George Lucas Educational Foundation
Technology Integration

David Thornburg on Open-Source Textbooks

Why the open source movement is so powerful and compelling.

January 4, 2011

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 ( 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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