open textbooks

Bill Enabling Community Colleges to Establish OER Pilot Program is signed into law

Jane Park, October 6th, 2008

Last week, a bill enabling the California Community Colleges to integrate open educational resources (OER) into its core curriculum was signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger. AB 2261 authorizes the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges “to establish a pilot program to provide faculty and staff from community college districts around the state with the information, methods, and instructional materials to establish open education resources centers.” The program would provide a structure by which community college faculty and staff could vet and repurpose OER in order to create high quality course materials and textbooks for college students. The resulting materials would themselves be openly licensed or available in the public domain so that they could be further adapted and repurposed for future and individual contexts. High quality OER would also set a new and much needed economic standard for publishers, who currently charge exorbitant prices for college textbooks. According to the LA times, textbook prices accounted for almost 60% of a community college student’s educational costs last year.

This legislation is spearheaded by Assemblyman Ira Ruskin and Hal Plotkin, President of the Foothill and De Anza Community College District’s Governing Board of Trustees. Hal writes,

This is the first legislation that puts the state of California squarely behind those of us who are working to create free, high-quality, vetted public domain — or “open” — educational resources for community college students, who stand to save literally hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming decade as a result.

The scholar David Wiley has observed that introducing Open Educational Resources into the public education system is the most significant development since the establishment of Land Grant colleges and universities in the mid 1800’s.

What’s also wonderful is the knowledge that, even in these difficult days when our system seems so very broken, an ordinary citizen like me can still offer up a useful idea and see it enacted into law.

See the news article on this here, and the latest version of the bill here. The Foothill-De Anza Community College District in Silicon Valley is a leading institution in the open education movement; they established the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER) last year, which exists “to identify, create and/or repurpose existing OER as Open Textbooks and make them available for use by community college students and faculty.”

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Back to School: Open Textbooks Gaining in Popularity

Jane Park, September 16th, 2008

There’s been a whole lot of press on open textbooks lately, in addition to my own posts on the Flexbook and the Student PIRGs’ recent report encouraging open source textbooks as the right model for digital textbooks (versus the limited e-books that commercial publishers currently offer). The difference in open source and commercial e-books is wide and deep. Open textbooks are freely editable, downloadable and repurposable by others, keeping with the notion that the search for truth in any academic field is continually being revised, especially in the science and technology fields. The perpetual beta status of knowledge is not just an oxymoron; the old fashioned textbook is simply outdated in this age of lightning fast communications. Furthermore, students and many professors are just not having it anymore.

The New York Times article, “Don’t Buy That Textbook, Download It Free,” features an interview with Cal Tech professor, R. Preston McAfee, who offers his “Introduction to Economic Analysis” online for free. Another article by the LA Times reports best-selling co-author Steven D. Levitt of Freakonomics calling McAfee brilliant. If brilliant minds putting out open textbooks and students buying in (for free and for low-cost print versions on places like Lulu.com and Flatworld Knowledge) are not an indication of a revolution in textbook making, I don’t know what is.

The numbers don’t lie either. Quotes the NY Times on McAfee:

If I had finished my own book, I would have finished a couple years ago,” [McAfee] said. “It would have taken five years. It would have spent five years in print and sold 2,000 copies.” Instead, he said, he posted it on the Web site and there have been 2.8 million page views of his textbook, “Signals and Systems,” including a translation into Spanish.

Wired also quotes a long-timer in the traditional textbook industry, Eric Frank, who is getting with the changing times: “The nice thing about open content is it gives faculty full control, creative control over the content of the book, full control over timing, and it give students a lot more control over how they want to consume it and how much they want to pay”…“On the surface they’re (traditional publishers) doing OK, but underneath the surface there are lots of problems.”

A long-existing and solid promoter of the open textbook is Connexions, an online platform “for collaboratively developing, freely sharing, and rapidly publishing scholarly content on the Web.” Connexions, created by Rice University’s Richard Baraniuk, initiated a new way of thinking about textbooks: 

“Most textbooks are a mass of information in linear format: one topic follows after another. However, our brains are not linear – we learn by making connections between new concepts and things we already know. Connexions mimics this by breaking down content into smaller chunks, called modules, that can be linked together and arranged in different ways. This lets students see the relationships both within and between topics and helps demonstrate that knowledge is naturally interconnected, not isolated into separate classes or books.”

According to the NY Times, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a staunch supporter of the open educational resources (OER) movement, has granted $6 million to Connexions alone. Connexions licenses all of its content CC BY, the license that allows the greatest sharing capabilities and creativity for education, while still retaining authorship and thereby greater quality in collaborative output.

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