About the Emerging Battles Over Textbooks: Options from Apple to Open Initiatives

Two dramatically opposed announcements put the textbook publishing industry on notice recently that it could be facing rapid disruption. Apple announced its iBooks Author app and invited authors to create textbooks tied both by a proprietary format and by license to its iBooks store. Meanwhile, the state of California (for the second time) announced that it would move toward free textbooks for schools. Similar efforts are underway in other countries.

One of the organizations in the area of open textbooks Open Doors, described as “the umbrella organization for College Open Textbooks, Open Courseware for Open Textbooks, and other exciting programs.” Open Doors collects and curates more than 700 textbooks devised by various organizations for use throughout the US and Canada. After a discussion with a representative of that organization, Jacky Hood, and other commentators, I wrote an article for the College Open Textbooks blog. I recommend you read that posting, which I kept short to respect their guidelines, and then return here for some extra ideas that I lacked space for in the posting.

The contrast with One Laptop Per Child

I used One Laptop Per Child as a touchstone for evaluating textbook systems because I thought they got all the goals and ideals right, even though their implementation encountered problems. You couldn’t find organizations more opposed in every aspect of goals and behavior than OLPC and Apple (except that they were both founded and led by charismatic visionaries). And it’s on the OLPC vision, not the resulting computer systems, which have failed to spread as far and fast as the creators hoped.

My Open Doors posting focuses on the empowerment aspect of computer systems. The OLPC ideal is to let owners of XO laptops change anything they want on it, right down to the operating system. (Microsoft has also developed a special version of Windows for the XO, but the OLPC still promotes GNU/Linux.) The use of free software promotes learning and exploration. Contrast this not only with Apple’s proprietary platform but is uniquely restrictive license, which requires authors to use Apple store for distribution.

Numerous other considerations separate the XO from the iPad:

  • Cost is the most obvious difference, but perhaps the least significant. It will not likely remain a major factor, because the XO costs more than the founders originally hoped, and the iPad, while much more expensive, could probably come down in price.

  • The XO was designed to be rugged, whereas the iPad is arguably an inappropriate device to hand to children.

  • The XO was specially designed for children (witness the tiny keyboard) and to be unappealing to adults, so that the adults allow the children to keep them.

  • The XO was designed to be useful in underdeveloped regions with limited capabilities, and therefore has low power requirements and can be recharged with a related solar power device.

I ran the themes in this article past David Rothman, editor-publisher of LibraryCity.org and a long-time advocate for open textbooks and open platforms to host them. While just as strong a supporter of open source as I am, David faults most open source tools for falling short in the area of usability, and was frustrated trying to use the XO because of interface problems, bugs, and weak computing capacity. He’d like to see Apple obsession for interface design adopted by the open source community. And he confirms my claim that a good textbook must have excellent production values. “Sometimes presentation is everything,” he says.

But innovation also poses challenges. I wonder how many of the first texts currently offered on Apple’s iBooks were thoroughly revisited to take advantage of the platform. Learning to write an iBooks textbook will require a whole new range of skills.

Apple and its enthusiasts stress how easy it is to write a textbook using Apple’s iBooks app. But tools are not the gating factor in writing a textbook. A convenient, intuitive user interface is important for endeavors involving small contributions from novices. When somebody sat down impulsively to create a wiki page about Whitney Houston, the convenience of the tools would make a big difference. But textbooks are weighty responsibilities and their authors can tolerate complex (although not unnecessarily complex) tools. Again, the help they need is in creating an effective user interface for their own textbooks.

The limits of open: authorship of textbooks

As I said in my Open Doors posting, textbooks are not just assembled–they are crafted. It’s a serious job. A few professors have challenged their students to come up with their own course texts, but they still need authoritative sources from which to take information. Among the content available to instructors and students for free are a broader set of material known as “open courseware.” These can include lecture notes, curriculum plans, suggestions for experiments and hands-on projects, and lots of other juicy offerings that are certainly valuable. But rarely does one find textbooks.

According to Hood, Open Doors takes its author search very seriously. They have trouble finding suitable authors, a barrier related to the funding issues I’ll describe later. But I agree with Hood that success is impossible without authors whom instructors will trust.

The limits of open: derivative works

Communities may evolve around textbooks, as they’ve evolved around other materials shared by educators. So fixes and updates to textbooks may end up being crowdsourced, but I think most instructors are going to defer to an authority for the texts they use in class.

Open Doors encourages (although it does not require) authors to release books with a license allowing derivative works, but the instructor gets to choose which book to use. I expect any derivative work to go through a rigorous peer review process before it gets widely adopted. There are too many drawbacks to the risk of feeding errors to students, who are more likely to be confused by them than experienced readers.

The limits of open: funding models

Readers who know me could expect me to be one of the most vocal backers of open textbooks. I’ve been part of free software communities for over a decade and have written enthusiastically about crowdsourcing in many contexts. But I actually feel a lot of sympathy for the publishers currently putting out $150 textbooks, and I’ve never joined the popular rants against them.

The $150 you spend (or even $250, should the book go that high) gets you quite a lot. Merely carrying away that quantity of pages–often 800, 1,000, or more–is a substantial return on investment. I’ve already mentioned the density and broad scope of these books, and the difficulties of ensuring quality. Instructors and students often demand study guides and sample questions, which the publisher usually throws in for free. The many online sites with rich, interactive content now accompanying many textbooks require a tremendous investment too.

So I never complain about the costs of textbooks. A couple hundred dollars per book is a small fraction of the cost of education, which is hiked by a number of things in academia, some justifiable and some not. Let’s just say that a college is a lot more than a learning environment, and all those other services–extracurricular activities, counseling, exercise facilities–should be examined for cost controls before textbooks take the cut.

Nevertheless, I like open textbooks and would like to see where they go. Because Open Doors uses quite a traditional development model, it has to get grants to create textbooks. And since there so many academic disciplines, so many college courses, it’s hard to get funding to develop all the textbooks California needs.

Textbooks can be printed and sold, but the goal should be to keep prices low so that students are not excluded. Anyway, it’s cheaper and more efficient to distribute books electronically, and without charge. Ultimately, I think, the industries and professions who need to replenish their ranks with new talent will band together to produce the textbooks they need.

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