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Reading and Writing and Open Source

By Jack M. Germain LinuxInsider ECT News Network
Oct 22, 2014 7:08 PM PT

Digital textbooks with open-licensed content -- and sometimes even complete open source textbooks -- are two publishing models that are starting to change the way students and teachers interact with subject material.

Reading and Writing and Open Source

The budget-busting prices of traditional printed textbooks and the ubiquity of mobile devices in schools have provided textbook authors and educational leaders with convincing reasons to give students an alternative. Textbook publishers are offering digital alternatives to traditional printed books with copyright protection against reproducing or altering their content.

College students easily can spend more than US$100 on a single textbook. A $700 tally for a semester's textbook list is not uncommon. Digital and open source substitutes can cut those costs by as much as two-thirds.

Grade school and high school curricula often are hindered by out-of-date printed volumes that stay in musty supply rooms for years beyond their prime. Printed textbooks often are too costly to be replaced any time soon.

"Two distinct dynamics are converging and leading to the growth of digital and open source textbooks: educational efficacy and value. Put these two dynamics together, and it is easy to see why digital textbook solutions are very much a focus of attention in education today," said Vikram Savkar, vice president and general manager of Wolters Kluwer Legal Education.

Changing Times

School officials and textbook publishers can expand the viability of digital and open source textbooks by making the student's interactive experience with the text as fruitful and multidimensional as possible. The success over the past several years of products that reflect these values is very clear, Savkar told LinuxInsider.

Educational systems from the K through 12 levels and higher education facilities have a common mandate, he noted. Both ends of the educational spectrum are moving consistently toward a greater focus on ensuring that the education they provide their students is genuinely effective in producing real-world outcomes.

"When properly designed, digital textbooks are an ideal solution to this need," said Savkar.

What's the Difference?

Digital, or e-textbooks, and open source textbooks are not the same thing.

E-textbooks can be provided either under a commercial license or an open license. The designation of e-textbook merely refers to the electronic format as opposed to the traditional print format.

"The license agreement dictates how you can use or modify the book with -- or sometimes without -- cost," D2L CEO John Baker told LinuxInsider.

Electronic textbooks and open source textbooks are sometimes overlapping categories, but they do not have to be, noted Savkar. E-textbooks simply are accessible digitally. Open source textbooks are texts that often -- but not always -- are cost-free and, within certain parameters, modifiable.

Variety and Restriction Included

As with electronic textbooks, open source textbooks offer a wide range of content and uses. Some provide content that users can read and annotate for personal use, but they can not modify it significantly or share changes.

Others may allow users the legal freedom to rewrite, reshape and restructure the content in any way desired. They can then broadly promulgate new versions under their own name to the community, Savkar explained.

There is a common misconception that digital textbooks are all self-published. On the contrary, they typically are the digital versions of a paper-bound or hard cover book, according to Al Greco, a professor at Fordham University.

Can't Tell by Its Cover

Add to this confusion the fact that some commercial publishers also provide a few open source textbooks. The business model has changed from the original concept, Greco noted.

Publishers would provide the open source textbook as a free download and offer a print copy for perhaps $35 or $50. The publisher would sell ancillary learning materials associated with the textbook -- but that approach often did not generate the hoped-for sales.

"Now the open source publishers all charge for the textbook. The cost ranges from about $35 to $60. People were downloading the book but not buying the ancillary products," Greco told LinuxInsider.

Read the Fine Print

The open license some digital textbook publishers provide differs from the open source license often attached to community-developed software, observed Ariel Diaz, founder and CEO of Boundless Learning.

"They are similar and have common roots. Open licenses are less pervasive for textbooks than for software," he told LinuxInsider.

One reason for that is the business model for open source textbooks has not yet caught up to what is happening elsewhere, Diaz noted. His company publishes open source textbooks under the Creative Commons license.

Open Source Philosophy

Boundless requires anybody using its content to source its origin and to make sure that any derivative works from the book -- printed or digital -- share the same license. That enables the use of derivative works for all educational and commercial purposes, said Diaz.

The concept has worked well for his company, as it allows publishers to create content in a cost-effective way.

"We do not have to create materials from scratch all of the time," Diaz pointed out. "We are able to build off of existing content. We have access to all existing open source materials -- much of it created by the U.S. government and material in the public domain -- as well as open educational resources which use open licenses."

Digital Difference

Cost is a big motivation for the movement toward digital textbooks. So is the freedom of flexibility.

Driving this movement to open educational resources, whether published under a commercial or open source license, is the encouragement to edit, remix, adapt and share resources, said Diaz.

"We have been supporting open educational resource repositories for numerous clients that have a mandate to share and collaborate with other schools around the world or in a particular region," he remarked.

Cooperative Effort

Virginia Military Institute provides a good example of how school administrations can foster cost savings and textbook creativity. Over the last five years, Greg Hartman, an associate professor of applied mathematics, wrote a series of open, electronic textbooks under VMI's APEX (Affordable Print and Electronic teXtbook) project.

All three semesters of VMI's calculus sequence are taught with his calculus text. The Introductory Matrix Algebra course also is taught with a textbook Hartman wrote.

"With the typical calculus textbook priced at more than $200, the lower price of the e-textbooks -- free for the PDF version and $11 for a print copy purchased on Amazon.com -- was a primary inspiration," Hartman told LinuxInsider.

Hartman made the source files for the e-textbooks available online free of charge. That made it easy for the material to be adopted as is for use at other schools, or adapted to suit the teaching styles or course requirements of high school teachers and professors at other colleges.

"I also see potential in e-textbooks for interactivity -- allowing, for instance, for hands-on exploration of the abstract three-dimensional mathematics that often confound Calculus III students," he said.

Market Maze

The digital textbook industry this year will be about $2 billion, noted Fordham University's Greco.

There has been an increase in the availability of digital textbooks. For example, in 2005 used textbooks were $1.2 billion and textbook rentals were $4 million. Rentals picked up a lot of traction until the fall of 2014; however, that market now is becoming a little soft.

"Rentals were so popular because of student cash flow," Greco explained. "One textbook I use from Prentice Hall costs new $228. The digital version from the publisher is $85. The advantage of getting a rental print textbook is it might cost you around $50 or $60. The used version could be $110."

Textbook publishers are moving away from print to digital because of the projected drop in revenue from purchasing new textbooks. This will allow the publishers to sell off their used and rental business, he said. "This is a major significant move on their part."

Open Source viability

The current textbook market is heavily invested in big book stores and revenue drivers, observed Boundless' Diaz. Open source textbooks are not going to change things overnight.

"Still, there is a pretty big movement to get away from some of that," he said.

The elementary school and high school markets are a little bit slower in embracing this trend, for example. Most of Boundless' content is introductory level for college. There is overlap with advanced grades in high school.

"We see quite a bit of usage in high school, especially along the lines of AP courses," Diaz pointed out.

The grade school and high school market is a little more challenging because of the process of adopting content and approving textbooks. In some states, the actual purchasing cycle is legislated into the budget, he explained.

There are "certainly things that have to catch up around legislation and the technology," Diaz said.

Cost Factor

The quickest gain from digital and open source textbooks will be from shifting to digital resources. That shift could result in driving down costs for books by up to 70 percent from traditional print, noted D2L's Baker.

"The open textbook market has struggled with sustainable business models, has experienced difficulty in promoting these resources to instructors, and has had trouble utilizing the resources in a way that meets specific educational standards," he said.

Timing is everything. Many science textbooks still list Pluto as a planet, and books literally are falling apart, Baker added.

"This textbook replacement cycle," said Baker, "is a great time for us to invest in digital resources that foster improved learning experiences."


Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear. You can connect with him on Google+.


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