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‘Free’ textbooks? Why not? December 4, 2012

Posted by IaninSheffield in Inspiration, Musings.
Tags: , , ,

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.


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by herzogbr: http://flickr.com/photos/herzogbr/3955153817/

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.

free the textbook

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo by opensourceway: http://flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/5538035556/

And it appears things are already under way.

What do you think? A flight of fancy or exciting opportunity? What have I missed?


1. BookGator - December 5, 2012

There are many resources these days that allows students to take advantage of free textbooks. The open source textbook project is one of the most promising projects ever done in the education sector and it continues to give hope for millions of students who wish to access books and be free from discouraging cost of commercial textbooks these days.

ianinsheffield - December 9, 2012

Is the OSTP you refer to the one in California? http://www.opensourcetext.org/
The site looks rather ‘bare-bones’ for a project started in 2001 and I was wondering if you had other links to anything more current. After 11 years are you aware of any actual textbooks we can access as examples to help guide further thinking?

2. Sam shallcross - December 5, 2012

The ability to edit a text book is extremely disirable. . .I agree. In our Junior school we already rely heavily on ebooks through curriculum visions for learning in humanities. Although these ebooks are not able to be edited, the pupils can access them from home using a generic username and password. This has saved the humanities budget a fortune in books that become very quickly outdated, torn , lost etc!
So first step comolete

ianinsheffield - December 5, 2012

Good points Sam.
This is well outside my experience, but would you say it was possible (if not practicable) for humanities teachers in the junior school context to co-author a book in the way I’m advocating here? Many people making small but valuable contributions to a a product they would feel invested in?

Sam - December 5, 2012

In theory, yes, but in a Junior school context there is much less reliance on text books as opposed to a GCSE course. Text books form one small part of the teaching resources teachers/students use, (as is he case in Secondary too). For humanities most text books are on one topic like Romans or Mountains, which is why Curriculum Visions has helped so much. It was very expensive to have class sets of books for every half terms topic, but Curriculum Visions allows more freedom to pick and choose topics to cover. The expectations are different to secondary schools in the sense that topics are not so prescribed. Coverage of invaders in KS2 for example could be done by learning about Romans, Saxons or Vikings….or all three! So as Junior schools approach their coverage of skills and investigations differently, it might be harder to collaborate on a detailed ebook resource across schools.
The more I think about this, the more I like the approach of Simon Haughton and others who have created resources like the Infant encyclopedia and Woodlands Homework resources. These are not just limited to being e books, but use a range of multimedia to support learning in a subject. In our own schools, Mark Weddell has also commented several times about the merits of using the portal to build a shared topic area for schools to share. . . Not limiting to an Ebook but sharing web links, videos, info, wikis etc on an area like Romans. These pages could be editable by any teachers and possibly even students….but maybe that is a whole other discussion!

3. Let’s Git Goin’ | In the pICTure - November 1, 2013

[…] why we don’t work in a more unified or concerted way to undertake that development work? I posed a similar question when thinking about the text books which we use to support our students’ studies. Why then […]

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