Posts Tagged ‘quality assurance’

Research summary 1 : Open source textbooks

March 11, 2010 5 comments

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 OR
  • California Open Source Textbook Project. (2002). Retrieved from
  • Connexions. (2007). Introducing Content Reviewing with Lenses. Retrieved from
  • Creative Commons Australia. (n.d.). Creative Commons Licences, Retrieved from
  • De Koenigsberg, G. (2010). Open source textbooks a “threat” to Texas education?, Retrieved from
  • 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
  • Free Software Foundation. (2010). The GNU operating system, Retrieved from
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Tinker, R. (2000). Ice Machines, Steamboats, and Education: Structural Change and Educational Technologies. In proceedings: The Secretary’s Conference on Educational Technology, Alexandria, VA

Hylén – Open educational resources

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Spiderman comic panel - power & responsibility

Hylén, J., 2006,  ‘Open Educational Resources: Opportunities and Challenges’, Open Education, pp. 49-63

Hylén examines the Open Educational Resources movement and it’s implications. OER refers not just to open source textbooks, but other open resources as well. Many of the issues and implications are however, applicable to open source textbooks. Although Hylén comments on many aspects of OER, I will use this text for it’s analysis of quality assurance.

Hylén’s brief overview of this complex issue states that the volume of material that exists makes it easy for users to find resources, but they may have problems assessing the quality. Several approaches to the problem are explored:

  • Reputation – Large (traditional) publishers or education -institutions who are providers of content use their strong, positive reputations to convince users that content is of a high quality.
  • Centralised peer review – This mirrors current best practice in academia.
  • Decentralised peer/user review – As opposed to a centralised system (reviewers appointed by an editorial board or the like), users rate or comment on the quality and utility of the resources.

Of the models proposed above, I can see great strength a user review system and how it could be extended to much more. As Hylén states, ‘quality is not an inherent part of a learning resource, but rather a contextual phenomenon‘, and his argument continues, as such, users are the only reputable judges. I believe this statement however, is more powerful in that such a user review forum could be used for teachers 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).

Despite the obvious appeal of this approach, some form of editorial or academic peer review would be of great utility, ensuring that in their first iteration, materials were of high quality. Arguments against such a review system is that they would likely be a closed process, and as such, clash with the open ideology.

Frith : The open revolution whitepaper

March 10, 2010 Leave a comment


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

Frith provides a thorough analysis of the major players in the open textbooks ‘market’. Comparisons are made on the basis of platform structure, quality assurance, funding and costing, licensing, editorial control as well as other differentiating factors as required.

Frith appears to strongly favour the Connexions model due to its modular structure, quality assurance mechanisms, and end-user functionality. He does however give the other platforms (wikibooks, Flat World Knowledge, Global Text Project and Textbook Media) a fair trial, listing pro’s and con’s for each platform.

The following table is reproduced from the paper and is a useful tool for quickly comparing the platforms on key criteria, but no substitute for reading the paper!

Table comparing open source textbook platforms - from Frith

Texan textbooks

March 7, 2010 Leave a comment

Texan highway sign

Interesting article on the recent change in legislation in Texas, opening the way for open source textbooks. Some angry Texans! Worth a read for the public comment/reply at the end of the article. Quotable quotes:

These attacks are occurring through the adoption of open source textbook rules proposed by the Texas Education Commission, rules that completely exclude public participation in curriculum development and circumvent the opportunity for educators, parents and the public to  review and comment on instructional material before it is adopted for classroom use.


The open-source rules would allow school districts to buy instructional material that has not gone through the public review and comment process and, by doing so, threaten to undermine decades of public input that is responsible for the quality public education system Texans enjoy today.

An author’s perspective

March 7, 2010 Leave a comment


Notes from an author of three open source oceanography textbooks, Robert Stewart.  Stewart, R. 2009, ‘Some Thoughts on Free Textbooks’, EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 44, no. 1

  • Timeliness
    • Stewart cites the rapidity of change in his field (driven by technology). The options are clear, frequent revision or obsolescence.
  • Cost – Stewart is not talking about his costs, only those of students. His free textbooks can be printed for roughly $20 c.f.  $100-150 for traditional texts
  • Quality Control – Stewart reports that he recieves editorial advice from academics, students and others w.r.t factual & typographical errors as well as suggestions for improvement. He claims that this process is much harder under the traditional model, as is the act of revision by the author.
  • Professional Recognition‘words of thanks are worth far more than the few thousand dollars in royalties that I will not collect
  • Benefits of electronic media – Stewart reflects on the importance of using animation, film and other multimedia embedded within the textbook. this is simply not possible with traditional texts

Lastly, ‘If it isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.’

TED talks – Baraniuk on open source

February 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Richard Baraniuk

Listened to a TED talk by Richard Baraniuk (Rice University and founder of Connexions, a platform for open source educational material)

Baraniuk critiques the process of publishing educational materials and suggests a change in practice. He uses an analogy to the music industry as a way of understanding flaws in the current model for educational  publishing and a framework for thinking about a new model. Baraniuk states this aim

‘so want I want to talk about today, is trying to take these ideas, right, that we’ve seen in the musical culture and try to bring these towards reinventing the way we think about writing books, using them , and teaching from them’

A model for open source educational publishing

The music industry model and it’s utility as an analogue to educational publishing can be summarised by the ways content can be created and reused. Specifically the ability to;

  • Create – access to authoring and publication
    • an open source model remove barriers to publication
    • ‘anyone can contribute anything’
  • Rip – copying and reusing material
    • for example, translating educational texts into another language
  • Mix – combining existing material in new ways
    • allows the creation of customised text books based on open source content
    • integrate interactive material to venture beyond traditional model for textbooks
  • Burn – the physical publishing process
    • publish on demand allows for much cheaper physical instantiations of texts by cutting out the middle man
    • the concept of ‘edition’ loses meaning as content is continuously updated

Limitations to the model are discussed specifically technological, legal and quality control concerns. I am more concerned with how our society will react rather than the technical enablers such as XML and as such will limit my response to these domains.

Intellectual property

The issues related to IP in this model are summed up well by Baraniuk;

This is where I told a big lie … because, in fact, I got up here and I talked about how great the music culture is. We can share, rip, mix and burn, but in fact, that’s all illegal. … We would be accused as pirates for doing that.

To enable open source publishing, Baraniuk calls for a IP framework that makes sharing safe and easily understandable, taking inspiration from successful open source software project such as linux.

Creative Commons licences are sited as the solution as they provide a ‘no-nonsense, human readable document, a deed, that tells you exactly what you can do with this content‘. Such licenses allow a legal framework  for distribution, duplication and derivative works, that is ripping and mixing, providing that the original author is attributed. Baraniuk suggests that this legal framework is appropriate for academic and educational publishing on the basis that the motivation of the author is usually to share knowledge and make an impact, as opposed to financial gain.

Quality Control

The statement that ‘anyone can contribute anything’ is hugely powerful and as such, demands great responsibility (Uncle Ben or FDR?).

Baraniuk recounts the story of Kitty Jones, a private music teacher who,

wanted to share her fantastic music content with the world, on how to teach kids how to play music. her material is now used over 600,000 times per month…  …in fact, a lot of this use is coming from United States K through 12 schools because… …as schools scale back, the first thing that’s cut is the music curriculum.

It is reasonable to ask about the author. Who is she, what are her credentials and qualifications? Further, what review process has this work been subjected to? Should our society be satisfied with potential non-experts being invited into our children’s education? Is this pedagogicaly sound?

Baraniuk and Connexions have attempted to address the issues surrounding quality control through implementing social software enabling peer review. Is this enough?

The accompanying powerpoint presentation asks the questions: What is quality? Who decides? Who is the expert?

The social dimension.

Mixing may prove to be one of the most powerful ascpects of open source textbooks. Baraniuk explores the idea of building customised courses supported by equally customised textbooks, mixed from freely available open source content. This will allow us to venture beyond the traditional model for textbooks and include highly interactive applets and siumlations such that textbooks can support learning through exploration.

There’s a social aspect here too.

‘Just providing free content to people has actually been likened by people in the developing world, to a kind of cultural imperialism. That if you don’t empower people with the ability to re-contextualize the material, translate it into their own language, and take ownership of it, it’s not good’.

This plays into the questions of equity, but further, suggests a model for actualising the concept that human knowledge belongs to all humans.