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California State Senator Proposes Funding Open-Source Textbooks (slashdot.org)
235 points by llambda on Jan 5, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

I think the whole CONCEPT of a "textbook" needs to change:

1. It should be open-source or available on your nearest "App Store" for a REASONABLE price

2. It should be interactive. If I have a history textbook describing a battle, I want to be able to watch the battle unfold (even if it's just a diagram). If I am reading a chemistry textbook, let me play with the molecule. When I need to learn about the D3 group in Abstract Algebra, show me a triangle rotating and flipping as the group operations fade in and then drop to the bottom in a chain illustrating a composition. Let me swipe over to the Cayley table and touch a composition cell and watch the triangle dance. Whatever.

3. Textbooks should share a common ontology that can be extended for each book. But if I have two textbooks on my device and each has registered its ontology, I should then be able to cross reference concepts from one book to the other, or to appropriate entries in Wikipedia, for example.

4. All Chapters, headings, subheadings, and definitions should link to global, school, and class-level discussion forums about the topic where everyone can ask questions and have good answers upvoted in a stackexchange-like manner. These discussion nodes should be linked to the ontology, rather than the brand of book. That way ANY textbook with a section on "Limit Points in Rn" or "The Three Branches of US Government" would link to the same discussion node.

5. When appropriate, texts should be constantly updated, classes should always use the "latest stable version", and that update should be free after initial purchase (like an App).

I think you're missing the fact that textbooks are written by people. They don't magically appear. Writing a good textbook requires the passion of a single expert author, who must dedicate years of his or her life to write it. There are very few shortcuts. And crowd-sourcing is definitely not one of them.

A more innovative approach, I think, would be for the government to buy out leading textbooks at a premium and after holding an auction to determine the fair price. This gives you the best of both worlds -- rewards for individuals' efforts but the ability to use the published material in an unrestricted way in the future. Plus you avoid the loss associated with monopoly rights granted via copyright and wasted duplicative textbook efforts.

This ideas has been proposed more broadly for patents by Prof. Michael Kremer of Harvard. Its logic is pretty compelling:


"Instead of mass-produced textbooks, the more than 3,100 sophomores in the state's largest district are learning from an online curriculum developed by their teachers over the summer with free software distributed over the web.

Engelhaupt, 31, was one of three district math teachers who spent about 100 hours each developing the lessons, which cost the district about $175,000 less than buying new textbooks."


here's the link to the book: http://www.ck12.org/flexbook/book/8561

My kids are in California. I assure you, the textbooks are reference standard awful. People magazine is more compelling.

I am entirely certain the average parent of a kid in our school would be able to turn out better material, to say nothing of all the professors and leading experts in California who would love to contribute directly to their kids' education.

The question in my mind is how to construct this. The law seems like a last resort. Maybe some YCers can work on this cracking this nut.

WikiTextbook. Adopt the Scholarpedia model where there is curation of particular topics. Put it under a Creative Commons license and make it easy to download.

High school textbooks are written by editors, dozens of content writers, and some "name" author who puts their name on it. University level textbooks are much better, of course.

Got a citation? If that's the case then it isn't the case world wide. My mother is the author of two reasonably successful high school textbooks and did all the writing, image selection, etc long before an editor gets their hands on it to polish.

> * And crowd-sourcing is definitely not one of them.*

I agree, but crowdsourcing would be handy for fixing errors or improving clarity. If a bunch of people highlight a passage that they think is confusing, and give reasons, that gives the author (or others) an opportunity to clarify.

Yes, that is something that teachers could be doing, but why not make the books as good as they could be?

This has been done. Real World Haskell [1] comes to mind.

[1] http://book.realworldhaskell.org/read/types-and-functions.ht...

That's a good article, thank you for the link. Is there any precedent for a law that involves coin flips (randomness)? My hunch is that while they sound great in an economy paper, they're too easy to shoot down politically.

>A more innovative approach, I think, would be for the government to buy out leading textbooks at a premium and after holding an auction to determine the fair price.

Yep, subsidies never go wrong.

http://wiki.bssd.org/index.php/Main_Page looks like a good start.

I hope that open source curriculum takes off - IMO there are fact-based topics that translate easily to software learning, where a child's mastery can be measured accurately to provide a useful custom teaching plan.

I like the home-grown approach (ie: bottom-up instead of top-down) they've developed. The section "Five Easy Steps to a Balanced Math Program" gives a good overview of what the general goals of their math program area. It would be interesting to compare this to the guidelines in different states and countries. For example in California, the STAR guidelines are termed "blueprints" and available here: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/sr/blueprints.asp Once we have a large table of the goals each district sets for their students it would be easy to tailor each math level.

These kinds of ideas are clear to everyone who has thought about the topic. But if I can interject some personal experience ..

I've had an open source text up for more than a decade http://joshua.smcvt.edu/linearalgebra . It is easy to find; if you google "linear algebra" today then it is the third item. But although I have said on the page that I welcome contributions, I have had very few, and those few mostly bug reports-- which I am glad to get but they are not what I imagined I would get when I first put it up. (I will be putting it up soon in a public version control repository but let me note before I get emails that for most of the life of this project the best option really was to offer a .zip of the LaTeX source.)

The text if fine but I could in a minute list many shortcomings. For instance, it could use with a graphic designer, it could use with the skills of a person who can do illustrations, I would be delighted to get ways to interact with Sage, I would be glad to get tests from people who have taught the course, I would be glad to get help with e-readers (I don't own one myself). Etc.

I am currently doing an update that has taken my between-semesters break, and that threatens to spread into next semester. So offering such a thing is a lot of work. Some of it I am qualified to do but some of it I really am not. However, to this point, I have seen very little evidence that others will help so if it is to be done then I have to do it.

In short, more productive than listing the failings of others may be to pick a promising project of interest to you, and contribute a solution.

I can envision a situation where the content is free but you can purchase premium versions with enhanced lesson plans and interactivity. Kind of like free and paid apps.

To make this a reality, I'd consider building a platform that serves as a centralized repository for open information/knowledge and gives the information some structure (Ontology). With that in place, people can build applications on top of the open information (interactive apps/charts, etc)

To encourage qualified people to contribute, edit, and update the repositories, consider layering in a Quora/StackOverflow type voting/reputation system with a Kickstarter crowd funding component to fund qualified folks and allow them to dedicate significant time to the project.

I could see this working well. I think these new types of textbooks would gain a foothold not by some epic battle between the entrenched publishers and open content revolutionaries, but simply by being affordable and valuable enough that students start using them in ADDITION to the textbooks they are currently forced to buy. Similar to Khan Academy's current position.

Then, if the ecosystem hits critical mass, it won't be too long before some professors and teachers start saying "wait... why are we making students use this crappy book again?"

I'm aware that the last part is a bit naive, but I think it's REALLY naive to think that we will see a massive legislature-driven transition to "the right thing" anytime before the sun goes dark.

Is there any software to seamless convert XML to Latex (to PDF) to HTML and vice/versa? That would go a long way to helping with the relatively poor formatting of the current efforts.

There's pandoc, http://johnmacfarlane.net/pandoc/ but it doesn't magically give you great page layouts in any format, if that's what you meant.

1. It should be open-source or

Flexbook is a project working on this, the few books I've looked at are cc-by-nc-sa. www.ck12.org/flexbook/

In some Philadelphia schools, students share textbooks -- 2, 3, or even 4 kids to a book -- and homework can't be assigned out of the book because there aren't enough books for kids to take home -- god forbid they lose another! It creates a lot of extra work for teachers, who have to make extra photocopies of readings and assignments. And it kills me, because it's an artificial scarcity. Instead of $5 to $10 per book, the cost of its materials and manufacturing, schools pay upwards of $100 a book, because of the enormous premiums paid to the content creators and publishers. For the cash-strapped Philadelphia schools that is an excessive burden. You can replace "Philadelphia" here with another rust belt city or even, say, a city in California or Nevada, but the story remains the same. And it kills me even more, because there are academics, experts and writers the world over who'd love nothing more than to freely provide high-quality educational content to students. There is no better evidence of this than the hard work done by Wikipedians, but there is plenty evidence besides. Sorry for the rant, but I think it's important to recognize what an utterly simple and necessary step the open-sourcing of textbooks and curriculum is. Good for State Senator Steinberg, and although I'm sorry it's just for colleges and that the K-12 initiative failed, I hope that this program passes, it is successful, and its success forces districts all over the country -- cash-strapped or otherwise -- to consider open-source textbooks. They'll switch because they're cheaper and stay because they're better.

This seems like a failure on the part of the publishers to collect all the money they could. There are large fixed costs to produce the first textbook, but relatively low marginal costs to produce the next million. If the publishers had some sort of "budget-impacted schools" program, under which schools that would otherwise share textbooks among students could buy textbooks at a relatively small markup over marginal cost (as opposed to the full amortized total cost), then they'd still be making more, and the schools would get the benefit of the use of the textbooks.

Price discrimination is hard. I've heard of Americans picking up crappily bound but reasonable priced big name texts, like Norvig's AI book, or CLRS's algo book produced for India.

276 RS < $6 US http://www.dealsandcoupons.in/resources/3986-discount-book-I...

The publishers don't want to risk shaking up big profits to sell near cost to the low end. If you sell cheaply to the poor schools, what prevents the poor schools from reselling the books to the rich schools 20 miles away?

A big green stamp on the side (closed pages) of the book saying "BUDGET BOOK PROGRAMME"?

This seems so obvious that it's painful to think that it hasn't already been done.

It would be awesome to see a non-profit started which provided a repository for textbook content, a platform for mixing and matching content to meet the curriculum of a particular district, and a toolchain to produce digital copies of the books in the format used by the district - all open source and released under broadly permissive licenses.

If even a handful of school districts funded a project like this instead of purchasing moore textbooks, I would imagine this could be sustainable.

> repository for textbook content, > a platform for mixing and matching > content to meet the curriculum

This would be awesome indeed, but there are some problems. From the things that i have seen so far, (ex: cnx.org), the content is predominantly of low quality. Simply put, ask the average person to explain something to you and he/she won't do a very good job. The other thing is that modularization completely brakes the flow of narration, and narration is a big thing to keep the reader engaged (story telling instinct).

In my work, I try to have two kinds of "nodes" -- one is generic lesson node where the explanation of some concept happens and the other are linker nodes where narration happens. Despite being a single author, and using space-age tools (dokuwiki with the include plugin;), I still find it hard to make things modular and easily composable.

I would venture to say that a small number of authors would be better at writing a book rather than a whole collective.

For corrections/feedback/exercises... BRING ON THE CROWD!

Agreed. I think it would even make sense to hire accomplished authors, editors, and academics for the narrative portions of chapters/lessons. It would likely make sense to have fairly coarse units which would be the responsibility of a particular author.

I skimmed through some of the CK12 content. While some of it might be good (I am not qualified to determine whether or not the content is high quality or affective) - the presentation is really poor. In addition to authors, I think you need designers who will present the information in an attractive and engaging way.

Hi there. My name is Doug, I work at ck12.

If you're interested in learning more, contributing, or giving feedback please email me at doug@ck12.org I'd love to hear from you (or anyone else). Thanks.

That's what I find to be the most interesting part of this project: instead of just relying on the instinct of the crowd, the idea is to put state money into funding the writing of these books, and using the Creative Commons licensing to make it free to copy and distribute and to allow instructors to make corrections or create customized versions for their classes.


I missed the "Funding" details.... How will the textbook writers get paid?

One-up contract? Write me a book for $100k (one year's worth of work) and keep it updated every year for $20k with typo fixes and new exercises?

This would create the right incentives, since 100k is probably more than any textbook publisher will give you -- even if you make it big, and your book is used in many universities.

I started working on a Computer Science textbook about a year ago.

I found out that people were not interested in using it.

This is what I had made so far:


Interestingly enough, I posted this info on Slashdot and it was removed almost right away.

The domain is non-descriptive, and .info is typically associated with spam. It also looks like you're in a flux state of completion, with not a lot of detail. I'd suggest limited your scope and making a smaller, but more polished product, before trying to attract more contributors.

I picked this domain because I had hoped that when this book was complete, we could work on another. At the time I thought that it would be better if it was generic.

I started working on it but realized that I might put in hundreds of hours of work only to have nobody use it at all.

The solution is stop enforcing this dogma of requiring a specific book for subjects which clearly do not require the latest annual edition of a specific textbook. Teachers would instead recommend books they feel are good to use to pass their course. Without the exclusive book contracts, publishers couldn't easily and blatantly maintain a cartel on textbooks.

The basic economics of why school textbooks are so expensive is dead simple: The teachers and the schools grant publishers a cartel by forcing kids to purchase their specific new editions every year. Why anybody is suprised that prices are so high is beyond me.

Teachers would instead recommend books they feel are good to use to pass their course

They do this now. They recommend (require in fact) their OWN books.

Teachers do not do this now. They have a specific book or set of books that almost all of the time is required to take the class.

The problem is it's a requirement and they often test directly from the book because it removes effort from teaching to the test.

Wait, What? Anyone know what this might mean?

FTA: "In some ways these guys are looking outdated. File-sharing as a means to pirate content is becoming yesterday's technology,"

Obviously, the sophisticated pirates of today use telepathy now and thus have no need for files.

I took it to mean that the industry is catching up with the technology, although this is just my interpretation. The author was not clear, I agree.

Instead of pirating games, you can use the OnLive Play Pack. Don't even need a powerful computer anymore. Instead of pirating music, get the Zune Pass or Spotify. TV shows are on Hulu, movies are on Netflix. The legitimate reasons to pirate are still there in some niche markets, but overall those reasons are disappearing.

Israeli universities don't usually use textbooks, partly because Israelis go to university after their mandatory army service. Some students are already married with kids and can't afford to buy textbooks. Every course has an official textbook, which the school has copies of.

The system works because (at least at my university) all lectures and recitations videos are available online. Good luck doing that in K-12.

New Jersey resident proposes California State Senator stay out of education and focus on reducing his state's budget deficit.

Open-Source Textbooks ARE a good idea. However, just like Wikipedia didn't need the government to get started ... this gem doesn't require the government either. It'll happen once eBooks become more prevalent and there is nothing the government should do to help or stop it from happening.

Normally I'd agree with you, but since the government is by far the largest purchaser of text books...

The state of California spends millions on buying text books, think of all the money they'd save if they paid to develop open source text books instead.

This can probably be fixed with a little spin, like "California schools band together to save taxpayers money by writing their own textbooks".

Wouldn't this essentially just be WikiPedia? Granted, text Books have more of a narrative.

Standardized textbooks for standardized curriculum. What a novel idea. :)

The state of textbooks is so fucking sad. I still don't get how Bill Gates or another richy-rich hasn't realized how fucking great it would be to pay 100k to an awesome professor for writing a textbook and publishing it under a CC license. If you did that with all subjects, and paid for translations, and made it all digital, it would cost next to nothing in the large scheme and be more beneficial to humanity than the cure to polio or malaria or heck even cancer. It would have an exponentially awesome effect.

Accelerating the rate at which humanity is educated is fundamentally more important than anything going on today, and it's always pushed back because the generation that's currently being educated doesn't have a fucking say in the matter.

Someone should take some of their money out of their hedge fund and drop it on this shit pronto.

I've felt the same way, but it's worth pointing out that this would be possible with low-tech, uncomplicated paper books.

A large school district could surely save a bundle, and improve the quality of its education besides, by paying a qualified individual to write a textbook just for them, then having it printed just for them. And they could give away the text to other interested districts if they wanted, saving the other districts even more money.

This has been true for decades. No internet, no computers or e-readers, and no fancy newfangled CC licenses would be required for such a plan.

Yet it mostly has not happened.

So there must be a reason. This infamous story by Richard Feynman suggests that it's a matter of an entrenched culture of laziness, lobbying, bribery, and in effect regulatory capture:


Bill Gates and his team is already working very hard on Education Reform. You're going to want to look up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for more information regarding what they do. I'm sure they've considered text books and are working through the best options.

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