Free books, textbooks... but free
January 26, 2010 3:35 PM   Subscribe

From the newly launched OpenSource.com comes a pointer to the Open College Textbook Act of 2009. This bill, currently stuck in committee, calls for the adoption of openly licensed and freely distributed electronic textbooks. It is hoped that this will lower costs, level the playing field and even help restore overseas confidence in the U.S. educational system.

New to me, and as interesting, was the link to GovTrack. I had no idea I could follow specific bills via RSS.
posted by cedar (26 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sounds rather limited, as the only things to be covered by this would be books written by grant specifically for writing an open text book would be included, but one requirement is very interesting:
made available free of charge to, and may be downloaded, redistributed, changed, revised, or otherwise altered by, any member of the general public. (Emphasis mine)
I guess anyone could write a book and put it under the "open license," and I'm happy there will be money for this effort, but we'll see how it's actually implemented.

Existing efforts for sharing educational material: MIT already has free online course materials at MIT Open Courseware.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:47 PM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


This does seem great for students and colleges, but catastrophic for authors, publishers and bookstores, and perhaps a net loss economically. There is a third way, which involves BitTorrent.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 3:47 PM on January 26, 2010


help restore overseas confidence in the U.S. educational system.

A bit more linkage and explanation would be great here. Are international enrollments in US colleges and unis down? Harvard getting dissed in Calcutta?
posted by Zinger at 3:48 PM on January 26, 2010


Yeahhhh, dunno if the RSS feed for this bill will be very active. About 85% of all bills are introduced, referred to committee, then...nothing. I'm not arguing against this bill's cromulence, but I wouldn't be surprised if it follows the path of most legislation.
posted by MrMoonPie at 3:50 PM on January 26, 2010


This does seem great for students and colleges, but catastrophic for authors, publishers and bookstores, and perhaps a net loss economically. There is a third way, which involves BitTorrent.

So publishers, instead of complaining that the Government is undermining their market, can blame internet pirates?

I could see that an RSS feed would be good, as you could forget about bills, and then get reminded when they do become active.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:21 PM on January 26, 2010


I'm all for open textbooks. Hell, I helped to write one...

The problem is that textbook publishing is based on the principle of capturing a captive audience, and then getting them to pay out the nose once locked in. For any books that will be used by more than a single instructor, there's a more-or-less massive bureaucratic process to get any particular book accepted for use. (This process is even worse on the non-university level, since the state, and not the students, end up paying for the books.) Once accepted, the publisher can publish new editions without necessarily going through this acceptance process again... The publisher gets to sell a big pile of books up front, and everyone's happy. But then, as the accepted book is in use for a few years, it becomes easier and easier to find used copies floating around, reducing the sales of the books. At this point, it's in the publisher's interest to change the cover art, shuffle the exercises, and call it a new edition, and stop publishing the old edition. This guarantees a flood of new sales of the 'new' edition.

Everyone knows that this is what happens. Otherwise, we are forced to consider that Stewart, who has published some ten editions of his Calculus book in the last fifteen years, makes a shit ton of mistakes requiring new editions for someone who's supposed to be writing the book on a subject that's been taught pretty much the same way for over fifty years now.

With the magic of the inter-tubes, we can consider changes to the system that remove the evil money-grubbing publisher from the equation. Ideal textbook authors are people who want to pass on information to the next generation in an accessible and novel way. Indeed, most authors will already have a day job as educators when it comes time to write a textbook. So we could then take the massive amount spent by the educational institution on choosing and procuring textbooks, and instead direct it to educators, who could occasionally take some teaching credits for course material work involving writing new or modifying existing text. It's the education equivalent of IBM paying workers to develop Linux instead of buying a bunch of copies of Windows to run their servers on.

The end result would be free text, with new editions as people update it, no evil middlemen, and authors getting paid for their work. Everyone wins except Houghton-Mifflin, who need to die anyways.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:21 PM on January 26, 2010 [18 favorites]


This does seem great for students and colleges, but catastrophic for authors, publishers and bookstores, and perhaps a net loss economically. There is a third way, which involves BitTorrent.

Okay, as far as I (and probably anyone who has bought textbooks lately) is concerned the bookstores can go screw themselves. You have to buy that $190 math book, because what are you going to do not take math? And now you need to turn your homework in online at a site associated with the textbook, so if you don't buy the book new you literally can't turn your homework in because you don't have the one-use only access codes. BAH.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:27 PM on January 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


oh yes, textbook makers too. It's awesome how they change the edition every year, but leave all of the content the same except for the problem numbers just so if you use an old edition your homework will be incomprehensible.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:29 PM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


It is all done rather oddly and involves a process. Prof writes text. Book a big seller. Costs tons of money. Prof happy. Next year, publisher says do a rewrite. By which he means change a thing or two and we will call it 2nd edition. Now prof tells students they must use the latest text, the 2nd edition. So book used previously not acceptable and students shell out more big bucks. Next year or so, another "rewrite" called for and the game goes on. The only change? Prices go up with each new edition.
posted by Postroad at 4:37 PM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is a wonderful idea.

Now we need open source journals. Academics write the articles for free, review the articles for free, and on many smaller journals edit for free as well. Why do we need the publishers again?

I think it's fine paying for a journal that has a paid editorial staff. But the costs are getting ridiculous. The system is a racket.
posted by jb at 5:05 PM on January 26, 2010


East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94: “This does seem great for students and colleges, but catastrophic for authors, publishers and bookstores, and perhaps a net loss economically.

Let the motherfuckers burn. Preferably atop a pyre composed of the latest editions of their crummy books, which were destined for a short life and forced obsolescence anyway.

School textbook publishing has to be one of the most pervasively corrupt industries around, and it shouldn't exist in anything like the scale it currently does. On the scale of evil, it's right up there with the for-profit prison industry, only it has better PR. But while prisons generally don't compete directly for funding with schools, every dollar that is spent on kids' textbooks is a dollar that can't be spent on teachers, and comes directly out of an education budget. It's an industry that has grown fat stealing from children, and penury is far better than they deserve.

The college textbook publishers aren't a whole lot better (when they're not just different divisions of the same companies); they're a prime — one might even say textbook — example of rent-seeking in a captive market.

You don't have to be a card-carrying Socialist to see a lot of good reasons for ending their ride on the gravy train, especially when much of it is funded by tax dollars, either directly in the form of textbook assistance or indirectly via student aid that's higher than it would have to be without the insane out-of-pocket expense on books. There's no reason why we should be keeping them in business.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:06 PM on January 26, 2010 [7 favorites]


I'm back in school now, after a decade working in the printing industry.

I've always known that textbook prices were insane, but accepted that as a necessary evil. But then I noticed that my $175 textbook was printed with 8 colors.

For those of you out there who aren't familiar of the printing industry, most of the printed materials you come across are printed using four colors (CMYK) or fewer. Four-color printing is capable for representing a good range of colors, but every now and then you might need a special ink, silver or day-glow pink, for example. In that case you'd add a fifth color. More colors means a more expensive print run, and generally jobs are designed to run as cheaply as possible, so jobs are rarely designed for more than four colors. I've had six-color jobs come across my desk, but it's rare.

But my textbook, for some inexplicable reason, was printed with eight colors.

With the exception of a few pages, out of 600, there was no information in that textbook that required more than three colors. Someone got clever, over-designed the text, had it printed at an unnecessary expense, and passed that cost along to me, the captive consumer.

Let me add to the chorus saying, "fuck you, publishers."
posted by lekvar at 5:10 PM on January 26, 2010 [10 favorites]


I'm all for open textbooks. Hell, I helped to write one...

Thank you! I'm just getting into teaching myself linear algebra now, and I'm totally excited to see your book. Hope others follow your example.
posted by fake at 6:47 PM on January 26, 2010


But... but... how will professors charge $75 a pop for photocopies of photocopies of photocopies of handwritten notes taken by a grad student assistant during the lectures of the same course fifteen years ago?
posted by Flunkie at 6:56 PM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I got disgusted with higher ed textbook publishers several years ago, and have basically stopped using their books in my classes. Now I look for university press books, or books from the bigger publishers (who are very evil in their journal practices, but cheaper than the textbook publishers) like Sage, Peter Lang, Routledge, etc. I also use a lot more journal articles, especially from open-access journals, and put together electronic coursepacks or use e-reserves. Depending on the class there are even books from trade paperback publishers that can be used. My basic rule now: I will not order any individual book for any class I teach that costs more than $50.

I realize that for people in the sciences and math that this may be a lot more challenging, but I think for a lot of humanities and social science fields we can rid ourselves of the plague of textbook publishers if we all, as faculty, think about the issue and take action. I feel way to guilty to ask my students to pay $90 for a full-color intro to mass comm textbook that they will never look at again.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:35 PM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


You mean I might actually get the gubmint to pay me for this?
posted by erniepan at 7:58 PM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes, of course, some authors’ rights should be violated because another party in the distribution chain charges a price you don’t want to pay.
posted by joeclark at 9:08 PM on January 26, 2010


Back when I was in Second Language Studies, I came up with the idea of open source testing. Participants would create a pool of test questions, and tag the questions they used with the metadata about how well they worked. If we had a large enough pool of questions, it wouldn't be necessary to keep them secret, since anyone who learned all the answers would have mastered the subject.

If I get ambitious enough to go to grad school I'll probably make it my thesis project.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 12:02 AM on January 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


linear algebra

The worst calculus teacher I ever had was a guy who specialized in linear algebra. He couldn't do calculus if you beat him with a stick, and I actually did quite well in the class because I took delight in discovering where he had made the inevitable mistake in the examples he did for us. He would viciously downgrade my homework for things like having the staple out of place (in college!!!), but since that was only a tiny part of the grade it just made me laugh and go at him harder.

One of his graduate victims told me that his linear algebra class was a required course or math majors, that he taught from his own vanity press book, and that it was rife with errors which he never corrected.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 12:16 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Textbook publishing is corrupt, absolutely. One alternative is to teach without a textbook, which I've done. The instructor acts as a kind of aggregator, pointing students to the right material on line, of which there is a lot. The trouble is, students don't like it. They like having a book. It's more convenient to have everything in one place, and the material is integrated in a coherent way that helps people learn. I don't think the textbook model is over yet, especially in lower level, introductory courses. So now who is going to write these books for free? The idea that universities can re-direct supposedly vast sums of money they spend picking texts directly to authors--pleasant fiction. At the university level there are no such funds. Professors pick books, end of story. Maybe this model will work for high school textbooks, but let me know when the Texas Education Agency, an utterly regressive force, gets behind that.

Writing an intro psych or econ textbook is really hard. The competition is huge. The authors who hit make obscene amounts of money. The revision cycle is intended to preserve those profits; the science doesn't advance enough to justify a new edition every three years, obviously. But, I'm still waiting for what a new, viable model will look like. It's not donating my time.

And the provision that the proposed open source textbooks could be revised by anyone--good luck with that too. A wikipedia model for an entire textbook? It only semi-works for relatively short-form articles.
posted by cogneuro at 4:20 AM on January 27, 2010


And the provision that the proposed open source textbooks could be revised by anyone--good luck with that too. A wikipedia model for an entire textbook?

It is rather vaguely worded, but I do not think this is what they want to do. The model you should be thinking of is open source licenses, not wikipedia: The author is not required to accept your patches to his book; rather, he cannot use copyright to prevent you from forking the book and making a new edition with whatever changes you like.
posted by Dr Dracator at 6:05 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


This does seem great for students and colleges, but catastrophic for authors, publishers and bookstores, and perhaps a net loss economically. There is a third way, which involves BitTorrent.

Oh please, the textbook market is a racket. The books are way over priced and you can't afford to buy them without student loans. They get updated constantly (obsoleting the old versions), often for no reason other then profit.

That something is a "Net loss economically" because people stop getting ripped off, thereby reducing the GDP is not a good reason not to do something. I'm sure fewer people buy encyclopedias now because of wikipedia, but that doesn't mean it's bad for society.
posted by delmoi at 7:27 AM on January 27, 2010


cogneuro: "One alternative is to teach without a textbook, which I've done. The instructor acts as a kind of aggregator, ... The trouble is, students don't like it. They like having a book. It's more convenient to have everything in one place, and the material is integrated in a coherent way that helps people learn... So now who is going to write these books for free? The idea that universities can re-direct supposedly vast sums of money they spend picking texts directly to authors--pleasant fiction. At the university level there are no such funds. Professors pick books, end of story. ..

Writing an intro psych or econ textbook is really hard. The competition is huge... But, I'm still waiting for what a new, viable model will look like. It's not donating my time.

And the provision that the proposed open source textbooks could be revised by anyone--good luck with that too. A wikipedia model for an entire textbook? It only semi-works for relatively short-form articles.
"

Do you belong to a professional organization? Either as an educator or a member of the profession related to your subject? Could *they* be the group which organizes a textbook project? Would you donate some of your time to a project like that if it meant you wouldn't have to be an individual aggregator for your students and they could have a convenient, coherent textbook?

Also, as pointed out above, being open source doesn't mean having a Wikipedia model. You or your professional organization or whatever other group could have an official edition to which you only accept changes made by credible parties, and only after reviewing them.
posted by Reverend John at 9:48 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think the textbook model is over yet, especially in lower level, introductory courses. So now who is going to write these books for free?

You're right--there is a demand for texts (if only a bureaucratic one in the form of a requirement that all instructors of a course use the same materials), and getting folks to write a text free is unlikely.

At the same time, textbook publishing doesn't have to be as absurdly expensive as it is. I've recently adopted a text published by company that uses a Creative Commons license (though not one with terms as free as the one filthy light thief quotes) allowing non-commercial copying & modification. The text can be read for free on the publisher's website, and there's a sliding scale of purchase options, ranging from $2 to download a chapter, $25 to download the book, up to $60 for a color, printed copy. As far as quality goes, the text is at least as good as the other introductory texts I've read or reviewed, and the instructor supplements are head and shoulders above the utter crap that comes with the $200 text books I use in my other courses.

Their current offerings are pretty limited right now, but I really hope they can make this model work, because the textbook market needs this kind of competition. I was shocked to find out that a text I was using cost nearly as much as tuition for the course. Another edition or two, and it would have cost more than tuition. That's just unconscionable.
posted by fogovonslack at 12:02 PM on January 27, 2010


I don't think the textbook model is over yet, especially in lower level, introductory courses. So now who is going to write these books for free?

I agree with fogovonslack - someone could have charged me $85 for my intro-level physics book and it would have been a literal half of what I paid. There's still a lot of money to be made while at the same time giving students and school districts a break.

Thank the powers that be I'm in English so I mostly only have to buy cheap paperbacks. My sympathies to my science-studying peers.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:02 PM on January 27, 2010


I got intrigued and looked up the Engineering Mechanics book that apparently is the de facto standard outside of my university. It's $200. I then looked up the one that the venerable department mechanics whiz (the rumors say he scored perfectly on the PE exam) wrote, and it's a good $50 cheaper.

Plus it has virtual work!! No one else in the world teaches virtual work!

(or virtual deflections in conjugate beam method. . . but that's another course).

I'm in an Econ class right now that has an online text. You can read it for free, and if you use firefox, it won't even display the ads, and you can keep scrolling. If you pay $6 you can print it, and if you pay $19, you can download a PDF. If you pay $30 they'll print it and ship it to you. So far I've managed with the free on-line only (silverlight), but I might ask some of my classmates for the PDF if they've bought it. Everyone has been swapping PDFs of other books as well, since some of them were heinously expensive this year.

One of my professors actually gave a lecture on our book. It's a Machine Design book by Shigley, and apparently it hit the apex of awesome in its 4th edition. Shigley brought in another guy to help with the 5th edition, and the guy was nuts about random variable something or other and of course, since no one taught this, they were unhappy.

A competing publisher got ahold of Shigley's long-time enemy and rival, and he pumped out an augment to something he'd already had out. Shigley then filed suit claiming copyright infringement on generic diagrams of beam stresses. You know, sketches. Generic.
They couldn't publish it until the suit was settled, and shigley pumped out another version or two of his book, and got rid of the crazy random variable guy, and picked up someone new, his competitor died and now we're at 8E, with one chapter in the back dedicated to random variables, and barnes and noble shipped me mine yesterday, so I'm just waiting for that. If I didn't have a book scholarship, I'd probably get that PDF two weeks ago.

My professor likes to tell stories, which is great, because otherwise it would be two hours of hearing about brittle failure in beams.
posted by rubah at 9:30 PM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


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