open textbooks

Oppikirjamaraton: How to Write an Open Textbook in a Weekend

Elliot Harmon, October 23rd, 2012

One Thursday a few weeks ago, just as most of us at Creative Commons were on our way home for the evening, we saw this startling tweet:

Of course we had to learn more. I contacted Joonas Mäkinen to get more information, and he explained to me that he’d helped organize a team to write a secondary school mathematics textbook over a weekend, in an event called Oppikirjamaraton (“textbook marathon”). The book was to be licensed CC BY, so that anyone could reuse or remix it in Finland or around the world.

The text — now in version .91 in GitHub — is called Vapaa Matikka. The title translates as “Free Math,” but since matikka can also mean “burbot,” the book’s title also reads as “free fish” and its slogan — Matikka verkosta vapauteen — could be either a rallying cry to keep educational resources free and open or an instruction to free a fish from a net.

Vappa Matikka

But I was interested in more than math puns. I wanted to find out how the book sprint had gone, what the team was planning to do with the textbook, and what advice he had for others organizing similar events. This interview was conducted by email between October 2 and 5.

What range of math concepts does the book cover?

It is a text book for the first advanced level mathematics course in Finnish upper secondary (high) schools. Although people who just start the course have usually just finished their mandatory primary school studies, we decided to take quite a “for dummies” approach and try to minimize all the prerequisites.

We introduce rational numbers, go through the arithmetic of them and real numbers in general. Power rules and roots follow and lead to the very basics of equation solving and the concept of a function. The most important applications of all this are proportionality and percentage calculations. Even with the freedom of writing we had we were tied to the current curriculum.

Tell me more about the curriculum requirements. Are they the same throughout Finland?

There is one national curriculum and everyone follows it. The only standardized tests you get are your finals, or matriculation examinations as they are known here, so some book series approach topics in a slightly different order than others. There is some flexibility and writing a course book based on the curriculum was easy.

Doesn’t change the fact that the curriculum sucks, though. The first reaction from a lot of participants was: “Can we write a new curriculum first?” And I understand them. We don’t have wars over content as I’ve understood you have in the USA, though. It’s more about how certain topics are grouped together in courses.

In the case of advanced level mathematics, there are 10 national, mandatory courses that consist of approximately 18 75-minute lessons. Plus a few optional courses, plus a lot more if you’re in a science- or math-focused school. An example of a highly non-mathematical, non-systematic grouping would be for example a course which is supposed to cover sequences and trigonometric functions. These two have nothing in common at this level. They could if series expansions and complex numbers were taught earlier, but nooooo

Get the tech side done before you start, and that will save everybody’s nerves and time for the actual writing!

Oppikirjamaraton (Caption added) / Joonas Mäkinen / CC BY

Vesa Linja-Aho

Vesa Linja-Aho / Senja Opettaa / CC BY

What was the breakdown of participants? Was everyone involved an educator? Did participants have prior experience writing or editing textbooks?

There were over 20 people who partook in writing that weekend. We had regular upper secondary teachers, university students (mathematics and computer science), a teacher of automotive electronics, my own private students, and even a couple of university professors working both locally and remotely. We had our own inner circle of enthusiastic grammar nazis, too, to help us actually write grammatically and typographically better materials than you see in some books by big publishers. The diversity of people involved turned out to be a great resource for producing a variety of problems and perspectives.

A few people had experience writing and publishing a “normal,” old-fashioned commercial book, but that experience didn’t seem to divide people into groups at all when we actually started working.

How did you organize yourselves? Were people’s roles in the project determined before the weekend began?

Vesa Linja-aho, who got the idea of this booksprint/hackathon in the first place, was our de facto PR and bureaucracy guy. Lauri Hellsten promised to take the main role in creating much-needed graphics at the set. Other than them, no writer was predestined any specific work. Surely quite a few people had their own topics they really, really wanted to write about, but all in all the whole writing process was very spontaneous and dynamic.

Lauri Hellsten

Lauri Hellsten / Senja Opettaa / CC BY

How much preparation happened ahead of time? Did you enter the weekend with an outline of the book? Schedules?

After realizing that this could be a big thing we just sort of waited for our friends and friends’ friends to fill out a Doodle poll about which weekend we should pick. I planned a table of contents beforehand to have something as a starting point, but it was modified very heavily during Friday and Saturday. Juhapekka Tolvanen made us some LaTeX layout templates beforehand, and we also had one planning meeting but that was not really about content but more about technology: which version management systems we should use, etc. Most of the planning in general was just about getting potential sponsors, writing a press release, checking where we can actually do the writing work, did we have enough laptops, and so on.

One funny copyright anecdote: we had gathered up pretty much all available, related text books. You know, to check how others have explained this and that. Another reason was that in mathematics education (and obviously in other subjects too) there are usually many “pathological” examples and exercises that it’s good for everyone to go though, so you keep running into and using the same tasks again and again. Vesa Linja-aho had received a written decision earlier from the local copyright council that exercises do not constitute works and thus are not copyrightable. Nevertheless, a teacher who had written one of the books we had with us commented and reminded us on our Facebook page that it’s not right to copy others’ work. We got some good laughs out of that.

Siiri Anttonen

Siiri Anttonen / Senja Opettaa / CC BY

What did you learn from the experience? What was more difficult than you expected? What advice would you give others planning a similar sprint?

Get the tech side done before you start, and that will save everybody’s nerves and time for the actual writing! We used LaTeX to write and typeset the whole book and Github to handle versions, but hassling with both caused a lot of delays during the first two days. Most people were not familiar with Git and version conflicts and other funnies took maybe a half of our time. Just think what we could have achieved if everyone had had their laptops completely ready…

Some guys were still debating if we should add this and that during Saturday and Sunday, and that was something people should try to avoid. In sprints like this, it’s always the best to just keep writing more content – it’s always easier to comment out or edit something later on. Some arguments got pretty heated a couple of times, but that might also be the lack of sleep talking. Keep it cool and remember to have fun!

Joonas Mäkinen

Joonas Mäkinen / Senja Opettaa / CC BY

What’s next? Is there a revision or review period planned? Are there educators planning to teach from it?

The immediate physiological response after finishing the marathon on Sunday was euphoria. Everyone agreed immediately to organize another sprint. The technical delays and lack of graphics artists made sure that our book didn’t reach the level of ready that we’d just send it to printing immediately, but it’s alive now: people keep sending “bug reports” over Github and all participants have continued to make improvements: fixing typos, adding exercises, fixing inconsistencies…

Our book is now version 0.9, and we’ll wait a couple of weeks till we say it’s appropriately ready for translations and focused printing. Though, we’ve already been hearing that the book has been used as a handbook by a couple of teachers, some have been giving their students exercises from the book and so forth. And of course I and other writers have used it as a resource, too, when teaching our own students. After some polishing we’re pretty sure it’ll be used in plenty of places. Another kick in popularity will come when we continue with the rest of the courses (since schools don’t like to switch book series between courses).

The project was so fun and well-received that we’ll have our next sprint on the second course soon!

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British Columbia Government Lends Support to Open Textbooks

Cable Green, October 16th, 2012

The government of British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province, has announced its support for the creation of open textbooks for the 40 most popular first- and second-year courses in the province’s public post-secondary system. The texts will be available for free online, or at a low cost for printed versions, to approximately 200,000 students. The first texts under this project could be in use at B.C. institutions as early as 2013 for courses in arts, sciences, humanities, and business.

BCcampus, a publicly funded collaborative information technology organization serving the higher-education system, will engage B.C. faculty, institutions, and publishers to implement the open textbook project through an open request for proposals.

David Porter, executive director for BCcampus, explained why CC licenses are crucial to this project. “Open licenses are integral to making textbooks free for students, and flexible enough for instructors to customize the material to suit their courses.”

B.C.’s minister of advanced education, John Yap, announced the project at the Open Education Conference in Vancouver. He said students could save up to $1,000 a year on textbooks if free, open versions were available for many of their courses, and he challenged other jurisdictions to follow British Columbia’s lead and support open educational resources: “By taking advantage of technology, more people can get the learning they need in the knowledge economy and access to new or better jobs.”

You might remember that a few weeks ago, we celebrated a similar piece of legislation in California. The British Columbia legislation was actually based on California’s version. Taken together, these are exciting steps for the OER (open educational resources) movement. Since the textbooks produced in B.C. and California will be licensed under the CC BY license, their impact has the potential to spread far beyond the US and Canada, being reused and adapted by educators around the world.

B.C. is leveraging 21st-century technologies and licensing to ensure that its citizens have affordable access to high-quality post-secondary textbooks. Open licensing on publicly funded content ensures the greatest impact for the public dollar.

Read the full press release.

There was an OER Forum later that week. Videos and images.

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California passes groundbreaking open textbook legislation

Timothy Vollmer, September 27th, 2012

It’s official. In California, Governor Jerry Brown has signed two bills (SB 1052 and SB 1053) that will provide for the creation of free, openly licensed digital textbooks for the 50 most popular lower-division college courses offered by California colleges. The legislation was introduced by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and passed by the California Senate and Assembly in late August.

A crucial component of the California legislation is that the textbooks developed will be made available under the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY):

The textbooks and other materials are placed under a creative commons attribution license that allows others to use, distribute, and create derivative works based upon the digital material while still allowing the authors or creators to receive credit for their efforts.

The CC BY license allows teachers to tailor textbook content to students’ needs, permits commercial companies to take the resources and build new products with it (such as video tutorials), and opens the doors for collaboration and improvement of the materials.

Access to affordable textbooks is extremely important for students, as textbook costs continue to rise at four times the rate of inflation, sometimes surpassing the cost of tuition at some community colleges. So, in addition to making the digital textbooks available to students free of cost, the legislation requires that print copies of textbooks will cost about $20.

This is a massive win for California, and a most welcome example of open policy that aims to leverage open licensing to save money for California families and support the needs of teachers and students. We’ll continue to track this initiative and other Open Education Policies at our OER registry.

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Saylor Foundation expands $20,000 Open Textbook Challenge

Anna Daniel, May 10th, 2012

The Saylor Foundation provides global grants of US $20,000 to college textbook authors seeking to openly license their educational textbooks for use in free Saylor college-level courses. Authors maintain their copyright and license textbooks to the world via Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) to enable maximum reuse, remix, and redistribution. To learn more and apply, visit Saylor’s Open Textbook Challenge page for more details.

In addition to providing grants for existing textbooks, the Saylor Foundation has announced a new option to award authors seeking to create open textbooks that will be CC BY licensed. Academics who are interested in creating a textbook can submit a brief statement about the proposed text and the relevant eligible Saylor course, and if successful they will receive a Request for Proposal from the Saylor Foundation (more details at the Open Textbook Development page). As a result of this new option and because preparing new texts is a lengthy process, the Saylor Foundation has decided to accept both textbook submissions and proposals for textbook development on an ongoing basis. The initiative has recently received funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Saylor Foundation expects to award millions of dollars for open textbooks under CC BY.

CC BY textbook
“CC BY” / opensourceway / CC BY-SA

The cost of education is spiraling, for example the average amount that a U.S. college student spends on textbooks is almost US $1,200 per year. Textbook costs may represent up to seventy-five percent of a Californian community college education, and education affordability is frequently cited as a reason for course dropouts (pdf). The Saylor Foundation tackles this issue by providing free, college-level curricula worldwide via Saylor.org. Their Open Textbook Challenge aims to alleviate cost pressures by encouraging textbook authors to openly license their textbooks with CC BY so that students may use them for free.

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OER K-12 Bill Passes in U.S. Washington State

Cable Green, March 1st, 2012

There was exciting open policy news from U.S. Washington State (WA) last evening.

HB 2337 “Regarding open educational resources in K-12 education” passed the Senate (47 to 1) and is on its way back to the House for final concurrence. It already passed the House 88 to 7 before moving to the Senate.

The bill directs the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to support the 295 WA K-12 school districts in learning about and adopting existing open educational resources (OER) aligned with WA and common core curricular standards (e.g., CK-12 textbooks & Curriki). The bill also directs OSPI to “provide professional development programs that offer support, guidance, and instruction regarding the creation, use, and continuous improvement of open courseware.”

The opening section of the bill reads:

  • “The legislature finds the state’s recent adoption of common core K-12 standards provides an opportunity to develop high-quality, openly licensed K-12 courseware that is aligned with these standards. By developing this library of openly licensed courseware and making it available to school districts free of charge, the state and school districts will be able to provide students with curricula and texts while substantially reducing the expenses that districts would otherwise incur in purchasing these materials. In addition, this library of openly licensed courseware will provide districts and students with a broader selection of materials, and materials that are more up-to-date.”

While focus of this bill is to help school districts identify existing high-quality, free, openly licensed, common core state standards aligned resources available for local adoption; any content built with public funds, must be licensed under “an attribution license.”

Representative Reuven Carlyle has been a leader working on open education (including the Open Course Library) in WA for years and has blogged about it: here, here, here and here.

Representative Carlyle introducing HB2337 in the House:

Creative Commons’ Director of Global Learning, Cable Green, testifying about the impact of the bill on elementary education in the Senate:

WA is poised to follow the good work of Utah, Brazil, and so many others who have gone before.

This legislature has declared that the status quo — $130M / year for expensive, paper-only textbooks that are, on average, 7-11 years out of date — is unacceptable. WA policy makers instead decided their 1 million+ elementary students deserve better and they have acted.

Congratulations Washington State!

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CC Talks With: Flat World Knowledge’s Eric Frank: Open Education and Policy

Timothy Vollmer, November 4th, 2010

At the beginning of this year we announced a revised approach to our education plans, focusing our activities to support of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. In order to do so we have worked hard to increase the amount of information available on our own site – in addition to an Education landing page and the OER portal explaining Creative Commons’ role as legal and technical infrastructure supporting OER, we have been conducting a series of interviews to help clarify some of the challenges and opportunities of OER in today’s education landscape.

One major venue for the advancement of OER is through the development and support of businesses that levage openly licensed content in support of education. Eric Frank is Founder and President of Flat World Knowledge, a commercial publisher of openly-licensed college textbooks. We spoke with Eric about faculty perceptions of open textbooks, customization enabled by open licensing, and the future of “free online and affordable offline” business models.


Eric Frank by Flat World Knowledge / CC BY

Why did you start Flat World Knowledge and how did you decide to approach this business using open content?

My co-founder Jeff Shelstad and I come out of a long history in textbook publishing. We left a major textbook publisher because of what we perceived as exceedingly-high dissatisfaction levels among the primary constituents in that market—students, faculty and authors. These groups were scratching their heads wondering if the print-based business model was going to be able to serve them going forward. When we began thinking about how to build a new business model, we didn’t actually know that much about open educational resources and open licensing. We started to bake a business model based on bringing prices down and increasing access for students; giving faculty more control over the teaching and learning experience; and providing a healthier and more sustainable income stream for authors. And then we started to meet people in the open community. We spoke to Open Education scholar and advocate David Wiley (and Flat World’s Chief Openness Officer) who said, “It’s funny, you sound a lot like me, except we use different words.” This pushed us a little bit further. Ultimately, through a very pragmatic approach to solving real problems that customers were facing, we arrived at this open textbook model.

The cost of textbooks is something that’s very tangible to students. Flat World Knowledge recently released information that 800 colleges will utilize Flat World open textbooks this fall semester, saving 150,000 students $12 million in textbook expenses. And, the Student PIRGs’ recent report A Cover to Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks Are The Path To Textbook Affordability found that adopting open textbooks could reduce textbook costs by 80%–to $184 per year, compared to the average of $900. Beyond the important outreach on cost savings, what are the primary questions you hear from faculty and students around “open”?

For the most part, when the average faculty member hears “open textbook,” it means nothing to them. In some cases, it has a positive connotation, and in other cases, it’s negative. When it’s negative, the primarily concern is one of basic quality and sustainability. Faculty question the entities making these open textbooks, and wonder whether the textbooks could be worth their salt if they’re available for free under an open license. And of course, they confuse ‘free’ and ‘open’ all the time. “If it’s free,” educators say, “It can’t be good. What author would ever do that?” Sometimes we see the opposite problem, such as when people know a little something about the publishing ecosystem and say, “It’s too good to be true.”

Through our marketing programs, we spend a lot of time educating faculty that we are a professional publisher, and that we focus on well-known scholars and successful textbook authors. We start by talking about what’s not different from the traditional approach: we sign experienced authors to write textbooks for us, and we develop the books by providing editorial resources, peer reviewing, and investment. The end product is a high-quality textbook and teaching package. There’s a real focus and emphasis on quality. What we change is how we distribute, how we price, and how we earn our revenue. We walk faculty through this process and let them know that ‘open’ is just about loosening copyright restrictions so that they can do more with the textbooks. We explain that free access is about getting their students onto a level playing field. We explain that affordable choices is about making sure students get the format and price that works for them. Once faculty understand these things and are reassured that we have a quality process in place, and that we are a real and sustainable enterprise that will be around to support them in the future, then it all starts to come together. We have to overcome either a total void of knowledge, which we prefer, or some other baggage that they carry into the conversation.

Customizability of digital textbooks is a key feature of Flat World Knowledge, enabled by the open license. How do teachers and students use this feature? And, how is Flat World’s approach to remix different than other platforms and services that allow some adaptability of content without actually using open content as the base?

Of course, the license itself carries its own rights and permissions. People are able to do a lot more with open content than they can with all rights reserved materials. We keep building out our technology platform so that it ultimately enables faculty to take full advantage of that open license—to do all the things that educators might want to do to improve the quality of the material for their own purposes. Today, the most popular customization is relatively simple. For example, educators reorganize the table of contents by dragging and dropping textbook chapters into the right order for their class, and delete a few things they don’t cover. This is easy and helps them match the book to their syllabus.

Then you move into exploring other areas. For example, instructors may want to make the textbook more pedagogically aligned with their teaching style. In that case, a teacher might integrate a short case study and a series of questions alongside the textbook content. Teachers may want to make the references and examples more relevant to their students by using the names of local companies. Timeliness is certainly important—something happens in the world and educators want to be able to integrate it into their teaching materials.

Educators have different teaching styles and approaches too. An adopter of one of our economics textbooks swapped out some models for other economic models that he prefers to use. An adopter at the University of New Hampshire added several chapters on sustainability and corporate social responsibility into an introduction to business book. Now, he’s teaching the course through his prism and from his perspective. These are the kinds of things that people want to be able to do. The critical thing for us is to make the platform easy to use so that customizing a book is as effortless as opening up a Word document, making some changes, saving it, and delivering it to students.

Regarding how our approach differs from other platforms and services because we begin with openly-licensed content, at one level, the ability to take something and modify it is largely a technology question. We go further, and allow people to edit text at the word level. You don’t see this sort of framework in other services because most of the time you’re dealing with the all rights reserved mentality. Most authors sign up to write traditional textbooks with the understanding that, “This is my work and you can’t do stuff with it.” I think the first big difference is when the author says, “I want people to be able to do stuff with this.” Having authors enter into a different publishing relationship by using open licenses allows us to go much further with the platform. That said, there’s nothing really stopping another company from doing this with some kind of unique user license.

We see other benefits of open access when we think about outputs. You might be able to go onto a publisher’s site and make modifications to a text, and maybe even integrate something that’s openly-licensed on the Web. But ultimately, it’s going to get subsumed into the all rights reserved framework, and won’t propagate forward, so no one else can change it. And generally, these digital services are expensive and access expires after a few months, so the user no longer can get to the content. Things like digital rights management and charging high prices for print materials are fundamentally business model decisions around dissemination, but they’re important.

I think the other big difference is what can happen away from the Flat World Knowledge site. Somebody could arguably come in and take our content and do something with it somewhere else. We’re not locking it down and saying, “The only thing you can do is work with the content on our site, and only use our technology.” We happen to make it easy to do this sort of thing on the Flat World site, but the open license allows others to use the content away from the original website. This leads to many more options that aren’t possible with content that is all rights reserved or served under a very unique license.

Flat World Knowledge licenses its textbooks under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license. What were the considerations in choosing this license? How do you see the role of Creative Commons in open textbook and open education?

One of my pet peeves about this community that we’re a part of is the frequent and sometimes contentious debates over licensing. The principle of enabling a range of licenses recognizes that copyright holders have different objectives for their creations. I have my objectives and you have yours, so we may choose different licenses to reach those objectives. That’s perfectly fine. This is the way the world should be. For us, the choice of a license was very much predicated on building a sustainable commercial model around open. We invest fairly heavily with financial resources, time, and intellectual capital to make these textbooks and related products something that we think can dominate in the marketplace. If we didn’t use the non-commercial condition, in our view, we’d be making all the investment and then someone else could sell the content at a dramatically lower price because they didn’t make the initial and ongoing investment. The non-commercial condition is the piece of the model that enables us to give users far more rights, to provide free points of access, and protect our ability to commercialize the investment we made. The ShareAlike clause ensures that this protection continues forward.

Our decision to use this license also relates to authors. The sustainability and financial success argument starts with the people who have the most value in the market: the authors who create the books. Our discussions with authors always include a financial component. They want to know how we are going to capitalize on this venture. Authors want to do good, but they also want to earn income and be fairly compensated. When we explain our model and how the licensing works, they feel very comfortable.

Last month Hal Plotkin released the paper Free to Learn: An Open Educational Resources Policy Development Guidebook for Community College Governance Officials. That document suggests that community colleges are uniquely positioned to both take advantage of OER opportunities and to become pioneers in teaching through the creative and cost-effective use of OER, including through the adoption of open textbooks. How are Flat World’s approaches different in working with universities as opposed to community colleges? What are the differences in terms of the benefits and challenges to faculty, students, and administration within each institution?

This is a great question, but it’s a little hard to answer, because we must consider another variable—the book itself. Sometimes a book is aimed at a community college course and demographic, and sometimes it’s aimed at a four-year research university. For example, our Exploring Business book has a big community college market, while our Introduction to Economic Analysis title out of Caltech has very much a top-50, Ph.D.-granting institution market. So, this confuses things a little bit. That said, I think it’s fair to say that there is generally a correlation between where the financial pain is greatest (which tends to be at community colleges and state institutions) and where the faculty are closest to that pain (where teaching is their primary emphasis, and they spend more time with students). This is where we see the greatest pull for this solution. There’s less of a pull from wealthier demographics and/or with faculty who spend more time doing research than teaching. While there’s more ideological and intellectual understanding of the value of sharing on the research side, pragmatically, the financial pain tends to be on the community college side.

In the recent First Monday article, A sustainable future for open textbooks: The Flat World Knowledge story, Hilton and Wiley suggest that in testing Flat World’s textbook model (“free online and affordable offline”), nearly 40% of students still purchased a print copy of the textbook. And Nicole Allen mentioned in our interview with her that the research of the Student PIRGs shows that “students are willing to purchase formats they value even in the presence of a free alternative.” So, print materials are not going away overnight, as long as the resources can be tailored in ways that teachers and students want to use them. But, as powerful digital technologies offer so many new ways to interact with educational content, how do you foresee the distant (or near) future in which print-on-demand may no longer be a core part of your business model?

We agree with the findings in those reports that print is going away more slowly than pundits proclaimed it would. We’re totally committed to what I think of as platform agnosticism. We never want to be in a position of having to guess which technologies or trends will win or lose. Part of our solution was to build a very dynamic publishing engine which could take a book—which is really a series of database objects and computer code that gets pulled together—and transform it through computer software programs to a certain file format. Today, one format goes to a print-on-demand vendor to make a physical book; another is an ePub file to be downloaded to an iPad or other mobile device; another is a .mobi file for a Kindle. We can afford to be on the leading edge and make formats available that may have low penetration today. And if they grow faster, we’ll be there with a salable format for those devices that will proliferate.

The most important improvement we can make to learning outcomes across our society right now is access. People sometimes ask me, “Isn’t the textbook itself a dead paradigm?” I tell them no, because billions of dollars per year are spent on textbooks. Right now you could create a really killer learning product, and I could take the one that’s already being used by millions of people and make it much more accessible. Enabling greater access is going to have much bigger short-term impact. Going forward, improvements in learning outcomes beyond access will come from things that aren’t content. They will come from experiences—whether it’s an assessment I take and get immediate feedback to inform a specific learning path, or whether it’s a social learning experience in which I’m dropped into a community of learners with a challenge and we draw upon each other to come up with solutions. Content supports those things, but isn’t as important in some ways as the experience.

Our view of the world is to get into the market where there’s pain today, establish a large base of users, and then keep evolving the product to be an increasingly better learning tool. That will inevitably take the form of integrating more unique services that can’t be copied. That’s the long-term goal for us, and probably critical for any business operating in the digital medium, to be financially successful. Kevin Kelly, the technology writer and founding executive editor of Wired, said it best: “When copies are super abundant, they become worthless. When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.” I believe that.

What does a successful teaching and learning environment implementing the power of open textbooks and OER “look like”? Do you have any lingering thoughts — worries, hopes, and predictions?

I don’t worry too much because if we keep our finger on the pulse of what people want to do, we’ll figure it out. One potential danger is the expense of providing this abundance of integrated tools, formats and options for users. It’s easy to imagine the expense of systems that incorporate things like an assessment engine built on adaptive learning and artificial intelligence to guide users to the best resource, all the while connecting them to other users to foster a richer learning experience. This has the potential to be very expensive, and ratchets up the imperative for players in the open community to help figure it out.

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CC Talks With: Student PIRGs’ Nicole Allen: Open Education and Policy

Timothy Vollmer, October 14th, 2010

At the beginning of this year we announced a revised approach to our education plans, focusing our activities to support of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. In order to do so we have worked hard to increase the amount of information available on our own site – in addition to an Education landing page and the OER portal explaining Creative Commons’ role as legal and technical infrastructure supporting OER, we have been conducting a series of interviews to help clarify some of the challenges and opportunities of OER in today’s education landscape.

One major venue for the advancement of OER is through policy change at the local, state, federal, and international levels. Nicole Allen is the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) Campaign Director for Make Textbooks Affordable. In our interview, Nicole discussed the Student PIRGs approach to advocacy and education with regard to open textbooks, their latest report on college textbook affordability, and the necessary role of CC and related groups to raise awareness about open licensing in the academic community.

Can you briefly describe the history of your involvement in Student PIRGs and the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign?


Nicole Allen / CC BY

As a lifelong environmental activist, I originally got involved with the PIRGs in college on a campaign to stop water pollution. But I was compelled to make higher education advocacy my career after Congress cut $12 billion federal student aid to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy during my senior year. I first worked as an organizer with WashPIRG (the “PIRG” in Washington state), and after passing a state law mandating textbook price disclosure, I took over as head of the Student PIRGs’ Make Textbooks Affordable campaign in 2007. Since then, I have worked with students across the country to run the campaign and conducted research and advocacy at the federal level (including work on legislation that reversed the cuts to student aid!).

The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) passed in 2008, and a provision relating to textbook affordability and access to pricing information recently went into effect. Furthermore, bills supporting the development of open textbooks have been introduced in both the House and Senate. What would you say are the primary characteristics of an open textbook? How does the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign relate to open education?

We’re excited how rapidly open textbooks are gaining momentum, and the HEOA price disclosure law will help accelerate the pace. When we talk about open textbooks, we mean college texts that have been published online under an open license that allows free digital access, low-cost printing and customization by instructors. In most ways, open textbooks are quite similar to the texts seen on bookshelves today – they have a table of contents, exercises, and they’re written by expert authors. In most cases, they even can be printed to look exactly like any other textbook. The big difference is the open license, which enables a wide variety of affordable textbook formats, including free web-based versions, printable PDFs, and printed and bound hard copies for $20-40 (traditional textbooks usually cost $100-200!). Increasingly, more innovative formats such as audio and e-reader versions are becoming available. Another notable difference is that open textbooks can be customized. Instructors can remove the chapters they don’t plan to cover, or they can add in other materials, homework questions or annotations.

Our goal is to get more open textbooks adopted in place of expensive traditional textbooks, so we think of ourselves as part of the “transition team” for open education. We’re getting more professors to use OER as textbooks, the format they feel most comfortable with, which will pave the way for future exploration of more innovative forms of open course materials. So far, it’s been going well. Since 2008, we’ve generated more than 2,500 signatures on a faculty Statement of Intent to consider using open textbooks and more than 500 news stories citing open textbooks as a potential solution. Early this year, we launched a student marketing force consisting of hundreds of grassroots activists on a mission to promote the top open textbooks directly to professors. Already, at least 50 professors we’ve contacted have switched to open textbooks, and we hope to continue this trend throughout the rest of the school year.

The textbook publisher Flat World Knowledge offers free online access to textbooks under a Creative Commons license, and charges a modest amount for printed copies and supplemental materials. What are some things to consider to ensure the sustainability of such new publishing models? What are some of the primary benefits for professors and students in using open textbooks?

Our experience in the field has been that many professors are concerned that students fall behind on reading and homework because they haven’t purchased the text (it’s true – our recent study found that about 10% of any given class hasn’t bought the book). Furthermore, professors are frustrated that publishers unnecessarily revise textbooks to undermine used book sales, creating extra work to keep syllabi and homework questions up to date. Open textbooks offer relief from both of these problems, because the text is accessible free online or at a low-cost in print, and it always remains open even if a new edition comes out. Open textbooks also offer the increasingly attractive benefit of customization, so that instructors can tailor the text to their class.

The benefits for students are obvious. Our latest report, A Cover to Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks Are The Path To Textbook Affordability, found that using open textbooks could reduce costs 80% – that’s $184 per year, compared to the current average of $900!  But cost isn’t the only advantage. In our survey, student preferences were split 75% for print and 25% for digital, and two out of five said they’d be comfortable using both. Students listed readability, convenience and cost as their top factors in choosing a format, although there was no consensus on which format represented these qualities best. Given such variance in student preferences, open textbooks are a far more effective solution than conventional options like rentals and e-books, since students can choose from a wide variety of affordable options.

This raises an important question: if open textbooks are free online, why would students buy anything at all?  Actually, our research shows that students are willing to purchase formats they value even in the presence of a free alternative: more than half of the students we surveyed said they would rather buy a reasonably priced print copy than use the book free online. Student spending on optional products could be the foundation of sustainable models, such as the model used by Flat World Knowledge.

College professors want to use the best textbook available, regardless of price. The Making Textbooks Affordable campaign supports the adoption and use of open textbooks, and encourages faculty to sign a statement indicating their intent “to include open textbooks in their search for the most appropriate course materials, and declare declare their preference to adopt an open textbook in place of an expensive, commercial textbook, if the open textbook is the best option.” What can the OER community do to make it easier for faculty to discover and adopt open textbooks? How do we continue to address the issue of quality?

Open textbooks are available for dozens of common college subjects, but the challenge is making professors aware of them. Despite nearly universal willingness to consider more affordable options, we’ve found that instructors typically hear about textbooks through publisher marketing efforts, not by seeking books out themselves. Therefore, simply posting open textbooks online is not enough; they need active promotion. We encourage the rest of the open education community to join our efforts to get the word out to professors.

As for quality, I think the issue is different for open textbooks than other OER. Quality is inherently subjective, so it is challenging to establish on a large scale. However, there is already a notion of what is “high quality” for traditional texts, so it’s less abstract for open textbooks. Since most of today’s professors will use traditional standards, creating high quality textbooks is a matter of developing models that can emulate (and hopefully improve upon) the outcomes of traditional peer review and classroom testing. Great examples are Flat World Knowledge, which follows the standard publishing process to the letter, and Writing Spaces, which uses a peer review system similar to scholarly journals. Likewise, demonstrating quality is a matter of vetting books with respect to traditional textbooks through institutions, organizations and adopters. For example, both College Open Textbooks and our own Open Textbook Catalog offer editorial reviews of open textbooks. Traditional concepts like publisher branding and author reputation are important too.

How do you see the role of Creative Commons within the open textbook and open education? How can CC help?

Open licensing is the essence OER. It gives authors the confidence to grant worldwide access to their works while still reserving some of their rights. It enables instructors to customize and expand OER to better meet student needs. And it allows students to choose from a wide range of affordable textbook formats. We are grateful to Creative Commons for everything it has done already to create, promote and defend open licenses.

Sharing and customizing course materials (legally) is a foreign concept in academe. We can gloss over the details in the short term by emphasizing affordability, but a deeper understanding of open licensing will be necessary to broaden the use of OER beyond open textbooks. Therefore, we encourage CC to expand its educational and awareness efforts in the academic community, particularly among faculty.

Wrapping up, what does a successful teaching and learning environment implementing the power of OER “look like”? Do you have any lingering thoughts — worries, hopes, predictions?

I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of OER’s potential to transform teaching and learning. Although the pedagogical benefits are virtually limitless, we come from the consumer perspective. To us, OER means choice, and the ideal learning environment is one where students can take part in shaping their own experience as the “consumers” of higher education.

As for the future, I think the next few years are going to be a turning point. On one hand, we have the growing momentum of open textbooks and other OER. On the other, we have the traditional publishing industry, which has begun to diversify its offerings to include e-books, e-readers and even programs that imitate OER in a non-open environment like DynamicBooks and Create. It is imperative that the open education community help open textbooks gain a foothold before the market settles for less effective solutions. To do that, we need to call on government, foundations and institutions to fund the supply-side, and we need to fuel demand by actively promoting open textbook adoption.

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CC Talks With: Curriki’s Christine Mytko: Open Education and Policy

Jane Park, August 5th, 2010


Photo by Christine Mytko / CC BY-NC

At the beginning of this year we announced a revised approach to our education plans, focusing our activities to support of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. In order to do so we have worked hard to increase the amount of information available on our own site – in addition to a new Education landing page and our OER portal explaining Creative Commons’ role as legal and technical infrastructure supporting OER, we have been conducting a series of interviews to help clarify some of the challenges and opportunities of OER in today’s education landscape.

One major venue for the advancement of OER is through policy change at the local, state, federal, and international levels. We recently had the chance to talk to Christine Mytko, who is advancing OER at the local levels through her work as a K-12 educator and the lead science reviewer at Curriki. As a teacher, Christine brings a unique perspective to the conversation around open education and policy, and gives us important insight into how teachers on the ground are thinking about copyright and using Creative Commons and OER.

You are a teacher and the lead science reviewer at Curriki, which is known as the “next generation wiki” for K-12 education. Can you briefly describe who you are, your current roles, and what led to them? What would you say is Curriki’s mission, and how is it helping teachers like yourself?

For most of my teaching career, I have been a middle school science teacher in public schools. When I moved to the Bay Area three years ago, I was fortunate to find a job that combines both of my passions –  science and technology. I currently serve as the K – 5 science specialist and middle school technology teacher at a small independent school in Berkeley, CA.

In 2007, I interviewed for part-time work at Curriki. Like many teachers, I was looking to supplement my income. What I found was a community of educators committed to creating, collaborating on, and sharing open-source materials. As part of the Curriki Review Team, I am responsible for reviewing submitted science materials and providing a public score and feedback for the contributor. I also help out with other projects as needed. Currently, I am working with another Bay Area Chemistry teacher to revise and submit an open source Chemistry digital textbook as part of the California Learning Resource Network’s Free Digital Textbook Initiative.

As stated on its main page, Curriki’s mission is to “provide free, high-quality curricula and education resources to teachers, students and parents around the world.”  Its name, somewhat recognizably, is a play on the words “curriculum” and “wiki.” The Curriki repository does have many curriculum options, from lesson plans to full courses, available in various subject areas, educational levels, and languages. Curriki offers other resources, too, including textbooks, multimedia, and opportunities for community and collaborative groups.

All Curriki content is shared under the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY), planting it firmly in the OER space. Do you know why Curriki chose CC BY for all of its materials? If not, what do you see CC BY enabling that other licenses or “all-rights-reserved” content might not?

Contributors of Curriki content do have the option to select either public domain or a variety of CC licensing, but the default License Deed is CC-BY. I honestly don’t know specifically why Curriki chose this, but I must say it as an excellent decision. CC-BY gives educators the power to remix, share and distribute materials as needed to be timely and maximally relevant to their own curriculum.

The flexibility afforded by a CC-BY license allows for materials to be adapted quickly. I hear that a typical textbook revision works on a 7-year cycle. Curriki materials can be updated and “published” in a matter of seconds and the community can correct any content errors just as quickly. Many topics, especially in science and technology, are changing so quickly that education can no longer afford to wait for proprietary materials to go through their lengthy cycles of publication.

Currently, California and Texas are the biggest purchasers of traditional “all-rights reserved” textbooks, and publishers strive to meet these states’ requirements. Educators in other states (and countries) are forced to work within these proprietary constraints. However, OER [initiatives] such as Curriki allow teachers to freely adapt materials to best fit their pedagogical and cultural needs. Furthermore, by creating or uploading such materials onto a public repository, teachers will no longer need to work in isolation, continuously “re-inventing the wheel.”  As relevant materials are freely shared among communities of educators, individual time spent on adapting proprietary materials will decrease, allowing educators to spend more of their precious time on other important areas of teaching.

Describe a class- or school-wide project where you have integrated CC licensing and/or OER. What challenges have you or your students come across while searching for or using resources on the web? How would you translate this experience for teachers looking to mark up their own resources correctly for OER search and discovery? What do teachers need to know?

In my technology classes, I now require all incorporated media to be Creative Commons, Public Domain or No Copyright. At first, after having free rein in Google Images for years, my students felt very limited in their choices. But after discussing the reasons behind copyright and copyright alternatives, many students understood the importance of respecting rights reserved.

There are so many excellent resources to help teachers and students use Creative Commons in their classrooms. The Creative Commons search page, Wikimedia Commons, Flickr CC group, and Google Advanced Search all are wonderful tools for finding alternatively copyrighted images. Websites such as Jamendo are great for finding CC music.

The language was a challenge at first for my middle school students. Although there are only six main CC licenses, my students got bogged down with terms such as “Attribution” and “No Derivatives.”  It didn’t help that Google uses slightly different terminology (“reuse” and “reuse with modification”) in their license search filter. But the kids quickly became comfortable with the terms and procedures and, within a few class periods, they easily accessed and properly used “some rights reserved” media. Of course, I have the kids assign rights to their own work, which reinforces the licenses, and gives students the opportunity to think carefully about which rights are important to them.

As far as marking up my own resources for OER search and discovery, I am still learning about the process myself. In fact, prior to my work with Curriki, I was hesitant to “release” my work as open source. I had put so much time and effort into certain materials, I didn’t see the point of just giving them away on the Internet. However, the last few years, I have come to recognize the benefits of open source materials and have begun to post some of my formally guarded resources on Curriki as CC-BY; and I now freely share my new material. Now that I am more comfortable using and creating open source materials on my own and with my students, I hope to move on to work with other teachers.

What are the most common confusions or concerns of teachers when it comes to sharing their teaching materials? Do you think the average K-12 teacher is aware of open licensing alternatives, like Creative Commons? What are the various school or institutional policies for teachers sharing their materials?

I am certain that the average teacher is NOT aware of open licensing alternatives. In fact, many teachers I know still operate on the guiding principle of CASE – Copy And Steal Everything.  I don’t believe teachers are lazy or purposely deceitful for using materials in this way; anyone who has taught in a classroom knows how much there is to do in an incredibly short amount of time. Sometimes, copying an (often copyrighted) activity and tossing it in your colleague’s box is merely survival. Even those teachers who are aware of copyright will often claim “fair use.”  The problem is that teachers often overestimate their protections and privileges under fair use. And there is little training in copyright and fair use, let alone Creative Commons and OER. Not only is an average K – 12 teacher unaware of his or her responsibilities, he or she often does not know the rights and options available to him or her in sharing his or her own work.

There are a variety of roadblocks preventing teachers from sharing their own work. First of all, since creating curriculum takes so much time, many teachers are unwilling to share lessons because they feel the product belongs to them. Other teachers may feel that their work isn’t good enough to share. And even if teachers overcome these psychological blocks, there are still the technical issues revolving around how will they share their work as open source. None of the schools I have worked with had any sort of policies on, or time set aside for, sharing materials. In talking with my colleagues, they found a similar lack of school policy. Even in the rare case in which there was some sort of policy, teachers often selectively ignored it. Currently, most teachers do not have the access, training, and support necessary to confidently participate in the OER movement.

Curriki has been doing some work to tie their resources to state education standards (http://www.curriki.org/xwiki/bin/view/Main/BrowseStandards). Can you describe a little of that process to us? What are some of the benefits and challenges to including this information? How useful is it?

This work is not part of my professional duties at Curriki, however, I can speak to the process on a personal note as a teacher and Curriki member. Right now, when you visit a resource, you will see four tabs – Content, Information, Standards, and Comments. Choosing the Standards tab allows a user to view currently aligned standards, as well as gives the option to “Align to [additional] Standards.”  The process itself is very intuitive; the user clicks through a series of menus and applies standards as he or she deems appropriate.

The biggest benefit will certainly be the convenience of browsing for resources by standard through the aforementioned jump page. The biggest challenge is to align all of the existing and future resources in the repository. Curriki is depending largely on the community to gather momentum for this process. Right now, in its infancy, only about half of the states have standards-aligned resources to browse, and even those collections are far from complete across subject areas and educational levels. Of course, members of Curriki are always welcome to browse unaligned resources by subject, educational level, or other criteria by using Curriki’s Advanced Search.

There has been a lot of OER talk at the state and federal policy levels, especially surrounding open textbooks. What do you think is the future of the textbook for the K-12 classroom? How would you like to see this reflected in policy?

I, like many educators, feel that the reign of the textbook is coming to an end. As a science teacher, I have rarely depended on a textbook for curriculum, and rely more heavily on both online materials and self-created materials. OER allow me to take better advantage of creating and sharing work within a collaborative community. While science and technology lend themselves to early adoption of the open source philosophy, I believe other subjects will soon follow.

Textbooks will not be able to maintain their current stronghold in K–12 schools. A recent New York Times article points out that “[e]ven the traditional textbook publishers agree that the days of tweaking a few pages in a book just to sell a new edition are coming to an end.”  Textbooks are expensive and quickly become outdated. Printed errors are not correctable until the next edition comes out. In contrast, OER are inexpensive or free, constantly updated, and easily correctable. I would love to see the money saved by choosing inexpensive OER over pricey textbooks used for supplementary materials and teacher training. Or even better, districts can use that money to set aside release time and pay teachers to meet, collaborate and create OER content.

Lastly, what does a successful teaching and learning environment implementing the power of OER “look like”? Do you have any lingering thoughts—worries, hopes, predictions?

A successful learning environment is relevant, engaging, challenging, and flexible. OER material is current, as well as easily, and legally, adaptable to meet the needs of various learners. An OER community can provide a teacher with materials and support in meeting the needs of his or her particular student population. Resources that are freely shared end up saving others countless hours of redundant individual work and frees teachers from stagnating in a proprietary curriculum.

Schools are beginning to recognize the cost savings of abandoning the current textbook model, and I predict that publishers will adapt as the market demands of them. I hope that schools begin to recognize that teachers are a valuable resource and skilled professionals, and deserve to be compensated for their time spent developing curriculum. I hope districts begin to create policies and provide support to encourage teachers to share the materials they create.

Ideally, the classroom should be a place where students are not merely passive consumers of resources and media, but rather active collaborators, synthesizers and publishers of their own work. I hope that, from a young age, students will be held accountable for using others’ work in an appropriate way, and encouraged to share their own work as open source with some rights reserved, rather than falling back on the default of full copyright, or worse, not sharing at all. I want my students and colleagues to understand that, by sharing materials, they are contributing to a collection of materials that will benefit learners far beyond the walls of their own classroom. This is a significant shift in current educational philosophy, but sites like Curriki are a great step in facilitating a move in the right direction.

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Phase 2 Results of the CA Free Digital Textbook Initiative

Jane Park, May 3rd, 2010

Last Friday, Governor Schwarzenegger announced the results from Phase 2 of the California Free Digital Textbook Initiative. A total of 17 textbooks, including updated versions from Phase 1, were submitted, and 15 have so far been reviewed against California’s academic content standards. Of those fifteen, ten carry a CC license (CC BY-SA or CC BY), two carry a GNU FDL license, and one is in the public domain. All but two of the CC licensed textbooks met 100% of California’s state standards. Major contributors included a number of individuals, in addition to the CK-12 Foundation and Connexions, two OER organizations that have a default CC license (CC BY-SA and CC BY, respectively) on their educational resources.

According to the press release, “Students and teachers have the flexibility to use these resources in a number of ways. They are downloadable and can be projected on a screen or viewed on a computer or hand-held device. They can also be printed chapter by chapter and bound for use in the classroom and be taken home by students.”

This is true for the CC BY and CC BY-SA licensed textbooks, as these licenses allow not only reuse and reproduction, but adaptation, which allows one to edit, improve, remix, or translate the resource.

For the complete results of Phase 2 and the draft report, visit the California Learning Resource Network (CLRN) website.

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Flat World Knowledge partners with Barnes & Noble and NACS Media Solutions

Jane Park, April 9th, 2010

On April 1, Flat World Knowledge announced its partnerships with Barnes & Noble and NACS Media Solutions (an independent business subsidiary of the National Association of College Stores). The partnerships enable FWK’s open textbooks to be distributed in low-cost print form at up to 3,000 college bookstores across the U.S. for the 2010 fall semester. To make sure this wasn’t an April Fool’s joke, I followed up with some of the folks at FWK about this and other plans.

Basically, all FWK’s textbooks are open under the CC BY-NC-SA license. The web version is accessible by anyone—which means you can copy, adapt, and reproduce the content for free (as long as you do so non-commercially and share alike). If you want to adapt it via FWK’s platform and easily produce and obtain hard copies of professor or student-customized chapters, then you pay a low-cost fee to download the customized PDF or have the professionally bound textbook mailed to you (about $1.99 per chapter download or $29.99 for the hard textbook). You can also access the physical textbooks at some college bookstores.

This new agreement with B&N and NACS expands the number where the physical texts are available, up to 3,000—wherever local professors have decided to participate. (This includes 639 Barnes & Noble college bookstores.) In addition, a print-on-demand (POD) model is being piloted at a few bookstores in August, with the long term goal to have POD in all. From the press release,

“Flat World Knowledge will provide bookstores with digital files of its growing catalog of professionally-developed, peer-reviewed college textbooks. Since Flat World textbooks are openly-licensed, instructors can remix, reorder, add and remove content, and then the bookstore can print and bind high-quality paperback books, often within minutes or hours.

University Book Store, Inc. at the University of Washington in Seattle, and the San Diego State University Bookstore, among others, will be the first to pilot this new process. Students will have the convenience of same-day pick up. POD technology also allows professors to continue to customize and update a Flat World textbook within days instead of weeks of the fall semester starting.”

The license (CC BY-NC-SA) applies to their print textbooks as well as the print-on-demand versions. In addition, FWK’s platform is built on open source software and they have plans to eventually make their XML exportable at no cost, which would allow a user to remix FWK content on their own site.

For more information, see the full press release. You can also learn more about their open business model by watching this talk given by Eric Frank (Chief Marketing Officer) from the latest CC Salon NYC.

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