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OpenStax – openly licensed textbooks (openstax.org)
348 points by pome on Aug 13, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 55 comments

I teach mathematics at a community college and use free materials in my courses or use materials that I’ve created. I never use paid materials in my courses. The reason I can do this is because math doesn’t change from year to year. I’m in a subject whose content is static. Even so most open textbooks are quite bad. I’ve only found a few that were really good.

Writing a good book even in a field whose content doesn’t change much is hard. There’s a need for publishers but just not a need for one that charges hundreds of dollars for a textbook. It might not be economically feasible to have a publisher put out quality textbooks for less money but I can’t justify forcing my students to spend $200 to $300 per semester on a math textbook.

I wish more teachers of subjects like this had your mindset. I wonder if other colleges have some sort of requirement that the teacher push the book.

Every college/university I've taught at allows instructors to choose their own book or has a committee of faculty members in the department choose the book. Increasingly there is a movement in state legislatures that mandate that the university system push open source textbooks. There's definitely a desire amongst a lot of faculty to use an open text book but the book has to be good and that's the hard part.

One thing to keep in mind is that publishers don't publish books to appeal to students. Their client are faculty members. So they include things like websites that handle grading online homework/quizzes. Faculty are going to use what makes their job easier. With pay not commensurate with level of education I understand why faculty have this mindset. Personally I think it's bad to use the online homework/quizzing systems out there.

I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps we need a curated list with endorsements from those who use it in their own teaching curriculums and another list of users who endorse it.

There’s also this from California: http://cool4ed.org/findetextbooks.html

> Writing a good book even in a field whose content doesn’t change much is hard. There’s a need for publishers but just not a need for one that charges hundreds of dollars for a textbook.

That's what Dover Books[1] and its series on Mathematics[2] are for.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dover_Publications

[2] http://store.doverpublications.com/by-subject-mathematics.ht...

The OP is talking about teaching community college mathematics. That's not introductory university mathematics; if you are lucky it's Pythagoras' Theorem and quadratic equations. The purpose of community college is to provide the students with a degree certificate that they can use for another degree.

My current institution's nursing school has a set text called "Calculate with Confidence", which teaches the kids to calculate concentrations, unit conversions, measurement uncertainty and similar things. Someone might say that these are essential skills in nursing, and they are, but the incoming students are supposed to have learned these things from their college science courses, from their degree that got them admitted into nursing school. Yet here it is again because all previous education didn't take.

60 % of incoming students at my institution must take remedial math, up from 50 % a few years ago.

That's community college. If you think that's cynical or exaggerated you are insufficiently cynical.

UK: GCSE Maths for adults who missed out at school. A typical year of evening classes looks like this...


This is the baseline for most progression to university and to what we call level 3 courses (the course that gets you into university)

Textbooks: Pearson, Collins, Stanley Thornes all sell 500 page tomes with lots of exercises in them - widely available in local bookshops for about £20 to £25. More popular are the revision guide/workbook sets for about £10. A popular example of a revision guide...


(CGP Books is actually quite an interesting company who started as a group of teachers self-publishing.)

Many teachers in the UK provide guides, videos and worksheets. There are a couple of web sites providing curated indexes of resources aimed at teachers...



and the BBC has got involved (and does some nice quality stuff)


> The OP is talking about teaching community college mathematics. That's not introductory university mathematics; if you are lucky it's Pythagoras' Theorem and quadratic equations.

W. W. Sawyer's books, such as Mathematician's Delight[1] and Vision in Elementary Mathematics[2], seem to be exactly for this audience.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/dp/0486462404/

[2] https://www.amazon.com/dp/048642555X/

I looked at the books. They seem really nice but are not feasible for use in the classroom for the courses that we teach.

I would agree with that statement.

I've often thought that textbooks would be a productive place to focus excess energy among software freedom types. The way I see it, there are at least three ways in which most technology professionals could effectively contribute:

- Content production and editing

- Improving the design and branding of open textbook purveyors

- Advocating for the adoption of open source textbooks in your local K-12 system and community colleges (especially the more cash-strapped ones)

I know of no organization that attempts to organize community efforts in these directions, though. If there is one, I'd love to know about it and get involved. If not, maybe it's an idea whose time has come.

Maybe CK-12 Foundation[0]? Also CK-12 have FlexBook's[1].

[0] https://www.ck12.org/ [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FlexBook

I often suggest Wikimedia use their excess money not spent on Wikipedia itself to create low-cost or openly-licensed textbooks. If adopted by schools, students everywhere would save money on textbooks that were high quality. The collection would grow over time as both revenue and donations come in. They might also do something similar to Coursera. Textbooks just seemed like they'd be easier project with large, positive outcome. Plus, some could be updated rarely (eg 5 years) since the content doesn't change much.

There is something called Wikibooks, though I've only spent maybe half an hour reading a particular wikibook years ago and can't speak to overall quality:


Yeah but I wasnt impressed with the quality when I looked at them. Im talking about paying good writers and illustrators to do stuff students would actually want to buy. Then, price it affordably. Maybe even tiered with a default price plus discounts for smaller institutions.

You can find those and more here: https://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/

I'm still looking for the sources. I would like to compile them to epub format

You can find the sources when you go to the link "view online" which will redirect you to the http://cnx.org website to all the sources (OpenStax was Connections/CNX in the past). It includes all HTML/XML, images and special styling. Here an example for the algebra book (scroll down to downloads): https://cnx.org/contents/CImQfPDv@3.11:GfaWl1GG@4/Introducti... Actually they also produced epub in the past (disclaimer: I worked for them in the past) and I'm sure you can get epub versions from them if you contact them.

Actually, I emailed back and forth to them about getting ePUB versions a few months ago and they repeatedly refused to offer them. I think they were unhappy with how ePUBs can be rendered on different devices and it was making their render quality lower. Not a great justification for me. Pulling the data out of CNX or whatever and trying to compile into ePUB was fairly difficulty.

You mean to download the Offline ZIP, right? that's the main book source?

yes, right. They produce the real books, PDF, online version out of this "source code" version.

Have to have a valid Gitbook account to access these works, which is a bit of a mission. I keep getting 401 despite careful, and seemingly error-free, sign-up process.

gitbook? There is no gitbook used for official OpenStax books.

> OpenStax at Rice University is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity

Good to see that OpenStax is a 501(c)(3) charity, which is the nonprofit classification where donations are tax-deductible and thus restricted. That makes it harder for the organization to be influenced too directly by sponsors, since donations cannot be used for purposes which would yield direct marketplace advantage.

I also see that they use a permissive, attribution-based license for their publications. That makes it easier for businesses to consume those materials and also to contribute.


> The Creative Commons Attribution license that you and every author must agree to enables the content to be as reusable as possible.

The combination of 501(c)(3) and business-friendly licensing reminds me of the Apache Software Foundation. The more orgs using that formula, the better!

I disagree. I would very much prefer a "GPL type" share-alike licence. The basic principle is: I'm releasing this content to the public, with the expectation that anyone that builds upon it will also do the same. Otherwise people can take what I did, use it for their profit, and not contribute back, hurting the overall community. This doesn't seem fair to me.

Long ago, in the LaTeX world, people first licensed stuff as "not for sale" (or even "not for sale to the military"). Then someone wanted to publish a "How to Use LaTeX" book, commercially but basically at cost, with a CD in the back having a complete collection of software. They were faced with being unable to do so because some of the software was licensed as not-for-sale. That seems counter productive, to me.

That even applies to books: I've gotten a good number of inquiries from college bookstores asking if instructors can sell copies. They are worried that money is changing hands, when students buy a physical copy, and I am not getting any of it. I am glad those folks are looking out for my rights, but my point here is that "you can't sell it" is a more complex restriction than at least I (in no way a lawyer) thought when I first started doing this.

The CC "share-alike" option and the CC "non-commercial" option are orthogonal for exactly this reason.

Even so, complying with share-alike licenses is more costly than complying with attribution-based licenses.

Consider what it takes to rectify license violation (either inadvertent or deliberate). Officially, the full force of copyright law can be brought down, but historically neither tradition wants that -- they just want to bring violators into compliance for future distribution. For share-alike, derivative works must be released under the share-alike license, which can affect business strategy. For attribution-based, adding a few lines of notification suffices.

Do you know what would be even more costly? Not having the free content in the first place, ffs. Quit whining just because you have to comply with the licence imposed by someone who is giving up their work for free.

I don't happen to share your concerns and am happy to make it easy for businesses to use my work. There's room in the world for both Open Source and Free Software, and both do a lot of good!

I think the 501(c)(3) is the more crucial point above. For what it's worth, both the Free Software Foundation and the Apache Software Foundation are 501(c)(3). Restricting the use of donations to avoid commercial advantage makes it much harder to subvert the nonprofit.

For that you have the CC-license family and other similar licenses for artistic creations.

The GPL does not strike me as the license to use for text books (since it asks for source code an such) and I think the FSF has state that the GPL isn't a good idea for documentation, I'd carry that to books too.

share-alike is a reference to a CC license, for example https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode

The content here seems fairly good, but from opening a random sample of textbooks, I notice pretty consistently poor presentation and formatting. Almost everything is presented in a wall of single column text with long paragraphs, a small font, and limited in-set visualization. This was especially bad in Intro Sociology and Intro to U.S. Government from what I checked.

I found some pagination / page break issues (e.g. page 379 in Intro Statistics is empty and the transition from 381 to 382 also has a weird orphan problem). The same section also has section numbering problems. Edit: Reading more, I see a ton of equations that aren't rendered very well (page 405 in intro stats, look at all of the \bar{x} in the first half -- is this even using LaTeX to render or is this like a bad Microsoft Word equation editor thing?)

In the statistics world, OpenIntro Statistics -- https://www.openintro.org/stat/ -- seems quite a lot better as a textbook

If you would like to help, the code is open source at https://github.com/openstax and https://github.com/connexions ... Also, OpenStax is hiring! https://jobs.rice.edu/postings/14338

(Disclaimer: I currently work at OpenStax, but am not speaking on behalf of OpenStax)

OpenStax CMS[0] is built with Wagtail[1] (Django based CMS framework). This is a good example (live) project to sink my teeth into and learn more about Wagtail. Incidentally does anyone know of any good resources (books, tutorials) to go from beginner to advanced Wagtail developer?

  [0] https://github.com/openstax/openstax-cms
  [1] https://wagtail.io/

Good to see that they offer free slides for the instructor. Now what's missing for widespread adoption is the online autograding system because at teaching colleges instructors are totally overworked and could not keep up with the weekly assignments even if they wanted to. College textbooks are chosen for the online student assignments, which typically cost the students 50 USD or thereabouts.

There is a homework tool by OpenStax that has auto-graded homework, among other things -- OpenStax Tutor -- it’s for Algebra-based Physics, Introductory Sociology, and Biology courses: https://tutor.openstax.org.

Also, OpenStax currently has pretty widespread adoption: See http://news.rice.edu/2018/08/01/48-percent-of-colleges-2-2-m...

(Disclaimer: I currently work at OpenStax, but am not speaking on behalf of OpenStax)

I like it.

For some of these though, I feel like it would be nice if an "order" was established between different books (or the lack thereof mentioned). At least, I do not immediately seem to spot a mention of this.

What I mean is that I assume College Physics comes before University Physics, but at what point are you ready to start Astronomy? Also, where does College Physics for AP Courses fit in? (that might be more obvious for Americans?) How about the Biology books, do I need them for Anatomy?

Part of the idea behind Connexions (and later OpenStax) is that educational resources are made available under a CC license, and tools are provided so that educators can use, combine, re-write, and modify the educational texts they use.

In practice, many choose to use the books as is, as they're already pretty high quality, but if you go to cnx.org and do some searches on the database, you'll find a number of variations that have been created by different professors and universities as well.

I don't think the intent (or resources) is there to give you every book for every course in a pre-selected order.

Disclaimer: I'm a former employee and developer for Connexions and OpenStax CNX, although I haven't been there for several years, so my understanding may be out of date.

KDE has wiki like collaborative program - https://www.wikitolearn.org/

What's the difference between this and cnx.org? It seems tho have more books

cnx.org was the URL used when the organization was called Connexions. It was re-branded a few years ago to reflect its growth and expanded missions. Connexions became OpenStax CNX, within the larger OpenStax organization.

They are all a part of Rice University and based out of Houston, and have been pursuing the goal of providing open education resources since the 1990s.

They're also open source and active on GitHub: https://github.com/Connexions https://github.com/openstax

Source/Disclaimer: I'm a former employee and developer for Connexions and later OpenStax CNX.

Hmm, any technical reason for providing only PDF and no epub format?

From their support site.

"Do you have .epub versions of your books?

We no longer support .epub versions of our OpenStax books. Only a small percentage (around 1 percent) of OpenStax readers reported using the .epub format, and maintaing these versions is costly; instead, we focus on providing our online web view, PDF, iBooks, Amazon, and print versions. You can see what formats are available for your subject at OpenStax.org."

> maintaing these versions is costly

I call bullshit. EPUB is basically a self-contained web site with a built-in index. If the text is maintained as an EPUB to begin with, producing a PDF is functionally identical to rendering it on an EPUB reader with a fixed page size and font.

They provide an online web view. The margin of difference between that and EPUB is building the metadata file and ZIPping it all into a single file. Or it's just an online PDF reader. Besides that, iBooks is based on EPUB, and older Kindle files are based on MobiPocket, which is based on OEBPS, the precursor of EPUB. Amazon has gratis software to convert from EPUB to Kindle file format. The print versions are probably functionally identical to PDF, with printing and cutting margins added to the page size.

If they maintained the book source in EPUB, all other formats that they do provide are essentially free, and can be maintained with a conversion program, a shell script, and cron job.

The real reason is that a lot of the available EPUB readers do not render web pages consistently, and they don't want to test Adobe Digital Editions, Calibre, etc.

They used to do it and made an intentional decision to stop. They say it’s because it was costly. You come along and say they’re lying (meanwhile acknowledging the testing burden). I don’t get it. You think this non-profit, dedicated to the widespread distribution of their content, has some unspoken nefarious reason to deny you ePub versions?

I am unsatisfied with their explanation for discontinuing EPUB. "Too costly" is a subjective judgment, and they did not reveal the objective measurements or methods they used to reach it. A pack of gum is costly if you already spent all your money on something else.

With the knowledge of what they do continue to support, I suspect that some of the costs they are paying for maintenance are the result of poor architectural decisions. If all book formats had a common source format, supporting any particular book format would be a matter of maintaining a compiler/converter for it, which could be a large initial cost followed by a lower recurring maintenance cost, shared across all books in the system. However, open sourced, community maintained programs are readily available, along with proprietary commercial offerings with paid support.

I know that the difference between raw web site and EPUB is some OEBPS metadata and a ZIP program. The difference between EPUB and iBook is a conversion program maintained by Apple. The difference between EPUB and Kindle is a conversion program maintained by Amazon. The difference between EPUB and PDF is hairier technically, but conceptually it's just non-reflowable fixed page sizes and fonts, which are theoretically handled by CSS "@media print" directives. The difference between PDF and print depends on the printer, but for self-publishing it's mainly just getting the page margins correct between the digital and print PDF versions.

Testing is a branding issue, not a technical burden. You don't actually have to test Adobe Digital Editions support, if you warn people on download that some EPUB readers are not fully compliant with the EPUB spec, and therefore will not render correctly. It's the IE6 problem all over again. If you support only the readers that are currently popular, there is no incentive for their maintainers to move any closer to a standard that would make maintenance easier for you in the long run. You provide the book, not the reading experience. That is the responsibility of the reader.

Mainly, I'm just pissed that they axed EPUB, but still do iBook and Kindle. That is implicitly supporting closed, proprietary formats (or embraced and extended formats) rather than open standards. We have already been there once.

> Mainly, I'm just pissed that they axed EPUB, but still do iBook and Kindle. That is implicitly supporting closed, proprietary formats (or embraced and extended formats) rather than open standards. We have already been there once.

Yes, exactly, that was my reason for asking to begin with.

But I can buy into their explanation that amazon/iapples are much more downloaded as the number of devices are probably a couple of magnitudes larger.

But still sad a project with "open" in it's name mainly seem to support proprietary formats.

Hahaha, look closely at the PDF and online version (just look at the math). There are a ton of corner cases which EPUB and especially the EPUB readers do not support. It's definitely not convert into EPUB once and then make books out of it with shell scripts. This is a very wishful thinking of the EPUB standard (which is not a bad standard but it's not that overall solution you are stating here).

> The real reason is that a lot of the available EPUB readers do not render web pages consistently, and they don't want to test Adobe Digital Editions, Calibre, etc.

because that's necessary to maintain an acceptable epub offering, and is costly?

No more costly than testing the web version on Firefox, Chrome, Edge, Safari, and Opera.

They already use iBooks and Kindle. So they already decided to pay that cost for two specific ebook readers.

One of the reasons is that the books are often used in printed format in classrooms and it's important that the page numbers of the ebook match what the teacher assigns from the printed copy.

With epub format the page # will vary depending on font size.

There's probably other reasons as well, but that's one that I've heard mentioned.

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