-book readers are limited and while the iPad has greatly improved the evolution of the textbook, the most promising tool I've seen thus far is the Kno dual-screen(http://www.kno.com), but it's expensive ($800+).

E-textbook prices are outrageous: E-textbook prices are still pretty high. $80-$150 is still an outrageous price- especially for an e-book. This book better spin gold! No wonder our students are broke.

Many instructors are now considering regular market books versus textbooks- same content, and a fraction of the price of textbooks. Now with open-books, free e-books, social media, free media sites, and open learning initiatives, we all have to seriously consider the right move for our future generations. What do textbooks offer our students that an instructor can't compile for practically free these days?

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