Crawl Across the Ocean

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Spreading the Word(s)

Over at Dymaxion World, John passes along some bright ideas from economist Dean Baker, including one of the best ideas I've encountered in a while now, open source textbooks (pdf document).

You should really read the full article I linked to above (it's not long, clearly written and very persuasive), but the basic idea is that the government would cover the up-front costs of paying someone to write a textbook for them and then immediately move the textbook to open source and make it available to anyone free of charge. Presumably it could then either be downloaded and printed by students or a physical copy of the book could be distributed via campus bookstores.

Teachers would have the option of using any of the existing textbooks or using the government funded one, keeping in mind that one is likely to cost each student $150, and the other $10 - $50 depending on whether students just get a version printed and bound at the local copy store or buy a shiny copy at the campus bookstore. Without the profit motive for releasing pointless new editions every couple of years, the market for used books would thrive as well.

This would drastically reduce the cost of textbooks for students without reducing the value of the education they receive at all, it is a pure efficiency gain.

The NDP should support this policy because it will make education more affordable, especially for those who don't have a lot of money to begin with. As Baker notes (using U.S. figures but the numbers are sure to be similar here)
"According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the cost of textbooks and supplies came to $898 for an average first year, full-time student at a four-year public university in the 2003/2004 academic year. This represents approximately 170 hours of work at a minimum wage job."

The Conservatives should support it because it is an example of how people can benefit from a more competitive marketplace and also of how government can reduce the cost of education through purely voluntary transactions, without transferring any tax dollars from one person to another or putting any complicated or punitive bureaucratic rules into place.

The Green party should support it because it is a more efficient use of resources and also because having all the materials freely available online should minimize all the environmental impacts of printing, binding and distributing so many copies.

Finally, the Liberals should support it (once all the other parties have added it to their own platforms) because it is the kind of sensible policy with far more winners than losers that can win votes.

Counter-arguments? (I can't think of any serious ones, only minor quibbles)


  • It's actually potentially better than that, because open source is better than just free. An open source textbook can be `re-mixed' to better meet the needs of the particular course, and a library of open source texts can be put together to put an interdisciplinary spin on the texts...

    This sort of approach is likely to work best for 101-level courses, where there's a huge number of people needing basically the same material. Too, the market for these texts has always been a bit wierd, because the person who makes the buying decision isn't the person who pays.

    A similar argument holds for primary/secondary school texts. It's not like propriatary textbooks for grade 6 readers or 7th grad science texts provide a lot of `value add' for the very well-understood and standardized material. Again, the ability to re-mix becomes very valuable. Provincial and local school boards can specialize their textbooks, and contribute their additional materials back to the commons.

    One technical problem with this approach is that the infrastructure for collaborating on a large text work like a text book is much less sophisticated than for software. I very much like the idea of government paying someone to write it in the first place -- that's a nice way of leaping over a big hurdle for open source projects, getting an initial `working draft' of the project. It's a pretty innovative idea. But it's only part of a real open-source solution; the other half would be developing good tools for contributing new material to the work, and for a `publisher' of the work to select what bits they wanted and put it into a coherent book.

    I'd love to be part of this experiment; I've got a the very beginnings sketches of the first half of a physics-101-type text. But I don't have the time to sit down and write a complete first draft, and I'm unware of a set of tools for opening the project up for others to contribute to.

    By Blogger Jon Dursi, at 5:30 PM  

  • Good point Jonathan, really this is just a starting point like you say.

    In addition to strictly providing funding to get over the initial hurdle, having the government commission the initial draft would provide some legitimacy which, right or wrong, open source works would probably need to gain the crucial foothold of acceptance as school texts.

    By Blogger Declan, at 6:06 PM  

  • I was just about to post that of course it could be a private group that commissioned the original work, but you're right; adding the imprimatur of government could well increase the legitimacy, especially for pre-college texts. I think for college texts, where the professors review the texts themselves, I don't think that legitimacy matters as much; why should a purely private enterpries have any more legitimacy than Garamond or Prentice-Hall or...?

    It's possible that Heritage Canada Online Programs might be a source of funding for such a program, especially for say a Canadian History text. It also might be an excellent vehicle to push for the government to release many of its already-online resources under an open-source license...

    By Blogger Jon Dursi, at 6:26 PM  

  • Great idea.

    Throw it all into a Wiki, then let the prof decide what is included in "his course" as a series of links.

    By Blogger deaner, at 1:41 PM  

  • The problem is, in my experience, wikis are terrible ways of working on large texts. They're great for collections of small articles; wikipedia is the perfect example of this.

    The problem is that a textbook has to be fairly coherent -- in terminology, in needing to refer only to stuff that came previously. I'm just not sure wikis are really helpful for large texts.

    By Blogger Jon Dursi, at 5:44 PM  

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