‘Free’ textbooks? Why not? December 4, 2012Posted by IaninSheffield in Inspiration, Musings.
Tags: collaboration, crowd-sourcing, ebooks, textbooks
Listening to recent Hack Education podcasts by Steve Hargadon and Audrey Waters, one theme which keeps popping up is that of educational book publishing. I guess the burgeoning ebook market linked with the proliferation of ebook readers makes this a timely topic.
In recent years, changes to our National Curriculum and Exam Board specifications seem to come around more regularly than the number 120 bus. The textbooks we have in school struggle to keep up with that frequency of refinement of content and given their cost (a GCSE Physics textbook will be anything between £15 and £20), even if they could, the majority of schools couldn’t afford to replace them with any degree of regularity. I remember it being tough as a Head of Physics when it came to the point where we needed to replace our standard textbook; it involved me and my colleagues spending a considerable time reviewing what was on offer from the various publishers to find the one which best suited the course we were delivering … and hopefully future iterations of it! With 500+ students studying GCSE, the cost was and still is phenomenal.
Maybe ebooks offer a route forward since their content can (in theory!) be updated more swiftly, though I suspect that will be at a cost. However, this newly emerging market is not without its problems: distribution platform, file type, digital rights management, cost recuperation when the student leaves the course. Suffice it to say there’s still some way to go.
But maybe there’s a third way? Given the blossoming notion of crowdsourcing and the increasing comfort and confidence with information from sites like Wikipedia, perhaps there’s an opportunity to be seized here. With over 3000 secondary schools in the UK, there must be around 10 000 Physics teachers. Even allowing for some who might lack experience and others who lack the will, with a page count in a textbook at around the 300 mark, it’s surely not beyond the realm of possibility that there would be enough willing contributors to ‘pen’ a single page each? Yes, for most teachers the time or inclination to write an entire textbook simply isn’t there … but if it was possible to collaborate with a group of like-minded individuals … Surely the Web has now provided us with both the communication channels and the tools to create the product?
Once we accept the possibility, the advantages of crowdsourcing an online Physics textbook start to appear:
- from start to finish the process should be more rapid than a traditional publishing route
- any alterations and additions can be made instantly
- living online enables ‘live’ linking out to other resources
- the digital format means rich media are easily incorporated
- end of section questions (if appropriate) could have auto-response/auto-marking included to provide rapid feedback for students
- social features could be included to enable commenting and discussion on each topic, section or paragraph
- through the right choice of platform(s), the ‘book’ could be distributed in a variety of different ways – printed, mobile-enabled, ebook, etc.
If an open platform was chosen with storage or distribution in open formats, users would still be able to amend any aspects of the ‘book’ to better suit the needs of their students or local circumstances, rather than choose a textbook which meets the average needs of an average student. Perhaps we might even have students authoring sections?!
There are also other potential wider benefits. Teachers and schools in developing nations invariably lack the financial resources to buy textbooks at the price we in more developed economies are able to afford. Worthy organisations like Book Aid repurpose the books which have reached the end of one life, for a new one in another land. Without any experience of how the recipients actually feel, I can only imagine that they have equal degrees of gratitude, tinged with regret that they have to rely on cast-offs? But given the increased connectivity that many peoples are now beginning to benefit from, an open textbook model would mean they too could enjoy the latest version of any book, perhaps in a format and with content that lend themselves to their local circumstances. And needless to say, it need not be one more handout since they would hopefully be in a position to be co-authors. To return to my comfort zone of Physics, the textbooks we use have content which (hopefully) reflects our everyday experience, so in a section on motion, there might be exemplars which draw on a passenger jet or an Olympic swimmer. I wonder how the same section might be written for a learner on the savannah in Africa or tropical rainforest of Borneo? And how might sections written to reflect those peoples’ experiences be used here to help our students better understand and appreciate the lives of friends around the world?
Free textbooks could be ‘free’ in so many ways.
And it appears things are already under way.
What do you think? A flight of fancy or exciting opportunity? What have I missed?