Open Textbooks

Part of the appeal of open textbooks to students is obviously no cost versus the ridiculously high cost of books for classes. Students can access open textbooks on the Internet for free. But what is the appeal of the open textbook for teachers and colleges?

Open textbook "authors" put their books online for public use. Since they are also open license, instructors can modify the text by deleting and adding content. Of course, you can still print them and some campuses even offer printed copies, color versions etc. at minimal cost.

But there aren't many available at this point.

What makes it a bit more interesting for me here at Passaic County Community College is that yesterday I read that the Community College Open Textbook Project begins this week. Professors from colleges will be meeting with representatives from nonprofit groups and for-profit companies that are in the digital textbook market to talk about ways of developing and promoting online content.

Not all reviews of open textbooks are glowing. Some students find them too short and lacking the depth of traditional books. For example, some professors typically cover a portion of the text in class/lectures, but would assign or expect students to read the additional textbook material. In a course like statistics, students might welcome extra practice problems from a full textbook. The quality of available OER materials is inconsistent at this point. These books may not meet Section 508 ADA accessibility requirements. Faculty will need to check for accuracy of content of open content more than commercial textbooks. (The Wikipedia versus Britannica battle again.)

Still, as with other Open Everything efforts, customization of content will ultimately be more flexible in open content than it currently is in commercially available content. And after a few classes where you pay $100+ for a book that gets used twice in the semester, student attitudes to open textbooks will change.

The first phase of the Community College Open Textbook Project is being funded by a one-year, $500,000-plus grant to the Foothill-De Anza Community College District from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

As part of the project, community college professors will receive training on how to find and customize material. Another goal is for participants to create online textbooks using existing resources. The meeting in California will have them reviewing open-textbook models for equality, usability, accessibility, and sustainability.


Here are the first four providers of free online educational resources that will be considered, and plenty of additional resources if you want to explore more deeply.


UPDATED  May 1, 2008

I'm adding this comment to the main post because I know that readers don't always bother to click the comments link. Here's a take on this topic from a commercial publisher (mentioned above) who is working with the open textbook community.



Hi Kenneth,

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

I am the co-founder of Flat World Knowledge, the commercial open textbook publisher mentioned in the Wired Campus article. I agree with you that historically, the quality of open textbooks has been inconsistent. We are focused on changing that. My business partner and I come out of 30 years of publishing experience with McGraw-Hill, Thomson, and Prentice Hall. We have personally worked on some of the top selling textbooks in the market. It is our belief that there is no inherent reason why an open textbook should be of any lower quality that a traditional book.

I can't speak for open textbooks in general. I can only speak to our approach. We are building our textbooks just like we did at our former companies . We are being highly selective about which authors we sign (top academics, recognized in their fields). Our books are undergoing extensive peer review. They are professionally illustrated, and fully accuracy checked. They include everything a traditional book does, including problem sets. They even include more, like integrated audio and videos. We produce teaching supplements for instructors.

You get the point. These are complete, high quality books.

The difference is that we make them free online, and available forinstructors to modify to better fit the syllabus before assigning it to students.

We have a viable financial model behind this. Students can purchase inexpensive alternatives to the online book, including a print version, an audio version, a Kindle version, and .pdf printable versions.

We also work with our authors to create and sell high quality study aids tightly integrated with the book - audio study guides,mobile flash cards, web quizzes, animated problem walkthroughs, etc. Students can purchase these DRM free downloads as they need them, or in one digital package. Our authors receive a percentage of all revenue generated. The bottom line is that financial models demonstrate that our revenue, and the income generated by authors, will be more than competitive with what the traditional houses make, so we can continuously reinvest in our products. Sorry about the long post. I just wanted to be clear that it can be dangerous to lump all open textbooks together in the category of "a book somebody just put online". At Flatworld, we are a professional publisher. We just have a new and better business model, and we think that it can produce a win for students, faculty, authors, and us, the publisher. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify!

Eric Frank     eric[at]flatworldknowledge.com  flatworldknowledge.com

Open Textbooks

Part of the appeal of open textbooks to students is obviously no cost versus the ridiculously high cost of books for classes. Students can access open textbooks on the Internet for free. But what is the appeal of the open textbook for teachers and colleges?

Open textbook "authors" put their books online for public use. Since they are also open license, instructors can modify the text by deleting and adding content. Of course, you can still print them and some campuses even offer printed copies, color versions etc. at minimal cost.

But there aren't many available at this point.

What makes it a bit more interesting for me here at Passaic County Community College is that yesterday I read that the Community College Open Textbook Project begins this week. Professors from colleges will be meeting with representatives from nonprofit groups and for-profit companies that are in the digital textbook market to talk about ways of developing and promoting online content.

Not all reviews of open textbooks are glowing. Some students find them too short and lacking the depth of traditional books. For example, some professors typically cover a portion of the text in class/lectures, but would assign or expect students to read the additional textbook material. In a course like statistics, students might welcome extra practice problems from a full textbook. The quality of available OER materials is inconsistent at this point. These books may not meet Section 508 ADA accessibility requirements. Faculty will need to check for accuracy of content of open content more than commercial textbooks. (The Wikipedia versus Britannica battle again.)

Still, as with other Open Everything efforts, customization of content will ultimately be more flexible in open content than it currently is in commercially available content. And after a few classes where you pay $100+ for a book that gets used twice in the semester, student attitudes to open textbooks will change.

The first phase of the Community College Open Textbook Project is being funded by a one-year, $500,000-plus grant to the Foothill-De Anza Community College District from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

As part of the project, community college professors will receive training on how to find and customize material. Another goal is for participants to create online textbooks using existing resources. The meeting in California will have them reviewing open-textbook models for equality, usability, accessibility, and sustainability.


Here are the first four providers of free online educational resources that will be considered, and plenty of additional resources if you want to explore more deeply.

UPDATED  May 1, 2008


I'm adding this comment to the main post because I know that readers don't always bother to click the comments link. Here's a take on this topic from a commercial publisher (mentioned above) who is working with the open textbook community.

Hi Kenneth,

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

I am the co-founder of Flat World Knowledge, the commercial open textbook publisher mentioned in the Wired Campus article. I agree with you that historically, the quality of open textbooks has been inconsistent. We are focused on changing that. My business partner and I come out of 30 years of publishing experience with McGraw-Hill, Thomson, and Prentice Hall. We have personally worked on some of the top selling textbooks in the market. It is our belief that there is no inherent reason why an open textbook should be of any lower quality that a traditional book.

I can't speak for open textbooks in general. I can only speak to our approach. We are building our textbooks just like we did at our former companies . We are being highly selective about which authors we sign (top academics, recognized in their fields). Our books are undergoing extensive peer review. They are professionally illustrated, and fully accuracy checked. They include everything a traditional book does, including problem sets. They even include more, like integrated audio and videos. We produce teaching supplements for instructors.

You get the point. These are complete, high quality books.

The difference is that we make them free online, and available forinstructors to modify to better fit the syllabus before assigning it to students.

We have a viable financial model behind this. Students can purchase inexpensive alternatives to the online book, including a print version, an audio version, a Kindle version, and .pdf printable versions.

We also work with our authors to create and sell high quality study aids tightly integrated with the book - audio study guides,mobile flash cards, web quizzes, animated problem walkthroughs, etc. Students can purchase these DRM free downloads as they need them, or in one digital package. Our authors receive a percentage of all revenue generated. The bottom line is that financial models demonstrate that our revenue, and the income generated by authors, will be more than competitive with what the traditional houses make, so we can continuously reinvest in our products. Sorry about the long post. I just wanted to be clear that it can be dangerous to lump all open textbooks together in the category of "a book somebody just put online". At Flatworld, we are a professional publisher. We just have a new and better business model, and we think that it can produce a win for students, faculty, authors, and us, the publisher. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify!

Eric Frank
eric[at]flatworldknowledge.com  flatworldknowledge.com


On the Fringe of Conferences

I have been noticing more and more informal meetups developing at the fringes of formal conferences. You attend a conference and discover that special interest groups are getting together less formally to share ideas during breaks and in the off-conference hours.

I have heard events of this type called meetups, unconferences, collaborative conferences and barcamps and I wrote about a Classroom 2.0 free meetup at the start of this year.


I want to share another one that I noticed this past week. It is occurring as a pre-conference event at the NECC Conference (National Educational Computing Conference). It is billed as EduBloggerCon / Classroom 2.0 "LIVE in San Antonio" on June 28, 2008. It's a full day meetup of educators using blogs and other collaborative technologies. They invite bloggers, blog readers and those who want to enter that world. What makes it an unconference is that it is pretty much being organized by the participants in real time on the wiki site. They are also sharing information on what sessions they plan to attend. The group does have (through the generosity of organizer ISTE) access that day to rooms at the Convention Center and free wi-fi.

I have never attended NECC - scared off by the reports of attendees of the overwhelming nature of this big conference. Does this meetup effect make a big conference seem smaller & more personal - or does it make it even busier? (Things to do during the breaks!) I'd love to hear from past attendees and unconference fans about their experiences.


Another happening is the NECC "Unplugged at the Bloggers Cafe" (also called "NECC 2.0," the NECC "Fringe" Festival, and the NECC "Unconference - I hope we settle on a name for all this). This runs over the 3 days and is also being scheduled by the participants and happens in the open lounge areas. Right now they list 7 types of sessions and it's interesting to see some new takes on the standard presentation and poster sessions format of many conferences.



  1. from the more formal "Birds of a Feather" sessions which are actually scheduled by NECC

  2. to "Speed Demos" - 5 minute (max) demonstrations of Web 2.0 programs or uses

  3. "Short Talks" 7 minute talks (they compare it to the TED Talks and suggest "if you got formally turned down for a NECC session... now you can say you presented at NECC").

  4. "Facilitated Discussions" - group discussion with volunteer facilitators, topics proposed online

  5. "Panel Discussion" - find some panelists & a moderator, and put yourselves in the schedule.

  6. "Success Stories" - your own success stories to showcase and for discussion in 30-minute blocks around specific topics (e.g., "Blogging with young students")

  7. and finally "Daily Wrap Ups"




The Death of Newspapers


I remember hearing in my earliest student days about the death of the novel and the death of the theater. I read a piece recently bemoaning the death of the short story form. Television was going to kill the movies. The Internet will finish off television. The Internet is predicted to kill off a number of institutions it seems.

The print newspaper is one that gets a lot of attention these days. Eric Alterman recently wrote a good piece on all this in that paper/print publication the New Yorker (of course, you can read it online).

Newspapers once had a lock on news. In the Net age, newspapers were too comfortable and didn't recognize what was happening. They are playing catchup in places online advertising, but that won't replace the loss in revenue from circulation and print ads.

In the 1980's there was talk about "civic journalism” and then the Web brought citizen-bloggers who were their own publishers.

You know it's bad when some new newspaper owners sound scared about the future. “The news business is something worse than horrible,” says Sam Zell, who bought Chicago’s Tribune Company and perhaps is wondering about his purchase.

Jay Rosen (New York University and PressThink) is a one who watches the transforming media. I listened to a podcast from a conversation he had at Brown University.

In his introduction to PressThink, Rosen says:

We need to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media. This means keeping the word press, which is antiquated. But included under its modern umbrella should be all who do the serious work injournalism, regardless of the technology used. The people who will invent the next press in America--and who are doing it now online--continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached...

At Brown, he talks about the websites that have grown beyond citizen journalism like Instapundit , DailyKos, The Huffington Post, (powered by aggregation) and Talking Points Memo.

Does Rosen think a paper like the New York Times will disappear? No, but what he thinks is valuable is its reputation for trust and reliability and its readership - and not the printing presses, and advertising. He says that the newspaper needs to be unbundled. The paper became a compendium of too many things, and now there are so many websites that can do each of those parts better. You can find better sites for information on sports, science, technology etc. than any major newspaper in print or online. Does that mean that newspapers will focus on news?

I wonder if higher education will need to unbundle in that same way. Will we need to create colleges that specialize and focus on certain majors? Will comprehensive universities fall away? What happens to liberal arts, core curriculums and general education courses? Does it mean that schools will focus on education?

Organizing Without Organizations

I discovered an interesting book while listening to a podcast of The Brian Lehrer Show. It's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations written by Clay Shirky. I was happy to see that my library had a copy I could pick and and read.


At first look, the book seems to be about all the Web 2.0 goodness that many of us have been playing with the past few years - social networks, blogs, wikis et al. Read a bit further into the book and you see that Shirky is interested in what happens when the rest of the crowd gets to using these tools. He is theorizing that when everybody comes to that place it will transform the relationship between individuals and the big hierarchical institutions that dominated our pre-Internet society and are being flattened.


Shirky wears several hats (teacher, media critic, telecom consultant, art major, theatrical director) so it's not surprising that he looks at our digital networking age through filters that are philosophical, sociological, economic and statistical.


His view balances successes and failures. On the successful side are projects like the user-generated Wikipedia, balanced by duds like the L.A. Times Wikitorial for user-gen op-ed writing. In fact, print journalism takes it on the chin here.


A review/interview on Ars Technica points to a story Shirky tells from the real good old days of 1492. The printing press had some time to get established by then and there were critics. One was an Abbot named Johannes Trithemius who -



...wrote a treatise on the superiority of the scrivener's life to the vulgarity of movable type. But Trithemius had a problem: he wanted his book to reach a broad audience, and that would have been impossible if he had relied on his fellow scribes to reproduce the book by hand. So he had the book printed. As Shirky puts it, "The content of the Abbot's book praised the scribes, while its printed form damned them."

Shirky wrote more about this idea in a post on his publisher's blog (Penguin):


It's worth noting that most of the arguments made against the printing press were correct, even prescient. Readily available translations of scripture did destroy the Church as a pan-European institution. Most of the material produced by the new class of publishers was flyweight. Scribes did lose their social function. And so on, through a battery of transformations including public scrutiny of elites, the international spread of political foment, and even literate women. (The book to read on these transitions is Elizabeth Eisenstein's two-volume work The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.)

 

All of which brings me to the internet. It too democratizes both production and consumption of media. It too is producing a staggering volume of new material, some good but most flyweight. It too is upending the role of traditional gatekeepers and destroying the older economics of scarcity. And it too is leading to a cottage industry of hand-wringing: "Why can't we just get a little bit of internet, but keep most things the way they were?"


Clay Shirky's personal website will also has a blog for this new book that updates the book with posts of related material like Newspapers and the Net and even posts and comments from readers correcting typos in the book's first edition.


In education, I see a small but growing number of teachers using these tools, but we have a ways to go before the change will be widespread. Students are important agents of change for educational technology both in what they bring to the classroom and their expectations for what teachers should be using.


Clay Shirky says that communications tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. He explains that by comparing it to the automobile.



"In a way, the kind of real transformation of the American landscape by the automobile—the rise of the suburbs, the change in work and living patterns, and so forth—could only happen after cars themselves—and in particular, the fact of the internal combustion engine—had become boring."

I'm curious to see how long it takes teachers to be comfortable (bored) enough with Web technologies to start doing really interesting things with them.



Here is a video of Shirky talking about the book


RESOURCES
There have been a few shelves worth of books the past few years about the transforming powers of these Internet-based movements. Here's ten that are a good starting list - enough to teach a course or two.



  1. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, & the Economic World

  2. Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology

  3. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier

  4. Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution

  5. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised : Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything

  6. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom

  7. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything read a review

  8. Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration

  9. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming

  10. Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace


What's In An EDU name?


marketing.edu

Today: a case and a lesson.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, I first read about the case of an online college that is "renting" space on their .edu domain. Criticism is now being directed at both the college and the company that is selling blog space there.

If a blogger is willing to pay $50 per month, he can have the cachet of an educational domain address. Since the edu is supposed to be reserved for accredited educational institutions, the fear is that this diminishes the legitimacy of an .edu domain.

The online college is the Pickering Institute. The Internet company it is working with is LinkAdage.

If you go to the Pickering Institute domain at http://pi.edu, it now redirects to blogs.pi.edu. Perhaps this is now their only business. At least part of the criticism comes from the feeling by some that the Pickering Institute shouldn't even have a .edu address. (Unconfirmed by me, but it seems that it's not accredited by a qualified educational organization.)

Something that surprised me in researching this post is that Educause is the organization that manages .edu registrations. They say that Pickering received its approval for a .edu address before the current rules were strictly enforced (after October 2001), and so were "grandfathered in." This case is unique enough that it's not clear if renting out space on an .edu address violates the rules. Educause officials say they are investigating the practice.

Other bloggers are posting about this too and I found it interesting that the first post I found was on on a blog about Internet marketing. Is that what this is really about - marketing and branding?

Pickering is using the WordPress Multi-User tool to create an online blogging community just as some other colleges (and corporations) have done to offer their faculty/students a blogging home. Of course, colleges have not been charging $50 a month to, as LinkAdage says, “reach an education-minded audience that is difficult to reach with mass-market blogs such as Blogger or Blogspot.”

All this leads me to an educational issue larger than this case. How much legitimacy does an .edu domain really carry (beyond cachet)?

When you teach research and the use of Internet sites, do you teach students what domains like .org, .edu, .tv actually mean? I have done workshops on this topic and I was at first very surprised at the lack of information teachers had about domains. It would be sad to think that students are being taught that information on a .org site is better than a .com because the former is a "non-profit" or that sites that end with .edu are more educationally sound- because that's just not true.

If you teach at one of the larger colleges, you may have personal web space on the school's .edu domain. At NJIT, faculty are given space and the URl looks similar to this http://web.njit.edu/~elliot. That is the NJIT home page for Professor Norbert Elliot. But that tilde (the ~ hiding in the corner of your keyboard is the grapheme I learned about in Spanish I class) is very important.

Tildes used in URLs generally denote a personal website on a Unix-based server. Just because some faculty or staff member has web space on a prestigious university website doesn't make the content of that site any less likely to conatin errors than a .com site. (Tim would want me to mention that this comes from the use of the tilde in Unix shells where it indicates the current user's home directory - e.g., ~timkellers for the home directory of user timkellers or /home/timkellers.)

We really need to be teaching about the basics of top-level domains(TLD). For example, the domain .edu was created in 1985 and originally intended for educational institutions anywhere in the world. On April 24, 1985 cmu.edu, berkeley.edu, columbia.edu, purdue.edu, rice.edu, and ucla.edu became the first six registered domain names. 1 However, only educational institutions in the United States really use this, and institutions outside the U.S. usually use their country code TLD. The University at Oxford, for example, is at http://www.ox.ac.uk. And there are "other uses" of the .edu domain already - such as Educause's own site or the Smithsonian Institution.

So, does this new use of the domain mean the end of educational sites as we (think) we know them? Probably not. Even the Pickering Institute via LinkAdage has some "rules" for renters: no porn-related blogs, blogs promoting gambling, blogs for prescription drugs, spam blogs or link farms are allowed. "Your blog must contain original content that teaches and educates readers," they say. Tim and I will be working on our application soon.