open content

When the “Wiki Way” = Poor Quality

Open Education News points to a Scientific American article covering the California Learning Resource Network’s reviews of 16 open science and math textbooks for coverage of CA state standards. These reviews support schools making adoption decisions about whether or not open textbooks are of sufficient breadth and quality to be formally adopted in place of commercial textbooks.

Brendan Borrell, the SA article’s author, points out that “the front-runners [in the CLRN reviews] were typically written by just one or several authors, and the one major organization that has fully embraced a Wiki approach failed to impress CLRN reviewers.” This could have been, and in fact was, predicted long before.

A number of years ago, the USU Center for Open and Sustainable Learning commissioned noted open source expert Yochai Benkler to write a monograph applying his “comons-based peer production” model to educational resources. The result was Common Wisdom: Peer Production of Educational Materials. In this 28 page monograph, Benkler argues that the distributed, “Wikipedia model” of content production does not work for textbooks:

Textbooks that look and feel like textbooks, and, more importantly, that comply with education department requirements, are not quite as susceptible to modularization as an encyclopedia or a newsletter like Slashdot. The most successful book on Wikibooks, for example, is the cookbook. But the cookbook had 1301 “chapters” as of July of 2005. In other words, each module was effectively a single recipe. In this, it is much more like Wikipedia, with discrete, small contributions as the minimal module. Real textbooks appear to reside somewhere between a novel and an encyclopedia in the degree to which they can be modularized, or at least in the degree of effort required to integrate the modules into a coherent whole recognizable as a textbook…

At the moment, however, no working project has in fact implemented a platform that modularizes the work in sufficiently fine-grained chunks to allow a large pool of contributors. As I have elsewhere discussed in great detail, the size of the potential pool of contributors – and therefore the probability that the right person with the right skills, motivation, and time will be available for the job – is inversely related to the granularity of the modules. The larger the granules the more is required of each contributor, the smaller the set of agents who will be willing and able to take a crack at the work. On the other hand, the granularity is determined by the cost of integration—you cannot use modules that are so fine that the cost of integrating them is higher than the value of including the module. The case of textbooks seems to be, at present, precisely at the stage where the minimal granularity of the modules in some projects – like FHSST – is too large to capture the number of contributions necessary to make the project move along quickly and gain momentum, whereas the cost of integration in others, like WikiBooks, is so high that most of the projects languish with a module here, and module there, and no integration.

Yochai’s argument is part of the reason Flat World Knowledge uses the “a few expert authors model” for its open source textbooks, as opposed to a come-one-come-all volunteer-based approach. CA’s initial review of the open high school textbooks available today seems to bear Yochai’s arguments out.

open content

Open Textbook Legislation Responses, Part 2

Stephen says, “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’ll happily address it here, but Stephen’s comment also ignores my main point.

First, let me deal with the suggestion that price will not drop at all. A content-complete openly licensed version of the book online is all the price control that is needed. The existence of this version controls price by providing an alternate mechanism for accessing the content. If you really want a printed version, and you can purchase one for $25, you’ll purchase one. If you really want a printed version, but you can only buy one for $75, you’ll just print out all the pages at Kinko’s and put them in a three-ring binder. More than one person will create and distribute (legally) a PDF that makes printing for your three ring binder really easy, and no one will purchase the $75 version from the publisher. The same is true for an audio version, etc. So the existence of the free version provides price control all by itself. If the publisher wants to sell books, those books have to satisfy Wiley’s magic formula of open book sales:

(Purchase price) must be lower than (price to print your own + the hassle of preparing to print your own)

I’ve edited or written chapters for a number of books that were available in commercial print editions as well as in an openly licensed, content-complete online format. As a concrete example, print copies of my learning objects book sold like hotcakes because the price to purchase a printed copy satisfied the magic formula. If the publisher had priced the book higher, it simply wouldn’t have sold.

Now, I must ask Stephen to comment on my main point with regard to the necessity of publisher participation in open textbooks. I would estimate that – speaking of existing open textbooks that do not have the marketing support of a commercial publisher – there are more open textbooks in the world today than there are classes in which open textbooks have been adopted. Simply funding the creation of more textbooks will not lead to an increase in classroom adoptions; rather, it would perpetuate the current unsatisfactory state of affairs. So I would ask a question and pose a challenge.

Question: In the case of open textbooks, is there a more important metric for success than course adoptions?

Challenge: Propose a more effective method for achieving adoptions than involving organizations with adoption-specific expertise and providing them a market incentive.

Stephen asks, “You mean [you can work around these problems using legislative and RFP language] the way it has been in other legislation and RFP processes? Seriously, there is enough room for scepticism here to drive a truck through.”

Yes, I think you can – if you only release the grant money in portions as people meet milestones. Especially if you only fund authors in the first phase, and publishers don’t receive any funds until they meet their first milestone, which is posting a content-complete version of the textbook with all source files on a public server under an open license. There are probably other ways to accomplish this, but yes, I think we can.

Finally, Stephen says (and I’m snipping for space) “There is a whole line of my reasoning that you simply don’t get… it’s a perceptual issue, not an issue of reason or rationale… 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… 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.”

I agree completely that this happens. I grew up in one of the poorest parts of the US, lived in the most rural parts of Japan, etc. Who can deny that this problem exists? Even worse than grocery stores is access to lines of credit. “Poor” people pay interest rates many times over again what “wealthy” people pay, for these same reasons you outline above.

My response to your comment was a question, which went unanswered – how are open textbooks supposed to deal with this very real problem that we agree exists? Should we ~not~ distribute the online versions for free, because only wealthy people can get online (supposedly)? Should we ~not~ distribute printed copies, because we will have to charge for them? Should we scrap the idea of open textbooks and the university courses that require them altogether? There must be an implied action behind your criticism. What are you suggesting we DO?

There have been a variety of creative proposals for solving the “access to credit for poor people” problem, like microlending. Rather than criticizing open textbooks because of larger systemic inequities, can we invent the “microlending” solution of the textbook world? And most importantly, does the kind of progress on open textbooks I’m suggesting need to wait for this other solution to be discovered? In other words, is it all or nothing?

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!