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Open textbooks for open minds

Many of us are fully aware of the paradigm shifts in education involving the Internet digital revolution. One particular area of this revolution is the open education movement, where knowledge is freely shared at no cost to the learner, with open source textbooks becoming a major component.

More broadly, open textbooks are part of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, that also includes full courses, course materials, modules, journals, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques that are critical in the learning environment.

Go to a website and be educated – and not just by anyone who deems themselves an expert, but also by colleges opening up their lectures to any Web traveler, and by truly credentialed teachers who independently and with great enthusiasm are sharing their expertise in the form of their own textbook creations. This latter movement is known as “open textbooks” in the form of e-textbooks.

Open source textbooks are being created for the most part by the educators themselves, with their own resources, outside of the publishing industry. In some cases foundations are funding the creation of open source textbooks. There are a few publishers, such as Flat World Knowledge, that have embraced the open textbook as a viable business model.

Here’s a definition of open textbooks by the advocacy group College Open Textbooks: An open textbook is an integrated course-associated learning tool that is in the public domain or has been open-licensed by the copyright holder to permit re-use without the necessity of asking permission of the copyright holder. Open textbooks improve learning and teaching by freeing instructors from constantly seeking permission. Open textbooks are free or inexpensive on the Web and modestly priced for downloads, use on eReaders, or in bound format.

This development couldn’t come at a more timely moment. The escalating costs of textbooks more than ever are a sore issue with students. One source states that the average student spends $900 per year, and prices are rising four times the rate of inflation.

In the No Shelf Required librarian blog, it’s stated that “our current textbook system is broken.” Data presented on the blog include the following:

  • Students in 2-year public colleges found that 72% of college expenses were spent on college textbooks (DOE stats from FY03-04).  As a result, students can’t afford their textbooks and it is causing a generation of dropouts.
  • According to statistics sited by the AAP and McGraw-Hill, 20% of students aren’t buying any textbook

An organization, Student PIRGs has popped up, protesting the exorbitant costs of textbooks with a fervor bordering on acrid rebelliousness. But they do offer alternatives to the conventional textbook. One of the alluring solutions is the open source textbook. 

“Traditional textbook publishers have held an iron lock on the industry’s model for too long, and universities have been tacitly complicit of the system,” according to industry award-winner Lev Gonick, Case Western University vice president for information technology services and chief information officer. “In the Web era, however, this oligopolistic business practice is imploding. Indeed, the whole learning process is changing thanks to the Internet…How we produce, organize, and distribute open education resources is at the heart of the future of education around the world.”

The open education paradigm shift is coupled with the concomitant technology shift that has made this transformation possible. First was the PC, then the Internet. Now mobile computing is making a further quantum impact in the form of Apple iPads and other devices.

Students and teachers from grade school through higher education are using the iPad for augmenting lessons and even replacing textbooks. It’s been said that iPads pay for themselves in a single semester when they are used to access e-textbooks. And iPad books are touted as legal alternatives to pirated textbooks.

The obvious question is, Are these free open source textbooks any good? How do they stack up to the conventional commercially-available textbooks? Are they truly useful and practical for discipline-specific classroom use?

The Auraria Library in Denver has listed myths of open textbooks:

1.   Open textbooks and ebooks are the same thing.

2    Open textbooks are low quality or have expired copyrights and are out-of-date.

3.       Open textbooks are ‘crowd-sourced’, i.e., created by anonymous amateurs.

4.       Authors never receive monetary compensation for open textbooks.

5.       Derivatives damage the orginal authors’ credibility.

6.       Campus bookstores suffer from the use of open textbooks

7.       Publishing companies are the enemies of open textbooks.

Before we try to answer these questions of quality of open textbooks, let us not be so quick to place conventional textbooks on some kind of holy pedestal. Textbooks in general have a notorious reputation in some quarters for being fraught with errors and for unsavory issues of blatant bias and subjectivity. Yes, those seemingly innocuous textbooks have created their share of controversies, and even lawsuits. Whether this reputation is truly deserved or accurate, is not in the purview of this article.

One of the avowed functions and responsibilities of librarians is to help evaluate books and information resources for quality, authoritativeness, and reliability. In addition, through “information literacy” librarians try to teach the principles of evaluating information in addition to the basic challenge of finding it.

The “buyer beware” and due diligence maxims for any kind of consumer goods holds true with sizing up textbooks. There is no magic or infallible formula for automatically grading a textbook. Close scrutiny and common sense have to be applied. What is the resume of the textbook authors? What is the reputation of the publisher? What is the record of this textbook’s use by schools and colleges? What testimonials can support it? And so on.

Such scrutiny becomes harder for open textbooks. First, there is no reputable publisher in the normal sense, because the publisher is the self-publishing author himself. There may be no track record for the open textbook’s use in the classroom, because the textbook may be either too new or just plain obscure or too unknown or unrecognized to have been tried in many classrooms.

But if there is any doubt that quality open textbooks cannot be produced, take the case of an award-winning open textbook adopted by colleges around the country, Collaborative Statistics, designed for introductory statistics courses. Flat World Knowledge – “The first and largest publisher of free and open textbooks” —  states that its books are peer reviewed, and professionally edited and developed.

Despite the above-mentioned disadvantages of open textbooks, the possible payoff of using an open textbook —saving substantial money – may be worth the extra effort of closely examining and evaluating such textbooks.

Other open textbook options are the non-textbook, the self-created textbook, and the mashup. College and high school teachers have already discovered this self-created open textbook solution. The non-textbook is doing away with standard textbooks and replacing them with material culled from vetted electronic resources and courseware. Mashups are a hybrid creation from several textbooks. High school educators in particular have gotten national attention for their open textbook innovations.

Creating your own offers another advantage of open textbooks–by creating their own textbooks, teachers can customize their textbook to fit their classes more exactly than the cookie-cutter textbooks they are stuck with. Some instructors are disillusioned with dull, uninspiring textbooks that turn off students rather than engage and excite them. A customized, self-created textbook may be the answer.

While up to now high schools have been the most proactive in the open textbook arena, higher education has also made moves to promote the open source textbook movement. College Open Textbooks Collaborative is an advocacy group for open textbooks, consisting of 16 educational organizations, affiliated with more than 200 colleges, focused on driving awareness and adoptions of open textbooks to more than 2000 colleges.

Another major resource is the Open Educational Resources (OER) Commons, a clearinghouse for finding and sharing open educational resources. These resources, some of which have been reviewed, include textbooks, syllabi, lectures, full courses, activities and labs, homework and assignments, etc. Textbooks and other materials are searchable by subject, grade level, and type of material.

Started in 2012, a new chapter in the developing saga of open textbooks is being developed at the University of Minnesota. An innovative online project, under the direction of David Ernst, director of academic and information technology for the College of Education and Human Development, is being launched to locate the scattered open textbooks and create a peer-reviewed catalog of such books. The project will concentrate first on the most widely taught courses, like introductory biology and math. “You know the world doesn’t need another $150 Algebra One book,” Ernst has stated. “Algebra One hasn’t changed for centuries, probably.” University of Minnesota faculty will be paid $500 to write a review of an open-source textbook. They’ll earn the same amount to adopt such a book in class.

Despite the obvious advantages and attractiveness of open textbooks, commercial textbooks still retain an advantage: ancillary materials like study plans, exams, and course-management software, which studies show instructors prize above all else. Open textbook publishers don’t have the financial power to match the $4 billion textbook industry’s ability to produce these add-ons.

Open textbooks have made a small but notable splash in Colorado. Here at Arapahoe Community College, some instructors have successfully ventured into the open textbook. Former ACC business instructor Carl Bergemann’s use of Flat World for his Principles of Marketing class is related on the ACC website.

Other Colorado colleges and schools using open textbooks include Colorado Mountain College, Colorado State University, and Englewood High School, and University of Colorado. Six professors at CU-Boulder in 2010 signed a “statement of intent” online which vows that they will strongly consider using an open textbook if a relevant one is available for their course. Two Colorado professors, Timothy Tregarthen (University of Colorado) and Libby Rittenberg (Colorado College), have written a highly-regarded Flat World textbook, Principles of Microeconomics. Mark Winey and Ken Krauter from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) have written an open textbook for their students as a solution to $180 textbooks.

CoPIRG (Colorado Public Interest Research Group), an advocacy organization for consumer and health care issues, is active in generating open textbook interest in Colorado, as well as encouraging legislation.

Community colleges have taken on open education resources, with their own group, The Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER). One example of community colleges embracing open textbooks and resources is Scottsdale Community College, used by the mathematics faculty for teaching algebra courses. 

Here are some resources that may help in the process of exploring the option of using open textbooks.

> Open textbooks explained: Mark Winey and Ken Krauter from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) explain open textbooks in this video.

> Open textbook testimonial: Physics instructor Erik Christensen of South Florida Community College is an advocate of open textbooks, which he feels benefit him and his students. The customization of the open textbook with his own teaching materials contributed to making physics “more fun and interesting” for his students. Also, costs to students dropped from $178 to $13. Watch his testimonial on YouTube, in addition to other testimonials.

> College Open Textbooks Collaborative is an advocacy group for open textbooks, consisting of 16 educational organizations, affiliated with more than 200 colleges, focused on driving awareness and adoptions of open textbooks to more than 2000 colleges.

> Open Educational Resources (OER) Textbooks – A catalog of hundreds of open textbooks, some of which are reviewed. Searchable by subject, grade level, material type (in addition to textbooks).

> The Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER). The CCCOER site has an excellent list of open education resources links.

> Flat World Knowledge – “The first and largest publisher of free and open textbooks.” Used by more than 500 colleges and universities and tens of thousands of students. These peer-reviewed books are available free online, or can be purchased at low cost print-on-demand, and includes audio versions and study aids.

> Finding and selecting open textbooks – A guide to resources by the Auraria Library, Denver

> Open Textbooks and Other Open or Free Resources for Faculty is a guide for exploring open textbook options for faculty, from Kirkwood Community College Libraries. Topics included: What is an “Open Textbook”? For those new to open textbooks; sources for finding an open textbook and other open resources; resources for creating and hosting your own textbook; commercial sites with open texts.

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