digital textbook

Back to School: It’s Raining Textbooks

Jane Park, September 3rd, 2009

As students around the world return to school, ccLearn blogs about the evolving education landscape, ongoing projects to improve educational resources, education technology, and the future of education. Browse the “Back to School” tag for more posts in this series.

All that matters in the news these days is health care, that is, health care and textbooks. The terms “education” and “textbook” go hand in hand, and nobody, at least at the state levels, is keen on separating the two. With California’s Free Digital Textbook Initiative recently announcing the approval of some 20 digital textbooks, a futuristic vision of Kindle kids scrolling with razor-like focus floats like bubbles before our eyes.

However, last month, the New York Times reported, “In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History,” that textbooks may be “supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web.” The article pointed to Beyond Textbooks, an initiative that “encourages teachers to create — and share — lessons that incorporate their own PowerPoint presentations, along with videos and research materials they find by sifting through reliable Internet sites.” Beyond Textbooks disassociates itself from “canned curriculum”, or “vanilla curriculum,” reproaching the linear nature of textbooks– “No longer is instruction limited by the resources in one building, or even one district. Beyond Textbooks gives you the whole world!”

My own post on OnOpen.net follows a similar train of thought, and is aptly named, “Beyond the Textbook: I. The Illusion of Quality in K-12 Education“. In it, I challenge the public perception that educational quality will suffer without textbooks, and talk about whether textbooks really need saving.

Other news sources are also skeptical. The Scientific American prefaces its article, “Open-Source Textbooks a Mixed Bag in California,” with the caveat, “Downloadable and free, maybe–but the schoolhouse Wiki revolution will have to wait.” Granted, SA seems to be conflating “open-source” and “digital” here (open-source is generally associated with openly licensed textbooks, otherwise known as open textbooks, while digital is, well, digital like everything else we come across in today’s world) and it is unclear if they are skeptical of simply digitizing the “Bulky, hefty and downright expensive, conventional school textbooks” that have been persisting for years, or if they are averse to the digital revolution in education generally.

Still, the ReadWriteWeb is more optimistic, pointing out initiatives like Flat World Knowledge which focus on gaining revenue through the sale of supplementary materials surrounding their textbooks, which are themselves openly available via CC BY-NC-SA, and are therefore not only freely accessible, but adaptable, derivable, and even republishable, though for noncommercial purposes and under the same license. Co-founder Eric Frank distinguishes between traditional textbooks and open textbooks, emphasizing that open textbooks creates more options: “Traditional textbooks have clearly failed students and instructors. Similarly, digital textbook trials that force a single format, device, or price point will also fail. No single e-reading format or device will ever satisfy all students. Our commercial open-source textbook approach puts control and the power of choice in the hands of students and instructors.”

However, you can’t help but wonder if all this hooplah around textbooks is “[falling] flat.” Is the power of choice really in the hands of teachers and students? If traditional textbooks “have clearly failed” them, but that traditional textbook adoption process is not about to budge, are we simply arguing about which direction to steer the Titanic after we have already hit the iceberg?

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Solution is Open Textbooks

Jane Park, August 26th, 2008

In January, the Student PIRGs launched the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign “to encourage faculty to adopt open educational resources in their classrooms” in the form of open textbooks and other classroom materials. Read ccLearn’s post on it from January.

Recently, the Student PIRGs released their findings after examining digital textbooks and surveying 500 students in the following report: “Course Correction: How Digital Textbooks are Off Track and How to Set Them Straight“. Nicole Allen, the campaign’s director, writes:

“I think this report helps draw a brighter line between the good and bad of digital textbooks. I think open textbooks too often get lumped into the overarching category of digital books, which does not do them justice as a solution.  We hope it will help refocus all of the momentum for digital textbooks toward the right kind of digital textbooks – open.”

The report highlights the defects of e-books offered currently by commercial publishers. (See the LA Times and The Wired Campus articles.) In addition to being expensive, they are accessible by students for only a limited time and cost a great deal for those who would like to print them. Open textbooks, on the other hand, are free and downloadable, giving students access to their own copy forever in addition to the abilities to reuse, remix or repurpose them under the terms of an open license.

The report itself is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA. You can download a copy.

One example of a commercial entity releasing an open textbook: Quirk eMarketing released “The Essential Guide to Online Marketing” last month under CC BY-NC-ND.

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