Home > Uncategorized > Research summary 1 : Open source textbooks

Research summary 1 : Open source textbooks

book shelf

Open source textbooks.

The problems in the textbook industry are manifold and well documented (Rube 2005, Harley et al. 2010). Aggressive pricing strategies, and short edition cycles are keeping an industry afloat using an old world business model. Enabled by advances in ICT, the concept of open source textbooks has arisen (or so it may appear on surface value) as a response to the financial pressure on students and their communities (eg. The student PIRGS, n.d.; California Open Source Textbook Project, 2002).

The term ‘open source’, refers to the way in which content can be legally used. The advent of legal structures such as the Creative Commons licence allow users to legally reproduce, alter, remix and redistribute content at no cost (Baraniuk 2006, Creative Commons Australia, n.d.), however the benefits of open source extend beyond that of price. Open source refers to free content, where the free is;

a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech”, not as in “free beer” (Free Software Foundation, 2010).

In terms of open source textbooks, this liberty (to copy, modify and redistribute) has the potential to make huge impacts not just on costs, but on how we teach and how students are given access to knowledge.

Open textbooks take many forms, from simple digital replications of traditional textbook formats, to highly modular, flexible and interactive repositories of knowledge (Baraniuk 2006, Frith 2009). Connexions, a market leader (Frith 2009) features content from respected, commissioned authors, presented in modular ‘chunks’, allowing users to create custom made textbooks to support their own courses (Baraniuk 2006).

Quality assurance.

One of the greatest concerns about open source textbooks amongst teachers, administrators and the greater community is the the issue of quality control (Harley et al. 2010, De Koenigsberg 2010). Truly opening access to authorship leads to the situation where ‘anyone can contribute anything’ (Baraniuk 2006). Though this has huge potential, it also raises the issue of quality assurance. In my opinion, how well this issue is dealt with will ultimately define the success of the movement, and whether the move to open source is viewed as a economic imperative, or a truly pedagogical imperative.

Various platforms use different quality assurance mechanisms (Frith 2009) usually limited to the following (or some combination thereof) ; reputation and endorsement; centralised peer review; and user review (Hylén 2006). The most successful platforms such as Connexions use a combination of approaches which assure high quality resources without compromising the open ideology (Connexions 2007, Frith 2009).

Further to their role as quality assurance mechanisms, aspects such as authorial attribution and user feedback have positve effects in other realms. Authorial attribution acts as a strong motivation for creating content (Stewart 2009, Seidel 2009) perhaps to offset the diminished financial gain from publication. I believe that user feedback has the potential to become much more than a QA measure as teachers are able to share ideas on how they used a resource effectively. In this sense, such a system would provide another powerful community based tool for knowledge sharing (in this case, pedagogical).

Digital divide

A common perception of the open source movement, is that it will lead to the reduction, or removal, of price-barriers to knowledge and may close the knowledge divide (Kurshan 2007), gaps between access to quality education of different groups in society. Despite the successes in closing the traditional digital divide (access to computer hardware), a new digital divide is opening for a small minority, in terms of their ability to access knowledge (Green & Hannon 2007) . With respect to open textbooks, the issue of access to computers and high-speed Internet in the home are crucial when considering a truer picture of access to knowledge. In California, where an open textbook project is currently being rolled out, there are real fears that poor students will be at a disadvantage (Lewin 2009) in the move to open textbooks.

This problem can be alleviated to some extent as the move towards one-to-one computing is actualised. In Australia for example, the federal government has committed to having a one-to-one student-to-computer ratio by the end of 2011 (Gillard 2008, Rudd 2009). In my opinion, Australia would provide near-ideal conditions for trialling open source texts as students should not be limited by access to hardware (though others have made the link between one-to-one computing and open source textbooks (Platoni 2009)). Further, the realisation of the national curriculum will bring about a necessity for publishers to revise existing textbooks, and has created a genuine opportunity for change in current curriculum implementation and pedagogy.

Other issues in relation to the digital divide go beyond that of our western perspective. The ability of open textbooks to provide quality content to the developing world has been lauded (Foster 2008). Open licensing allows texts to be freely translated, or for examples to be edited to include culturally relevant material (Baraniuk 2006). Though this appears to be a great solution, it is difficult to gauge the impact, and scale of this movement. The appearance and growth of a number of open text platforms specifically for the developing world (for example, Free High School Science Texts n.d.) is simultaneously encouraging and disturbing. Access to knowledge in the developing world is increasing, however the existence of specific platforms to serve only the developing world may create a two-tier system, perpetuating inequity in access to knowledge.

Implications for educators

Beyond the social dimension, there are some huge implications for educators. Moving to open textbooks whilst maintaining the dominant teacher-centric model will have little effect on digital literacy, and represents a missed opportunity (Geser 2007). Arguably the greatest value in the open textbook movement is that it signals a move away from traditional textbooks, creating an opportunity for highly interactive and customisable education resources which promote a collaborative and creative approach to learning (Geser 2007, Kenney 2009, Frith 2009). Further, the complete open access to authorship in some platforms allow for a constructivist approach to learning (Frith 2009) and a democratic approach to curriculum as students can engage in course design and the construction and editing of textbook materials.

Yet, to realise this opportunity to step away from the limitations of traditional textbooks requires structural change. In his decade-old paper on the use of computers in education, Robert Tinker comments on the nature of technological revolutions.

Every revolutionary technology starts with a whimper. Its full revolutionary bang is realized only later after fundamental structural changes are made to accommodate the new technology. (Tinker 2000)

and specifically with reference to computers in education

We are, nevertheless, overdue for a surge in education performance driven by the technology, as soon as we are willing to make the necessary structural changes. This will profoundly improve education.(Tinker 2000)

These comments are still highly relevant today, especially with reference to the open source movement. In my mind, the changes which are required to fully embrace open source texts, not just as a cheap alternative, but as the basis of a revolution in how teaching and learning resources are constructed, shared and used, are yet to come but will radically change the education landscape.

What I have described in this brief report is Tinker’s ‘whimper’. I look forward to the ‘bang’.


  • Baraniuk, R. (2006). Richard Baraniuk on open-source learning [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/richard_baraniuk_on_open_source_learning.html OR http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRymi-lFHpE
  • California Open Source Textbook Project. (2002). Retrieved from http://www.opensourcetext.org/
  • Connexions. (2007). Introducing Content Reviewing with Lenses. Retrieved from http://cnx.org/news/LensesIntroduced
  • Creative Commons Australia. (n.d.). Creative Commons Licences, Retrieved from http://creativecommons.org.au/licences
  • De Koenigsberg, G. (2010). Open source textbooks a “threat” to Texas education? opensource.com, Retrieved from http://opensource.com/education/10/1/open-source-textbooks-threat-texas-education
  • Foster, A.L. (2008). Providing Online Textbooks to the Developing World Education Digest, vol. 73, no. 7, pp 14-16
  • Free High School Science Texts. (n.d.). Welcome to the FHSST Workspace, Retrieved from http://www.fhsst.org/
  • Free Software Foundation. (2010). The GNU operating system, Retrieved from http://www.gnu.org/
  • Frith, J. (2009). The Open Revolution: An Environmental Scan of the Open Textbook Landscape. Commisioned by North Carolina State University, NSCU Libraries Digital Scholarship & Publishing Center, Retrieved from http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/dspc/opentextbookswhitepaper.pdf
  • Geser, G. (Ed.). (2007). Open Educational Practices and Resources: The OLCOS Roadmap 2012 Salzburg Research, EduMedia Group. Salzburg
  • Gillard, J. (2008, March 5) National Secondary School Computer Fund: Round One, Media Release, Canberra, Australia
  • Green, H. and Hannon, C. (2007). Their Space: Education for a Digital Generation, Commissioned by Demos, London
  • Harley, D., Lawrence, S., Acord, S.K. and Dixson, J. (2010). ‘Affordable and Open Textbooks: An Exploratory Study of Faculty Attitudes’, Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley
  • Hylén, J. (2006). Open Educational Resources: Opportunities and Challenges. Commissioned by OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation,Paris, France. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/5/47/37351085.pdf
  • Kenney, B. (2009, September). As Goes California: A flawed initiative could become a fabulous opportunity, School Library Journal
  • Kurshan, B. (2007). How Open-Source Curricula Could Bridge the Education Divide, Connection: The Journal of the New England Board of Higher Education, Winter ed.
  • Lewin,T. (2009, August 8 ). In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History, NY Times
  • Platoni, K. (2009, Dec/Jan). California Embraces Open Source Digital Textbooks, Edutopia, Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/california-open-source-digital-textbooks
  • Rube, K. (2005). Ripoff 101: How the Publishing Industry’s Practices Needlessly Drive Up Textbook Costs – A National Survey of Textbook Prices (2nd ed.), State Public Interest Research Groups
  • Rudd, K. (2009). Digital Education Revolution National Partnership, Canberra, Australia
  • Seidel, K. (2009). Online Textbooks Deliver Timely, Real-World Content, EDUCAUSE Reviw, vol 44., no.1
  • Stewart, R. (2009). Some Thoughts on Free Textbooks, EDUCAUSE Reviw, vol 44., no.1
  • The Student PIRGs (Public Research Interest Groups). (n.d.). Make Textbooks Affordable, Retrieved from http://www.studentpirgs.org/textbooks
  • Tinker, R. (2000). Ice Machines, Steamboats, and Education: Structural Change and Educational Technologies. In proceedings: The Secretary’s Conference on Educational Technology, Alexandria, VA
  1. March 19, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Enjoyed your review–particularly your remarks about ” constructivist approach to learning.” I’m playing around w/ an open-source college writing textbook, http://collegewriting.org Putting it in joomla now, next maybe a wiki. Best regards…JM

    • March 22, 2010 at 1:15 am

      Thanks for your comments Joe.

      I’m particularly interested in your motivation for publishing an open-source text. I think it’s great that you have done so and could make some guesses as to your motives but I’m interested in your opinion: Why do you do it?

  2. Brendan Kirkpatrick
    March 23, 2010 at 1:59 am


    I enjoyed reading your summary, I am a big fan of open source anything so I suppose I would be happy if this is the current push. I am always known to be arguing the reliability of wikipedia and various other things so maybe I am just a sucker.


    • March 23, 2010 at 2:39 am

      Cheers Brendan,
      I must say I was drawn to this topic for similar reasons. Much has been learnt from the open-source software movement, and for that matter, the very closed-source music industry (Richard Baraniuk makes good use of this analogy in his TED talk on open source textbooks – link ).

      As for wikis, you may be interested in a paper by Jordan Frith (see my post on this) providing a critique of wikibooks (amongst other platforms) for open source textbooks.


  1. March 16, 2010 at 3:03 am

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