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Open Access Textbooks: Convenient for Teachers, Right Price for Pupils


This week, the Economist discussed open access journals, and they are certainly catching on, so scientists everywhere must either rejoice or decry. But while a few doctoral candidates and grad school students might appreciate the chance to publish a paper indie-style, most high school students and undergrads won’t see open access journals as relevant to their lives. Open access textbooks, on the other hand, might be opening some eyes.

An open access textbook is a book published under an open content license such as Creative Commons or Public Domain. This means that the book may be copied or modified with no legal repercussions, the advantage being that their writers can update them without publishing entire new editions. (Dr. Mark Green had some fascinating things to say about the problems with this model in a previous post.)

Writers of open textbooks don’t get paid, but they’re also not slaves to a publisher, and free distribution opens some interesting educational doors to populations of students for whom traditional education might not have been possible otherwise. Never mind the cost of textbooks themselves; anyone looking to develop their Java skills can now not only take a MOOC from MIT, but download a textbook like this one on Java programming provided by a real professor at a real school. All for free.

Think about it: that level of content is equally available in Sri Lanka as it is in New York City, as long as you’ve got an Internet connection and a computer. It may not be the equivalent of a degree, but Java is a useful, demonstrable skill—and a good start to a DIY career ladder for anyone who finds themselves out of options after high school. Just like business communication, public speaking, and computer-aided design, it might just come in handy someday. You know, like on a resume or something.

Some Institutions Understand

Large institutions are starting to catch on that supporting this brave new open textbook concept can endear them to cash-strapped yet ambitious students. The University of Minnesota’s open textbook publishing platform actually allows qualified professors both to publish open textbooks and to review the textbooks of others through a somewhat-more-vetted Amazon-type star system that will be familiar to any twenty-first century student. But it’s also freely and openly available to the entire web.

British Columbia’s BC Campus also allows professors to review textbooks. Anyone who visits Florida State University’s Textbook Affordability Project will be bowled over by the number and variety of textbooks available for free throughout the web—and by FSU’s support of the concept. Real students are already seeing real benefits from this system. It’s hard to argue against a concept that changes lives as soon as it hits the ground.

Editors Wanted

Of course, it is possible. Just as with open journals—and everything else in life, incidentally—you can’t unquestioningly take in every available item without verifying its origin. (Imagine if you did that at a frat party. Perhaps this is yet another life skill that open textbooks can teach to our students.) Grammar, as usual, is among the stickiest wickets in play. In the words of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation’s 2012 College Open Textbooks Report, “copy editing [has surfaced] as an issue” that might require the creation of a separate open textbook copyediting body. Speaking as someone who reviews great books with fatal editing problems all the time, this ain’t beans. But it says something about the future of open textbooks that their biggest detractors are far more worried about the new competition than they are about a few misplaced apostrophes.

Academic publishing companies are spectacularly antsy about open education, including open textbooks, because they’re afraid they’ll collapse if students and professors abandon them financially. (Damn those fiscally responsible kids and their desire to eat!) This, obviously, is a terrible problem for the rest of us, too. Without our cuddly publishing companies dominating the academic literature scene, we’d lose a key component of a system that keeps knowledge exclusive to those who can afford it. And where would we be without that?

Anna Call
Anna Call is a freelance writer who blogs about science for Foreword Reviews.

Anna Call

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