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 The perpetual beta status of knowledge is not just an oxymoron; the old fashioned textbook is simply outdated in this age of lightning fast communications.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 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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