The Future of Open Textbooks

In general, I have been an OER skeptic—not because I think OER is unimportant, but because getting the sustainability model right is really hard. But there is one notable exception to my gloomy outlook; one bright spot that I believe really will transform education. That’s Washington State’s Open Course Library project, under the leadership of Cable Green.

Some excerpts from a Seattle Times article about the program:

Here’s an idea that would take a big bite out of the cost of a two-year college degree:

Gather state community-college faculty members who teach “English Composition I.” Use state and federal grant money to pay them to assemble a top-notch textbook on the subject. Sell a digital version of the book for $30. Ditch the $100 textbook from commercial publishers….

They could lower the cost of a two-year degree, with some studies showing students spend up to $1,000 a year on textbooks….

The state’s community and technical colleges are leading the way with an ambitious new initiative: They’re assembling previously published “open-source” textbooks and course materials for the 81 most popular classes at state two-year colleges — including for such mainstays as “General Psychology” and “Introduction to Chemistry.”

“The power of this is that we’re going to go from a couple hundred dollars per year [for each textbook] to $10 or $20,” said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who sponsored legislation that set aside $750,000 for the initiative. It’s a robust level of funding, experts say.

“The return on our investment is going to be extraordinary,” Carlyle said.

The open-source textbook drive is part of a larger state effort, called the Open Course Library, to assemble all curriculum materials — including the course syllabus, videos, lecture notes and exams — for the 81 most popular courses, said Cable Green, director of elearning and open education for the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC).

The board is working with a consortium of international colleges and universities to find and assemble the materials — for example, taking pieces from freely available textbooks to create a book suited for a Washington state course. In Washington, about 90 community- and technical-college faculty and staff are involved….

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has matched the Legislature’s contribution with $750,000 in foundation money….

The textbooks and curriculum materials are being developed this fall and winter for the first 43 classes with the highest enrollment in the state’s two-year colleges, including English Composition I and II, General Psychology, Introduction to Sociology and Introduction to Chemistry. By fall 2012, textbooks and curriculum materials will be completed for all 81 of the most popular classes….

This could be hugely transformative. With the number of institutions participating and the number of courses created, this should hit escape velocity for sustainability fairly easily. It could be picked up by community colleges throughout the country fairly rapidly. And that’s just the start.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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17 Responses to The Future of Open Textbooks

  1. It’s really transformative if the textbooks are available to the general public for free. But if the textbooks are sold to college students for $30, it’s only an incremental change, and not a particularly radical one, and certainly not one that opens access top the content to the wider audience.

    Which, it seems to me, is exactly the sort of outcome the Gates foundation wants – subvert the transformative change by funding the incremental change.

  2. Bruce D'Arcus says:

    Yeah, +1 to Stephen’s point. It’s not really “open” unless the content is free and available for remix/reuse.

  3. I disagree on several points:

    • There will be courses that use textbooks which are provided by for-profit companies and courses that use “open source” textbooks. Creating a large and viable market in which the for-profits have to compete against open is transformational.
    • The article here doesn’t clarify exactly what one is paying for, but it’s possible, for example, that we could be talking about a FlatWord model, in which the electronic content is free and the paper copy costs $30. That too would be transformational.
    • Creating an environment in which multiple schools can easily share costs for effectively ready-to-use course materials (textbooks plus supplementals) under an open license is transformational, even if not all textbooks are offered under an open license.

    Frankly, I don’t get the hostility toward the Gates Foundation. You may not agree with their methods, but it’s hard to make a case that they are trying to prevent transformative change.

  4. To be clear, the terms of the grant requires that all newly created content be released under a Creative Commons license, and participants are encouraged to use existing OER content. The program simply doesn’t prohibit the use of traditional textbooks, as long as the publishers can meet the $30/student price. You can argue that saving low-income students $700/year out of a total $4,000/year educational cost isn’t transformational, but I doubt that those students would agree with you. It can mean the difference between going or not going, or between having to choose between food and tuition or not.

  5. Bruce D'Arcus says:

    So I guess I’m confused by the sentence in the larger quote Sell a digital version of the book for $30. If the content is open licensed, the faculty who write it have been compensated, and it’s digital, then why does it cost anything for the student?

    For the record, I teach an intro course where for the last few years I haven’t assigned a textbook at all, replacing it with content I’ve written, and articles and other content from the web. It’s nowhere near as complete as I’d like it to be, but I have a hard time requiring my students to spend $150 on a textbook morally, and I don’t believe they learn less without it.

  6. Cable Green says:

    Hi All,

    One of the Open Course Library requirements, for all of our course design teams, is to put together a set of quality instructional materials that are less than $30… with a strong emphasis on providing students multiple formats: paper, mobile, web, etc.

    Many faculty teams are working on modifying openly licensed open textbooks, some teams have moved beyond textbooks, some are building copyright cleared course packs with librarians, many are working with FlatWorld, and some want to work with commercial textbook publishers.

    In this first phase of our Open Course Library … we thought it important to provide course design teams with lots of flexibility in selecting instructional materials … including working with publishers.

    Our mantra is … whatever it takes to get to affordable, high quality instructional materials.

    I’m with you — open is better … and our system certainly has a bias toward open licensing — see our new State Board open policy:

    No disagreement with the push for working with openly licensed materials … just be patient as we move in the right direction 😉

    Thanks Michael for the post – much appreciated.

    Cable Green, PhD
    Director of eLearning and Open Education
    WA State Board for Community & Technical Colleges

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  8. Paul W says:

    I think this is a great project, and I’m glad to see the Gates Foundation and the state of Washington on board. I have to disagree that the Gates Foundation is trying to subvert free options. I don’t think it’s been proven yet that free is a workable model in a world where faculty are tasked by their universities with being revenue generators. But this strikes me as a good compromise, and a far better situation than just accepting the publishing industry’s pricing model.

    However, I do have to agree it’s wrong and misleading to call it “open” if the license on the final work does not allow for free distribution and the right to reuse the content in other works. On the other hand, it’s not as if “open” hasn’t been abused in the software world for decades.

  9. Mark Notess says:

    If I can change the subject, I’d like to ask the question that always pops into my mind when people propose having instructors create textbooks on their own. I think instructors do fine job with coursepaks consisting of collections of articles. Now despite the fact that I’ve never really liked textbooks, I still think that the editorial function of publishers has some value beyond ensuring marketability–that there’s actually a quality function performed by editors that is helpful and that springs from a skill set and attitude distinct from the expertise of most instructors. Yet in these discussions I seldom read about how editorial functions will be handled.

    So my question is is this: How does the quality-oriented editorial function happen? Or is that kind of quality a relic of pre-wikipedian capitalist paternalism, irrelevant in this brave new world of open-here-comes-everybody-wisdom-of-crowds-etc.?

    Oh, and I have another question too. I’m always surprised by how quickly people who talk about how education needs to be totally transformed to be student centered, 21st century skills oriented, connected, personalized, and so on, can get so excited about any textbook effort. This goes back to my dislike of textbooks. Is there any artifact so representative of the traditional knowledge-dispensing education as the textbook? (BTW, I don’t have any particular hypocrite in mind here. It’s merely a pattern of allegiances that I find puzzling.)

  10. Cable Green says:

    Greetings All:

    First – if anyone would like to talk with me about the Open Course Library project, please call anytime: 360-704-4334 / [email protected]

    Second… a few responses in an attempt to clarify the project…

    @ Paul W:

    (a) the Gates Foundation is not “trying to subvert free options.” The decision to allow faculty to work with commercial publishers (as long as the required instructional materials are under $30) was a project decision.

    (b) Everything our faculty creates “from scratch” will be openly licensed under a CC BY license. The faculty course designers will, of course, also be using OERs from around the world – and that content may have different open licenses (e.g., CC BY SA). To make the licensing clear, each course will have a cover page describing which content in the courses have what licenses.

    @ Mark N:

    (a) Our faculty course designers are not creating textbooks – they are either adopting other open textbooks, or (other options I described in my post above)…

    (b) “How does the quality-oriented editorial function happen?” I think there are many answers to this:

    a. Open communities, with the right (easy-to-use) social tools, will discover, use, review, rate, and revise OER – and it will get better over time; items that are not used or not useful will be tossed aside … maybe to be rediscovered at a later time

    b. We may start to partner with commercial entities to do the editing / writing / reviewing … but the commercial entities will not hold the copyright. They will be work-for-hire. The copyright will be held by a State / Province / Nation … and the government entity / institution will put a CC BY license on the educational “thing” … so anyone can reuse, revise, remix, redistribute it. We should create and support policies that require publicly funded educational materials / data / resources to be free ($ & libre) and openly licensed (CC BY)… so the people who paid for it have free and open access to what they paid for.

  11. I am a bit confused. How can open source software be sustainable, but open educational materials not be? I’m not trying to suggest that either is not sustainable I’m curious about the incongruity of your position. Perhaps this is best sorted out over beer at the IMS quarterly next week.

  12. John, this isn’t a theoretical discussion. The sustainability challenges of OER are well-documented based on real-world experience. See, for example, They are generally different than those of open source software because usage patterns, development requirements, available business models, etc., are all different.

  13. Mark Notess says:


    I should have stated that my comments were more about open textbooks generally than your particular project. In fact, I think your project avoids some of the pitfalls encountered by ideologically inspired wishful thinking.

    Regarding the two options you give for addressing editorial quality, I think you’re exactly right. Your (b) option (partnership with commercial entities) seems more likely to lead to long-term success for a wider variety of disciplines. The (a) option (open collaborative production) will describe those rare but wonderful synergies we will celebrate, try to imitate, but ultimately find ourselves unable to consistently replicate.

  14. Sean Keesler says:

    Mark N.’s comment about quality is really spot on (IMHO). One of the successes of open source software has been the community of developers’ ability to police the quality of the software. In that case, the creators of the content are often the best judges of it’s quality. However, many open source projects suffer from inadequate documentation efforts unless the community places significant emphasis on including that type of role as part of the makeup of the community.

    My concern about open content would be similar. Open content created by content experts alone may not be sufficient to produce high quality educational materials that would be able to be considered on a par with commercial offerings. Is there a value added process that is important to consider when funding such initiatives? Or is funding content experts enough?

    Experience with a couple of open source software communities suggests that the users of the final product will feel free to criticize the final product, but may find that engaging in its refinement of it to be more than they are willing to do.

  15. Mark Notess says:

    Sean–agreed. And a key difference between OSS and OERs is that the former exist to get a literal-minded fetch-and-execute machine to do something whereas the latter exist to enable a person to do something. The technical community has long-established traditions and tools for reporting, investigating, and fixing bugs, and there are forums one can google to get answers. OERs do not have the same rich ecosystem to support their quality development. If OERs succeed on a broad scale it will be in part because such an ecosystem has been able to develop.

  16. I think you are mistaking my line of argument. I’m not suggesting that there are no problems regarding sustainability of OERs. I agree the issue has been researched. I think you’d find though that the same arguments are made about open source software projects (or small businesses, large businesses, airlines, restaurants, volunteer organizations, etc). Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the research you cite, but nothing in there seems to differentiate an OER from the world of open source software. Software is mostly just a big collaborative writing project involving a highly formalized grammar and discrete math. It seems like the business models created by many open source products could be used in the same context to support open content development.

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