Free, Open Textbooks
by Jon Aske
Every student is familiar with Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, which some teachers revile but which has pretty much done away with commercial encyclopedias because, for the most part, it is as good, if not better, and probably more complete and up-to-date than the competition.
But did you know that there is a movement and communities of individuals who aim to create and promote other types of free digital content, in a way that is similar to Wikipedia, including high-school and college textbooks?
For some subjects free or open textbooks are already available, with the number growing constantly thanks to the work of volunteer teachers and scholars. This movement is being driven in part by the high cost of textbooks, which has grown dramatically in recent years, with college students paying over $1,200 a year on average for such books in 2014. The increase in the price of textbooks in recent years is only matched by the increase in the price of drugs: a greater than 10 time increase (1041%) since 1977, over 3 times the rate of inflation (308%). Sometimes students are simply not buying the books that they need to do well in a course because of their high cost.
By the way, we are talking here about content that is free primarily as in free speech (or freedom), not as in free beer, though it is also free of cost. English uses the same word free in two different senses. The original sense of free content has to do with free as in Spanish libre or French libre, not as in Spanish gratis or French gratuit, although these textbooks are actually both. In other words, this free content does not just cost $0, but it is also free as in unconfined, unrestricted, unconstrained, and unhampered.
In the age of digital content where making copies of any work is virtually free (gratis), it is no surprise that some content has come to be made freely available by content creators who simply want to donate their creations to the world. This is something that started in the software field with the open-source software movement:
“Free software” means software that respects users’ freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price.
With the transition of textbook publishing from physical to digital, in which content can be easily duplicated, we can expect more and more such offerings by generous volunteers since, after all, the profits in textbook publishing goes mostly to publishers not to content authors. One of the best known examples of this phenomenon is the encyclopedia Wikipedia, where volunteers create the content and share it freely with the whole world, which you can access from your computer or your cellphone, allowing us to find information online for free and having a fairly good encyclopedia at the tip of our fingers. It wasn’t too long ago, however, when anybody who wanted to access that kind of information had to go through some effort at a library.
Because information, including books, is going digital, whether we are crazy about it or not, all we need to access it is a simple electronic device with a screen. In recent years the device of choice is no longer a computer. Tablets and cellphones are rapidly becoming the main way we access digital content and that includes open textbooks and, more generally, what is known as Open Educational Resources (OER) used in schools, which are a growing phenomenon.
Wikipedia has grown into a much larger world of shared content, what is known as Wikimedia, ‘a global movement whose mission is to bring free educational content to the world.’ Another kindred project is Creative Commons, which is ‘a non-profit organization devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share.’ Many other non-profits have been created sharing similar goals. A relatively new area of free content promoted by these open communities involves textbooks and other OER. And a recent study shows that these OER are just as effective as traditional materials in business and biology courses.
It is not just Wikimedia and other non-profits that are involved in this. Even the US government has taken some timid steps to reign in what they see as excessive costs to students by promoting open textbooks and educational materials. In October, Congress reintroduced the Affordable Textbook Act which encourages universities to start open textbook pilots. Some worry, however, that centralization and a top-down approach to these efforts may go against the open source principle.
Promoters of the concept of open textbooks and other educational resources are committed to creating communities of experts that create content that will be shared by a community of educators and students. But the Open Education Resources movement is still in its infancy. Only 6% of college-level courses take advantage of these resources, often because quality open textbooks are not yet available for many disciplines. There is much work to be done. Crucially, the content has to be created, but faculty have to become aware of these resources, start using them, and even be willing to help create them and expand them.
What a better institution of higher learning for the OER movement to catch on in than a public university such as Salem State University, where the students could use the financial break? Inspired by the open textbook movement, I have decided to give away the Spanish linguistics textbook that I have been working on for the last two years. I encourage my colleagues to get involved by learning more about OER and to consider using them in their classes, and even to create their own OER materials to share. I also encourage students to learn more about OER and to talk to their professors about this topic.
 http://www.nbcnews.com/feature/show-me/video/how-rising-textbook-prices-mirror-rising-drug-costs-495097411779, http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2014/10/09/354647112/how-college-students-battled-textbook-publishers-to-a-draw-in-3-graphs