More On My Dream Open Textbook Bill

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!

8 thoughts on “More On My Dream Open Textbook Bill”

  1. > If you’re interested in accomplishing a different goal (like reinventing the higher education system), you need to run a different bill.

    This is a straw man, David. My argument is that if you require a letter of suipport from publishers, then publishers will immediately turn this into a cartel, which would mean that prices would not drop at all. You do not address this line of reasoning at all.

    > I believe these concerns can be worked around with the language and requirements of the legislation / RFP.

    You mean, the way it has been in other legislation and RFP processes? Seriously, there is enough room for scepticism here to drive a truck through.

    > I don’t understand this comment. Is this an argument against providing free access to online versions of open textbooks?

    There is a whole line of my reasoning that you simply don’t get – it comes up a lot in our discussions. I doubt that any number of comments to posts is going to explain it, because (from where I sit) it appears that its a matter of you simply not _seeing_ some of the things that I see. In other words, it’s a perceptual issue, not an issue of reason or rationale.

    I don’t think I can explain it; I have to show it to you. I was poor for most of my life – I need to be able to show you somehow that the property of being poor is the result of economic systems designed to _prevent access_ to essential goods. being poor, you _have_ to pay for them — once you’re richer, you have more options, any many of these things become cheaper or even free.

    Go to a grocery store in the inner city and then go directly to the same brand grocery store in the suburbs. The inner city store is not only smaller and dirtier, it has fewer choices and they are more expensive. The suburban store is larger, nicer, and cheaper.

    Why? Because the poor lack mobility. They have to take what they’re offered, even if it’s more expensive. While the rich can drive around and pick and choose, so they can get better and cheaper alternatives.

    What happens is that the prices the poor are paying actually end up subsidizing the rich.

    If you haven’t _seen_ this, you can work yourself into a state of denial that this sort of structure can exist in an economy. Much less understand that it is absolutely _fundamental_ to the economy.

    Markets are based on *denying* *access*. It is easier to deny access to poor people, because they have no rights. If you are not even willing to SEE this, then you cannot engage in a discussion of how it is happening in the current case.

  2. Interesting set of postings. There is an alternative to getting a reputable publisher to support the initiative. Why not go directly to the college store community? As one of my colleagues noted to me in referring your post, if there were a lower cost product that was store friendly, many institutions (and particularly community colleges) would be in a good position to market them to faculty and promote them. Accessibility is an issue, and making things free online does not necessarily make them accessible. So finding a lower-cost way to deliver the content via the stores could provide additional savings and accessibility without adding a publisher as an additional middle-man. I think we recognize that open course materials are part of the future course materials landscape, and as an industry we are investigating models to make such content more available through college stores.

    College stores are often confronted with a dual mission. On the one hand, the college store’s reason d’etre is to provide students with the materials they need to be successful and do so at the lowest possible cost so that those materials are affordable/accessible to the greatest number of students. On the other hand, college stores are expected to provide a return to their institution, which often goes to financial aid and student services — making higher education in general more accessible to all.

    Balancing these dual missions is a difficult task. Many stores would likely embrace open textbooks if there was an option that allows them to continue fulfilling both options — a lower cost textbook for students, yet some continued return to the institution — enabling improved accessibility to education for a wider audience. Selling these shifts among missions to administrators can also be difficult for stores.

    A faculty member at one conference I was at earlier this spring reported moving to an open source textbook, free for students, for a very large course adoption. They indicated that the result was a large shortfall in revenue going back to the financial aid budget for the next semester — meaning that there were fewer institutional financial aid resources available to make the institution more affordable to attend. (The shortfall from the faculty member’s decision was reported back to the faculty member by the chancellor).

    So in a pragmatic world, where free does not necessarily improve accessibility to all, and may, in fact reduce some accessibility or produce inequities, is there a “low cost” option that could be used to balance the inequities Stephen refers to, while still achieving the goal of lower course material costs for all? I worry that people will see open source as a silver bullet and miss the unintended consequences to overall educational affordability, or the inequalities in affordability that may result.

  3. >> Markets are based on *denying* *access*. It is easier to deny access to poor people, because they have no rights.

    Right now *every* student feels the pain of denied access to their course materials (an intro calc book costs $200!).

    More use of open textbooks would change the dynamics of the market so that students would actually have a choice of what, if anything, to purchase. Publishers would have to offer products students want at prices students pay, or else they wouldn’t make money.

    In that case, *every* student would be better off than they are now. At least students would be forced to purchase a $20-30 book rather than a $200 book….

  4. Well i’ll have to agree with stephen on that. None of what you say on making publishers a part of this hyperlinked knowledge repository we have called web 2.0 is going to work. This is the very lost land we’ve been finding. Independence from copyrighted books through those greed mongers and now we’ve changed the strategies and we’re going to make them sell ‘free books’. what kind of paradoxical wit justifies that?

    Your point about faculty using this method for ages might be true although i am not sure if thats true, but even that doesn’t justify the normative stance we should have on that, which is to keep the middle man out of the picture which in this case are publishers. Marketing, advertising, making money out of ‘free books’ might be a distraction to copyrights but in essence it would only serve as a ‘storm in the team cup’ in whole copyright/left debate.

    Also why shouldn’t physical formats be given for free? whats the harm? if there is a digital format, why shouldn’t people print it out themselves or lets suppose some NPO or NGO does that. About the blind people, now they should pay for the audio book? why on earth? They could use JAWS, use other text-to-speech book transcription or other methods but why should it be up for grabs for publishers or profiteers?

    I share the feeling with Downes ‘from where i sit’, its really going to torpedo the whole project if theres one. It looks more like a large scale enterprise level, strategy driven multinational’s marketing plan for the new buzz word ‘open textbooks’ they could exploit.

    I have been a great fan of your papers, open course, projects and blog but it really escapes me where are you heading with this bill. I am trying to understand the larger picture if there is one that has made you say things like you’ve said above. Help me on that David.

  5. I am a relative new comer to world of expressive blogging (been a lurker for a while). However something about this topic appealed to me personally as I am now living between two worlds being an elementary school teacher and a doctoral student.
    As a teacher I think deeply about how I can create and support authentic learning opportunities for my students that live in the real world. That does not usually include text books by the way. Information in a traditional text book is linear and organized for a certain kind of learner. It’s the 21st century! I can’t think in that flat way anymore. I need to create learning environments that are nebulous, flexible and moveable. I have to flatten the traditional barriers for learning which means I need to make text come alive.
    As a student I am trying desperately to create real learning opportunities for myself and yes I am forced to read what someone else thinks I need to read. What I desire is for that text to come alive. I want it to take me to new places as well as new understandings. Please don’t limit knowledge to those who have the money and only those who read in a traditional way.

  6. I think I have to agree with Stephen on this one and I cite Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” as proof that Corportism is antithetical to this free and democractic paradigm shift

  7. >

    Nicole, you really need to spend some time learning what goes into a textbook to speak knowledgeably on the subject. At the very least, your “make textbooks affordable” website wouldn’t read like The Onion.

    The development costs of a textbook can run up to a million dollars. Permissions, art, layout, editing, and proofreading cost a fortune. Not to mention marketing costs and the used book factor.

    And it isn’t about “what students want.” If you want complete control, homeschool yourself. Texts are adopted (ideally) because faculty feel they’re best for their course, and because the ancillary materials (huge development costs that students don’t see) make their job easier and more productive. If you are required to buy a book and never use it, that’s the instructor’s fault, not the publisher’s. Take it up with him or her.

    Finally, just who is supposed to write all these “free” books? My books (I’m published with two of the majors) took me about 3,000 hours each to write, and that doesn’t include the hours my art people put in. I should give that away because you don’t want to pay for your books? Fine -are you offering anything in return? I don’t see it on your Onion page, just bullet points on how students should pester their professors to “sign a statement.” Why don’t you suggest something more useful -e.g., said students can clean the houses or mow the lawns of the faculty they want to provide them with free books. Just a thought.

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