Tom's Two Cents

Guns, penguins, and open textbooks

Guns, penguins, and open textbooks

Cable Green likes to say, “When you share your content, good things happen.” I tend to agree, but could one of those “good things” actually be a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars?

PC World just published a blog on Open Source Software called “Is Open Source Up to Par? Just Ask the DoD.” When you add the Department of Defense’s Open Technology Development report to the recent decision by the Department of Labor to require a Creative Commons open license on all educational content produced with the $2 billion Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College And Career Training (TAACCCT) grants, you can see the start of a trend in the US government towards using open licensing as a way to increase efficiency. The big idea for the field of education is that government has a new, more efficient option for creating and distributing educational materials: competitive grants that carry an open license requirement.

“Old School”
Here’s the old model: College students and K-12 institutions buy textbooks from publishers. Publishers pay authors and editors to develop and maintain the content, so naturally they want to make as much as possible on that investment. The publishers also own the copyright and hold the exclusive rights to distribute, revise, and redistribute the content to schools or college students. Why should government interfere or care? #1) The cost of textbooks has tripled since 1986. #2) Since nearly half of US college students use government grants or loans to pay for their textbooks, rising textbook costs are transferred back to the taxpayer. And by the way, US student loan debt just passed credit card debt, hovering around $830 billion. Yeah, we could use a good idea right about now.

The new model
Since taxpayers end up paying the bill for textbooks either way, why not launch a competitive grant process and require the winners to include a shareable license to the digital learning materials they produce? That’s exactly what the Department of Labor is doing with $2 billion in funding. Because we are talking about open, digital content anyone will be able to access, modify, adapt, and improve the resulting educational materials. The cost of making a million copies of a digital textbook is not much more than the cost of the first copy. And if you want it printed, no problem. Printed and bound versions of open textbooks end up costing between 5 and 20 dollars per book.

Requiring open licenses on digital works created with government grants and contracts allows competition and innovation to continue *after* the educational content is created. This is because anyone can access the digital content, build on it, and improve it. Print-on-demand solutions, assessment tools, and customized versions can be added to the original at relatively low cost. But publishers who enhance and resell the content will have add enough new value to compete with the original, free version and with other innovators. This competition will help keep prices low, which is good for students, schools, and in the long run, good for taxpayers. The “open” model doesn’t put anyone out of business — it actually allows everyone to compete and innovate indefinitely.

So what about the guns and the penguins?
Open licenses create efficiencies. This is as true for software as it is for textbooks, as the Department of Defense has learned. From the PC World article:

As with Rifles, So with Software

The DoD then goes on to provide a nice analogy: “Imagine if only the manufacturer of a rifle were allowed to clean, fix, modify or upgrade that rifle. The military often finds itself in this position with taxpayer funded, contractor developed software: one contractor with a monopoly on the knowledge of a military software system and control of the software source code.”

That has a familiar ring to it too, doesn’t it?

“This is optimal only for the monopoly contractor,” the document goes on to point out, “but creates inefficiencies and ineffectiveness for the government, reduction of opportunities for the industrial base, severely limits competition for new software upgrades, depletes resources that can be used to better effect and wastes taxpayer-provided funds.”

I don’t think I could have put it better myself.

Open technology, by contrast, offers increased agility and flexibility, faster delivery, increased innovation, reduced risk, lower cost and information assurance and security, the DoD asserts.

There is much more to say on this subject, but I’ll pause here for your comments and critiques. Yes, we should still pay textbook authors fairly to build and maintain learning content, and yes, publishers can still offer useful services. Yet I see no reason for government to directly or indirectly fund proprietary K-12 and college textbook publishing empires when more efficient models and providers are now in place.

The bottom line: One way or another, we (taxpayers) pay for textbooks. Let’s do it more efficiently. Or, as David Wiley puts it, “If you buy one, you should get one.”

2 thoughts on “Guns, penguins, and open textbooks

  1. Djudje

    One of the things I like most about Open Resources is that ti takes quality out of the hands of the publishers, who are remarkably slow at updating, and puts in the hands of the users who arguably care more about the accuracy of content than the publishers themselves. True, publishers have an interest in releasing new editions with revised content, but it is driven by profit rather than an earnest concern for the accuracy and quality of the content. I wonder if you’ve read “Whitewashing War”. It’s a scathing critique of the publishing world with a pretty interesting review of how errors and inconsistencies are treated. Easy read…highly recommend it.

    1. tom4cam

      I agree with you Randall. Quality is important, but publishers are not the only ones who know how to get there. With the Open Course Library, our Instructional Designers are trained Quality Matters Master Reviewers. I’d match my IDs up against any other organization’s design and quality review process any day… and we’re building OER. 🙂

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