open content

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!

open content

A Better Open Textbook Bill

There’s a lot of talk about open textbook legislation going around right now. I recently reported on HR 1464, which was a great first start, but on reflection could be improved significantly. I’ve had some opportunities to think about what the “perfect” open textbook bill would look like, so I thought I’d share MNSHO.

The legislation would create competitive funding opportunities to create open textbooks in any content area. These would be multi-stage grants (like the SBIR program), with additional funding tied to the successful completion of initial project goals.

Individuals, teams of individuals, or organizations would complete an application in which they would provide the following information:

– The approximate number of US post-secondary students annually who take a course in which the text could be used appropriately
– The average cost of the five most widely adopted competing textbooks
– Content and pedagogy-related credentials of individuals who will serve as authors for the open textbooks, including honors like teaching awards in the area
– A letter of support from a reputable publisher committing to partner on the proposal. This partnership must include the provision of traditional publishing services like editorial support, design / layout support, and the creation of supplemental materials (like slides and exams).
– A management plan for author and publisher functions, including timelines and responsible parties
– A marketing plan for the textbook, including prices for all planned formats of the book (excluding the web version which will of course be free, but including paperback, hardback, audio, etc.) and a target number of student adoptions in the first two years after publication
– A licensing statement from the authors and project partner stating which license they will use for their open textbook – either CC BY or CC BY-NC-SA

All grant recipients would have to meet a handful of requirements:
– A content-complete version of the open textbook must go online with all text, images, and other features of the printed version available to the public for free, unrestricted, unfettered access
– The online version of the open textbook must clearly display it’s open license and include appropriate embedded license metadata to allow search engines like Google and Yahoo to index it as an openly licensed resource

Proposals would be evaluated according to:
– The estimated financial impact of the project (the number of students in the course annually x the average cost of the five most widely adopted books is the baseline; the target number of adoptions x average cost of the formats to be offered is the comparison point)
– Credentials and track record of the authors
– Credibility and track record of the publisher
– Feasibility of the management and marketing plans

After-grant reviews would pay attention to only one metric – the number of students impacted by verifiable adoptions is the ultimate measure of success. Projects that reach year 1 and 2 adoption goals as stated in the funded proposal would be eligible for update / enhancement grants.

Comments? Thoughts? Arguments?

open content


I never thought I would title a post in all caps, but I can’t believe I’m reading what I’m reading. H.R. 1464, introduced by Bill Foster of Illinois, is titled:

To require Federal agencies to collaborate in the development of freely-available open source educational materials in college-level physics, chemistry, and math, and for other purposes.

After quoting a number of findings about how completely out of control the textbook market and textbook prices are, the bill goes on to say:

The head of each agency that expends more than $10,000,000 in a fiscal year on scientific education and outreach shall use at least 2 percent of such funds for the collaboration on the development and implementation of open source materials as an educational outreach effort… There are authorized to be appropriated $15,000,000 to carry out this section for fiscal year 2010 and such sums as necessary for each succeeding fiscal year.

The program is to be jointly run by the Director of the NSF and the Secretary of Energy, and the money dedicated to the program will be used to award grants of two kinds:

(1) to develop and implement open source materials that contain educational materials covering topics in college-level physics, chemistry, or math; and

(2) to evaluate the open sources materials produced with the grant funds awarded under this section and to submit a report containing such evaluation to the Director and Secretary.

Wow. I am speechless. I’ll now have to split my energy between working to defeat HR 801 and working to get HR 1464 passed. I may not sleep for a very long time….