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Open Textbooks

Free Texts
Image credits: sky, book

Cash-strapped schools and students are having a difficult time paying the high cost of textbooks. Many times students go without a required textbook while valuable open information is available online. Students often complain that they are required to buy an expensive textbook and then the book is seldom referred to.

More and more teachers are trying to find ways to either lower the costs or eliminate costs altogether by posting open materials. As publishers scramble to maintain markets, they offer lower cost digital versions of their books and some now allow teachers to customize those textbooks. Digital versions allow students to lease the online materials for a certain amount of time. What that means is that only a few years later students will have nothing to show for the money they spent on that information. A Gates Foundation study "With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them" reports that the high cost of textbooks and materials is one of the reasons students drop out of college or decide not to go at all.

Open Textbooks Initiatives

More and more organizations are rising that offer alternatives to paid textbooks.

One company tried out a partially open model for textbooks is Flat World Knowledge who publish customizable high school textbooks with instructor supplementary materials. Previously their business model offered all the online materials free to instructors and students. Students could choose to use only the online materials or have the books printed in black and white or colour at costs that are said to be lower than regularly published textbooks. Like a freemium model a large group had free access, while a smaller proportion choose the premium printed alternative. However, as of January 2013 the company will no longer offer free content. The company has recently explored MOOCs ( Massive Open Online Courses) (See Nov 3, 2012 Chronicle of Higher Ed article)

OpenStax College
OpenStax College a non profit organization committed to improving access to education.The organization is an inititive of Rice University. They offer students free textbooks for a number of university level courses that are peer-reviewed and written by professional content developers. Textbook can be printed for a low cost. As of Novmeber 2012, they have the following textbooks: Physics, Sociology, Biology, Concepts of Biology, Anatomy and Physiology

CK-12 is a non-profit organization whose aim is to provide online up-to-date, standards-aligned textbook content free to K-12 students in the U.S. and around the world. Their online system is designed to be collaborative. Content is customized and educators can self-publish the books known as Flexbooks. Their online books can be made up of content available from the company as well as from Wikipedia. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is a member of the advisory board. Currently they offer a number of math and science texts which include basic and advanced calculus, trigonometry, geometry biology, earth sciences, life science, and chemistry. Wikibooks also offers over 2400 open-content textbooks that can be editable by anyone.

For a registry of learning modules and textbooks that can be accessed, reused and distributed see Open Text Book run by the Open Knowledge Foundation. The site is participatory and is seeking more textbooks and materials for inclusion. The Open Knowledge Foundation is a collaborative effort who promotes open knowledge. Their main principles include

  1. Free and open access to the material
  2. Freedom to redistribute the material
  3. Freedom to reuse the material
  4. No restriction of the above based on who someone is (e.g. their nationality) or their field of endeavour (e.g. commercial or non-commercial)

Projects underdevelopment include CKAN- the Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network, a catalogue of knowledge resources; Open Shakespeare- the complete works of Shakespeare with notes and tools, Knowledge Forge that provides tools to work on open knowledge projects; and Public Domain Works that is a registry for artistic work in the public domain -includes mostly books and sound recordings.

Schools and Open Textbook Initiatives

BC Open Textbook Initiative
In October 2012, BC provincial government announced that they will fund an Open textbook project that includes creating textbooks for 40 higher education courses. The textbooks will be created or recreated from existing open educational resources. Coordinating the project is BCCampus who has already begun a pilot project.

Utah Open Textbook Project- 10 High School science teachers are adapting CK-12 materials. Printed versions of texts will be used by some and online will be used for others. Cost of printing a text is about $5.

Open High School of Utah mandated use of OER. (400 students in grades 9-12).

Project Kaleidoscope a consortium of eight community colleges and four-year schools from California to New York

Next up: Crowdsourcing