Responding to some comments on yesterday’s post about my ideal open textbook legislation:
Ben Werdmuller asked, “Is there any reason for not including the whole range of permissive CC licensing, including the Public Domain one?”
Yes indeed! For one, I think it is crucial that the licenses allowed all be remix-compatible with one another. That means no ND license (no remix is allowed at all) and only one SA license (otherwise, no remixing is possible across works). BY and CC Zero (in effect a public domain license) are remix compatible with everything, as would be a public domain dedication (let’s please remember that licenses only apply to copyrighted material – since materials in the public domain are not copyrighted they can’t have a license!). Using NC is likely important to incentivize publisher participation, which I address below.
Can’t you see the headline two years from now as the first biology and chemistry textbooks are released, and someone goes to remix a biochemistry text only to find that they can’t because one is BY-SA and the other is BY-NC-SA? It would be a classic government mess-up – pour millions into open textbooks without the foresight to make sure that all this “open” content can be remixed. What a PR disaster.
On further reflection, it seems to me that something really useful to do in a separate, parallel bill is as follows: First, require any curriculum material (including textbooks) produced with federal grant dollars to be (c) the authors (not their home institution or government). Second, require the finalized content and all source files to be posted on a public website under a BY-NC-SA license. This simultaneously fulfills the mantra “if the public pays for it, the public should have free access to it” while providing the commercialization possibilities that will let the work live more than a week beyond the initial grant.
I’m really obsessing right now about how to make things live beyond their grant funding.
Stephen Downes commented that requiring a letter of support from a reputable publisher committing to partner on the proposal “would torpedo the whole project.”
On the contrary, such a partnership is the only thing that could give the project any value at all.
The primary goal of this piece of legislation is to get faculty to adopt open textbooks, thereby saving students money spent when faculty adopt traditional, ridiculously priced textbooks. There are a number of other potential benefits from the existence of open textbooks, but open textbook legislation is about saving students money. Period. If you’re interested in accomplishing a different goal (like reinventing the higher education system), you need to run a different bill.
As a group (there are, of course, exceptions) universities and their faculty are famous for the glacial pace at which they adapt to changes in their environment. The textbook adoption process is an excellent example of something not likely to change anytime soon. Here’s how it works for many faculty (especially those teaching high enrolling courses):
- Companies with textbooks to sell find out what courses you’re teaching.
- The companies contact you about books they sell that might meet your needs.
- A few free review copies of books from several publishers hit your desk for review.
- You dig through the pile of review copies, find the book you like best, and adopt it. (You can’t keep teaching from your current book because the publisher doesn’t print it any longer – it’s 18 months old!)
Faculty have been embedded in this process for decades. You can claim it’s evil, you can say whatever you want to say about it, but nothing you say will change the fact that this is how adoption works. Faculty are used to be catered to, marketed to, and brazenly courted by publishers.
So, imagine that publishers are beating down your door to give you free copies of their books (which come complete with test item banks, a solution guide, and presentations to use in class) and arguments about why their book is the best. Given everything else you have to do, are you really likely to say, “Self, I have a hunch there’s a free alternative out there on the web. Let’s take an hour or two and go find it. I know it may not come with test item banks, solution guides, or classroom presentations, but I can spend another couple of dozen hours building those because I am committed to principles of affordability, transparency, and openness.” If you’re reading this blog post, the answer is probably “Yes!” However, if you’re an average faculty member trying to keep his head above water, the answer is a resounding “No.”
The lesson is this – unless a nice looking printed copy of an open textbook lands on the desk with the others, and someone pursues you as a potential adoptee, and tells you about all the value-added materials that come along with the open textbook, the open textbook never even gets considered for adoption. What do you have then? The general state of the field today – a few hundred open textbooks online in places like Connexions, Wikibooks, Textbook Revolution, and other sites, that the average faculty member has never heard of and never will hear about, because there is no mechanism for those books to get into the standard adoption process / pipeline.
An open textbook needs a partner that knows something about textbook adoption. Without one, you’ll have blown through $50 million of the public’s money and not changed the situation a bit.
A publisher with a demonstrated marketing track record (one that knows how to market textbooks and actually get them adopted) is a critical piece of any open textbook legislation. By now we should be way beyond the naivete of thinking that we can throw a textbook into a website (even one with print on demand) and have a meaningful number of faculty adopt it.
Stephen also comments, “you don’t want the textbook producers to deliberately undermine the free web version (eg., by making the server so slow its impossible to download, by using obsolete content formats, etc etc)”
I believe these concerns can be worked around with the language and requirements of the legislation / RFP.
Finally, Stephen comments, “you don’t want to create a situation where the poorest or most disadvantaged pay the costs – having print and audio versions for a fee means that people without computers and people who are blind must pay for their copies, while richer fully sighted people can get it for free.”
I don’t understand this comment. Is this an argument against providing free access to online versions of open textbooks? Is it an argument that physical formats should be given away for free, with someone eating the cost on paper, printing, warehousing, shipping, etc.? Is it an argument that all formats should be free to the public, regardless of whether they are digital or physical, effectively eliminating any ability to sustain the activity over the long-term?
Please keep your comments coming!