Open Source Textbooks: Menace AND Blessing?

I came across an interesting intersection of the worlds of Book and Geek yesterday. Previous rants in this space have discussed in detail the cost of textbooks, and how that impacts the poor and worthy demographic of students. On the other end of the spectrum, the state of Virginia has released a Request for Collaboration to assist in developing an open source physics textbook. You can find more about this here.

Virginia is aiming to compile materials for teaching 21st century physics. They use the word “supplemental,” implying that the initial target may not be as a primary source. Their partner, the CK-12 Foundation, is a non-profit with the mission to create a collaborative authoring environment to enable the creation of customizable, open educational content.

This is interesting: exciting and vaguely scary at the same time. My roots in open source are pretty deep. I’m a believer in Linux, and dozens of other open source projects and tools. Wikipedia comes to mind as an awesome resource. Making education freely available to more people is A Good Thing.

But if you imagine the trend taken to the extreme, the kids all get their free books from KindleLand, and bookselling as we know it disappears from the face of the earth.

As a longtime techwatcher, I’ve noticed a couple of things. First, change doesn’t usually occur as fast as we anticipate. Second, our initial ideas about replacement technologies are usually wrong. New tech doesn’t simply erase old tech. Instead, it carves out a new niche, that partly consumes and partly complements the existing base. Eight track tapes aside, co-existence, whether uneasy or not, is more the norm that simple replacement.

Another point is that textbooks are inherently different that reading or collecting books for pleasure. I suspect that students view most textbooks more as a tool than as something desired. If an online textbook gets the job done, especially for less time, money and hassle, more power to it. But an online book will never grace your bookshelves nearly the same way as weill a coveted first edition.

So, online texts, whether open or not, may well one day replace “book as repository of information.” But I think it will be a long time before online books encroach on the market for “book as object of desire.” Viva Libre!

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