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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’.

References

  • 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

Digital divide in California

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

'Divide' text

The following quote and information are from an NY times article Lewin,T.  ‘In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History‘, NY Times

I will include a quick quote from Tim Ward, a senior education administrator in California.

A large portion of our kids don’t have computers at home, and it would be way too costly to print out the digital textbooks

This statement encapsulates the issues of the ‘new digital divide’ described by Green, H. & Hannon, C. 2007, ‘Their Space: Education for a Digital Generation‘ (see my previous post on this report).

Australia as laboratory?

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Syndey Harbour night panorama

Rudd’s laptop policy may make Australia an ideal place to test out opensource textbooks. If every grade 9-12 has their own laptop then the ‘old’ digital divide (access to hardware) won’t be such an issue. With the national curriculum coming in, this might be our chance to try something radical.

Just when I thought I’d had an original idea, see the link below for another link between the relevance of 1:1 computing and the open source movement

“There’s desperation with the budget in California right now,” Bridges says. “The digital textbook initiative would merge well with a one-to-one model, but there aren’t any funds to make that happen.”

Platoni, K. (2009, Dec/Jan). California Embraces Open Source Digital Textbooks, Edutopia, Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/california-open-source-digital-textbooks

An open source text : on the digital divide

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Wire fence

How appropriate,

I read a chpater from the fairly comprehensive (though slightly dated) text;

Poole, J.B., Sky-McIlvain, E., Jackson, L. and Singer, Y., 2006 ‘Education for an Information Age: Teaching in the Computerized Classroom’, 6th Edition

the text is freely available online as part of The Global Text Project.

This text cites Pillar’s two decade old work;

“Computer-based education in poor schools is in deep trouble. Not only did these schools lack the funds and skills to finance the maintenance of their computer hardware. They also lacked the training to make the best use of the machines. “In most cases,” Pillar concluded, “computers simply perpetuate a two-tier system of education for rich and poor.”

Times have changed, and the issue has shifted from a hardware to a knowledge domain yet perhaps we are perpetuating societal divide

Read on for tangent / rant:

Strangely, the GTP website states that all material will be released under a Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution licence (sharing and remixing are legal provided the author is attributed) yet examining the legal disclaimer of the text, this is not the case. It is a DIY style ‘conditions of use’ statement which allows free use but no remixing. Further, the familiar Copyright © Bernard John Poole, Betsy Sky-McIlvain, Lorrie Jackson, Yvonne Singer, 2006, all rights reserved appears on each page. Make up your mind; either you are or you aren’t!

Education for an Information Age
Teaching in the Computerized Classroom
6th Edition

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.

Digital divide : the developing world

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Graph : Global internet usage

Source : ‘The digital divide at a glance’

The digital divide has closed over the last decade, yet per capita rates of internet usage in the developed world outnumber those in the developing world, eight-to-one.

Though the figures differ depending on the source, estimations on the magnitude of this effect are similar. For example see;

Fuchs, C. and Horak, E., 2008, ‘Africa and the digital divide’, Telematics and Informatics, vol. 25, no.2, pp. 99-116.

They report internet pentration rates as 2.6% and 17.9% for Africa and the Rest of the World respectively. The ratio is still the same order of magnitude (and numberically similar ~1:8).

Australia’s digital revolution

March 10, 2010 2 comments

Kevin Rudd

Gillard, J, 2008, ‘National Secondary School Computer Fund: Round One‘, Media Release

Refers to research into the access to computers in Australian secondary schools. Almost one thousand secondary schools had a student to computer ratio of 1:8 or worse (note that these stats only count computers of age < 4 years). The average for all australian schools was 1:5. The policy aims to achieve a 1:1 student:computer ratio by December 2011 (see for example: Rudd, K., 2009, ‘Digital Education Revolution National Partnership‘)