George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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 ( 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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CJMBS's picture
Technology Coordinator

Thank you for your help, Elana! Ramapo is actually close, I will contact these sources.

Tracy Kirkman's picture

As a parent I have seen many "systems" come and go in my childs curriculum. Lasting 2-3 years than being replaced by something different and "better". I think part of the reasoning was that our district could generally afford to purchase these over the past years and perhaps it was a "use it or lose it" earmarked budget mentality...

Considering the sheer number of students grades k-12 in the US.. It's crazy not to consider it. I don't know about other schools but ours is one that seems to hold a fundraiser every month. It's cookie dough, read-a-thons, selling popcorn, art auction, walk a thon... all well and good but what if you could go to the school board and tell them that next year they could eliminate the cost of the curriculum itself. That all they have to do is tap into a wealth of resources available.

It's about putting the education in the hands of the teachers and communities without the issue of affordability coming into question. My big question is why, as a country, would you not want all students to have every resource available to them. Why would you hold it for "ransom", where only students and districts that could afford it would have access... and i believe this philosophy should stretch in all levels of education through to college. The free course materials from Open Source University is just a start.

If you look at the education curriculum industry (and it is an industry) - you have to wonder why free open source materials in the classroom hasn't come to fruition. It doesn't seem practical to just say free open source, without saying digital. Printing itself is a huge cost and if it was just a matter of printing free material that was found online, that would only be a stepping stone to the larger digital integration of the future classroom. It would seem that all of the technology is available. So what's the holdup with using FOS educational curriculum in the classroom if the schools can save themselves the outlandish cost of the printed materials?

I cannot separate the use of FOS media in the classroom from the technology component that would interface with it... based on that, here is my brain dump of the pros and cons:


The technology is here:

-There seems to be an abundance of willing free open source contributors from around the world who can develop content - (as mentioned, look at wikipedia)
-I would doubt that there would be a shortage of developers willing to build it out without cost. New media ( and with it, educational media) is being taught in vocational schools across the country. It is a field that seems to be on the brink of really booming.
-There is the technology to distribute the material AND keep it always updated. (SAAS, cloud computing)
-The means for users to interface with the material -ipad type device is a natural - electonic slate, if you will - and I would imagine the touchtop desk will be next.

Saving endless amounts of natural resources in paper use and printing pollution

Children will become familiar with using technology resources.

It could replace most of the school supplies that we purchase every year. Paper, pens, markers, rulers, post-its.. you name it. A plus on many levels!

No need for costly upgrades of educational material - Material would be constantly updating - just like the internet

One device to do it all - text books, library books (likely paid), workbooks, tablet for writing essays, teacher can access and marking up corrections, daily planner, assignment list, live chat with students ans teachers around the globe, sharing screens with class to give presentations...

unlimited curriculum - there can be endless variations on every topic, meeting many different angles. ie, if you want to teach evolution or not - both options should be available. Leaving the communities themselves to choose the path to their education. In addition, variations for students who learn differently. Multiple languages...etc


Cost and lifespan of interface devices - Sure the cost of the interface device would be a large part of this equation. They would need also need to last(physical abuse from kids and also not become obsolete within a reasonable period of time). This opens the door for (well paid) IT, networking specialists, device repair, parts, etc. This it would seem that there could be good motivation for device manufacturers to create materials that require updated units. The downward spiral would be as units become obsolete, and newer material doesn't work on those units, we will be back to the problem of getting struggling schools the materials that they need to operate on an equal level. This is the same issue that exists with current curriculum providers. "Poorer" schools get old materials...

Training: Teachers would need to be trained - initially this could be costly. With any shift of this nature, this would close the door for many teachers and open the doors for others.

Environmental : Causing new sources of pollution through the creation of new and destruction of obsolete electronic equipment

Quality of Life: No one wants a life for their child where they sit in front of a computer screen for 8 hours a day for the 12 years they are in school. As adults we know that there are health problems associated with inactivity, social behavior, carpel tunnel and who knows what from the radiation of having a powered electronic device near your body for long periods of time. Maybe if they can make the basic education more efficient, then the kids can spend more time learning social and physical skills...

Questions left:

Curriculum consistency: Materials would need to be reviewed and scored by some entity or by a public body. This could, in effect, create a new agency (possibly government oversight) and there would be disagreements over material. There could be different branches of material based on educational (i.e. montessori) even religious beliefs. However the goal would never be to force schools into one specific set of materials, but to provide a large buffet with various ways to reach the same goals. Maybe materials could be scored just like restaurant reviews on Yelp or product reviews on Amazon... sure you get shill reviews, but you could code lessons so that a consistent set of materials or combinations that are effective would be noted.

Who will really be opposed? For one, school curriculum developers, their salespeople, writers, printers, distributors, all the way down the chain to the papermill. It seems as though many have been integrating digital material but still holding it for ransom.
It is not freely available. Also the school supply manufacturers, retailers... Don't get me wrong. I don't want to villainize these groups - Times are changing.

Where would the master database be held? Feels like a thing Google would step in and host... but does that leave us with advertising based "free" materials? And if you were to tell me that I could have materials for my child for free but with ads or I could pay for a user license and get it "ad free". I would seriously think about paying.

Who would manage the integrity of the database holding the materials?


In this scenario, no one is making money on the curriculum.. except the device manufacturers. That's scary saying it out loud... so the usual response is ads- people will develop content for free that integrates ads. It's feels inevitable but sad. Kids have too much advertising exposure as it is. I can just see it. Word problems about how many McDonalds Hamburgers Suzy can buy with $3...

trendspotting: Down the road.. kids will fight over designer stylus' and device skins at Target...

IN conclusion

The 2 largest concerns could be initial cost and quality/approval of materials.

If you want to get down to the savings- it's difficult to tell what they will really be when you consider that you are substituting the cost of curriculum with acquiring technology and the resources to keep it running. Not being privy to the final cost of buying a new set of printed materials for a school or a district. There is never a period when everything is "paid off" because technology and support costs will recur. However the win would be the expanded repertoire of educational resources and an accepted framework for continuing contribution.

The competition would move away from the educational curriculum developers and become more about the devices themselves or possibly for advertising to support the operational costs.

Sorry for the length ;o)

Allen Berg's picture
Allen Berg
curriculum and projects learning centers

Chris Richards' Excellent Commentary:

"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."

I agree with Chris Richards' excellent commentary: open source materials do not have to replace current textbooks but can supplement them and allow students to explore the vast online multi-media resources relevant to their subject of study and research...

Case in point: here is a link to a Creative Common Attribution website for Art History (and anyone who uses Art to enliven their curriculum...)

It is organized by two college professors who realize the expense-endured-by-students and the heavy-load-of-their-knapsacks carrying
such weighty tomes around...

Their collaborative "web-textbook" includes 363 artworks, 302 videos, and has 62,000 visits per month...

This is the future now...

Allen Berg

David Thornburg's picture

Michigan City Area Schools (Michigan City, Indiana) has used open source software (and Linux!) for years with great success. California adopted open source textbooks from CK12. In the face of continued budget crises, we may end up doing the right things for our kids, even if it is for the wrong reasons. In other words, budget cuts should not be the driving force - quality and access should be.

David Thornburg's picture

[quote]As a parent I have seen many "systems" come and go in my childs curriculum. Lasting 2-3 years than being replaced by something different and "better". I think part of the reasoning was that our district could generally afford to purchase these over the past years and perhaps it was a "use it or lose it" earmarked budget mentality...

No question - technologies come and go. What seems to be true, however is the performance goes up as cost comes down, bringing powerful tools into the hands of (in principle) all children. The main feature of computers is that they are not just storage places for nouns (content) but are active spaces for verbs - places where kids can create their own models, documents, programs, etc.

As for cost, you are right - someone is paying the bills. A lot of open source material is created by end users who are dissatisfied with current commercial offerings and have made something for their own use they are willing to share with others.

I don't see a wholesale collapse of commercial educational materials - but I do see the loss of commodity materials to FOS alternatives over time. When is the last time you bought a multi-volume encyclopedia?

Dave Childers's picture
Dave Childers
Executive Director/Principal at ACEL-Fresno Charter High School

Not only are open-source textbooks now a legitimate option, but my school has gone to an entirely open-source curriculum approach. In other words, there are no traditional core curriculum offerings. We use a wide variety of resources to address the state standards, and teachers are never limited or restricted in what they can bring in (the advantage of a charter school). It does take the right kind of teacher to make it work, and a lot of administrative support. I am constantly locating and sharing resources with them, and they do a phenomenal job of making all of the components come together to provide a more current, accurate, and engaging curricular offering than any traditional publisher ever could.

Fred Aspan-Martin's picture

I was wondering just how excited the textbook companies about this format. It would seem as though they would lose a lot of money by moving to this way of doing business. We might see a similar situation happened with education text as we have with music downloads. The entertainment industry resisted the change for years and yet they finally found a way to make it a win/win situation.

I look forward to not having to purchase new textbooks every couple of years or teach from obsolete materials. This is great news!!

Vicki Cobb's picture
Vicki Cobb
Author of many science books for children/founder and president of iNK Think Tank, Inc.

The genre of children's nonfiction literature is missing from this discussion. The assumption is that free open-source material on the web is equivalent to textbooks and that is probably true. They are both equally badly written. If you want to read compelling, fully vetted, accurate material about the real world take a look at a few of the wonderful books by some of the best children's nonfiction authors around. They use their skill and craft to present information through the lens of singular intellects, making the nonfiction genre an eye-opening experience in human communication. All books and all presentations of information are NOT equal. I suggest that you look at our blog: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids (I.N.K.) and our website: We have a free online database that can direct you to books that fulfill Core Curriculum Standards while developing the love of reading and learning. A recent reader of such a book, who met the author (of a science book) via videoconferencing said, "I can hear your voice with every single word I read." This is not a comment made about textbooks. One doesn't become an award-winning author by doing it part time. Now the struggling publishing industry has to find a way to pay us.

TalkWithME_2's picture

The voice is there whether online or in paper copy. It is the words written that dance through the child's imagination. The cost of paper, print, and the inordinate amount of profit funneling into the hands of publishers it is time for us to reconsider how we deliver content. Non-fiction literature for children is wonderful, but, unless the authors are going to constantly update and revise their copy, the outdated as Dr. Thornburg points out is relevant regardless of who wrote what. In the end, we would do better to put a tablet into every child's hands, invest in their homes having wifi, in stead of cell phones and let's get on with true 21st century education. Also, to support you, textbooks should only be used as a resource, not "THE" source for sound delivery of content. Very few people understand that textbooks are not written grade appropriately and do nothing to teach reading, which is a huge gap in the delivery of content. Content needs to be experiential. There is far more to be said about quality access to content. The majority of our children do not have quality access in North America.

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