Open Source Comes to Textbooks

College professors are ready to reinvent the textbook. The new price: $0

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Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Think back to your college textbooks. What’s the first thing you think of? How expensive they were, of course. Okay, we’ll come back to that. What’s the second thing you think of? How good some of them were. And the third thing? How long-lived they are.

For example, my father had an M.B.A. The text I think he used for his financial management class is now in its 13th edition, has been in print for more than 45 years, and made its author, Eugene Brigham, a wealthy man, according to an article on the website Poets & Quants. Maybe very wealthy: The book retails for $243. Sure, it’s 1184 pages, but still, that’s a lot of money, about 20 cents a page. By comparison, a popular book like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is less than 6 cents a page.

What makes for a decades-long success like Brigham’s? Quality is certainly one factor, but another is inertia. The Poets & Quants article quotes an executive at McGraw-Hill, which publishes a competing textbook, as saying, “It can be difficult to get professors to change the books they use.”

It kind of reminds you of the enduring success of that testament to inertia in the software world, Microsoft Windows. And just as Windows’ success finally inspired a viable open-source alternative, we’re starting to see open-source textbooks as well.

One of the most serious efforts is a project called OpenStax College, based out of Rice University. Later this month, it will release two textbooks: College Physics and Introduction to Sociology. The textbooks will run on an “open education platform” called Connexions—spelled with an x—that already draws a million visitors a month. OpenStax College may well give the standard texts in those two fields a real run for their money.

Richard Baraniuk is the founder and director of the Connexions platform. He is the Victor E. Cameron Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University. He joins us from Houston, Texas.

Richard, welcome to the podcast.

Richard Baraniuk: Thanks. It’s great to be here.

Steven Cherry: Richard, you have a textbook of your own. The title is Signals and Systems. It’s published by Orange Grove Texts Plus, it comes in at a fairly modest 11 cents a page, and it’s already been translated into Spanish. Why do we need open-source textbooks?

Richard Baraniuk: So, the whole idea behind open-source textbooks is really to provide students with better access to really high-quality learning opportunities for free. And second, much like you talked about in your initial remarks, to try to make sure that the books can be improved and tended to over time so they can have a very long lifetime but be completely up to date with the latest new ideas, the latest technologies, etc.

Steven Cherry: So this isn’t just about money?

Richard Baraniuk: This is not about money. It’s about saving people money and about creating higher-quality textbooks.

Steven Cherry: Very good. So the books are free, I guess. How is an author going to get as rich as Eugene Brigham?

Richard Baraniuk: Well, I think the fundamental goal both with OpenStax College and with Connexions is to trade monetary impact, you know, personal fortune, for global impact in terms of number of users. So what we can offer an author who develops either a Connexions textbook or an OpenStax College textbook is the ability to have those materials used by literally millions of students around the world. And this is indeed possible through traditional publishers, but as you know, with any enterprise there’s a long tail, and a very few authors are going to make a huge impact, and just about everybody else is going to make a sort of middling type of impact. So the key value proposition that we offer to authors that are content developers is access to a massive global market of users. And just as a personal example, my own textbook that’s in Connexions has actually been used by 5 million people already, and so that’s an impact that really money can’t buy.

Steven Cherry: That’s terrific, and I guess it will be to some extent a labor of love, but do you think there’s some professional advancement as well for educators?

Richard Baraniuk: Oh, absolutely. I think especially as we start to bring in the kind of peer review processes that we’re bringing to educational materials, which has certainly not been pursued by professional societies, for example. But as people are starting to contribute educational materials, have them reviewed by their peers to vouch for their quality, I think what we’re going to see is a blurring between the journal publication that’s really just about the advancement of knowledge and the educational publication which is about teaching people how to do something. I think that’s a very exciting space to be, between the idea of a brand-new research publication and an educational work.

Steven Cherry: I want to get to the blurring issue in a minute, but you mentioned peer review, and I really think that’s pretty important here. There really are kind of three things that publishers do for textbooks as far as I can tell. One is distribution—getting them into college bookstores and Amazon and so forth. One of them is marketing, especially examination copies—you know, as a teacher, you just tell the publisher you’re thinking about using their book and, poof! it’s, like, there the next day. Those are kind of nonissues for free electronic books. But what about peer review, the third thing that publishers do?

Richard Baraniuk: Well, actually, the neat thing I think about OpenStax College is we’re really trying to offer those same three services. Namely, we are actually marketing our textbooks to college instructors around the country and around the world. We’re providing things like exam copies for instructors to look at the books so they can adopt them. And just like the publishing companies, we’ve put in place the exact same development process that involves professional writers, peer review, testing in the classroom, copyediting, graphics, etc. The goal of OpenStax College is really to create textbooks that are a high-quality, viable alternative to the publishers’ books. And the reason we can do this for this library of 20 books that we’re developing is because we have the gracious support of several philanthropic organizations that are underwriting the cost of that development process.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, there are some real costs in there. Besides the copyediting that you mentioned, you mentioned graphics as well, and I know that some books, like a medical or science textbook—there’s Eric Kandel’s Principles of Neural Science—I happen to know that one. It pretty much takes up the full-time use of a professional medical illustrator, and they get paid big bucks. So—you wouldn’t be able to do this without philanthropic support?

Richard Baraniuk: Well, the idea is to bootstrap this process with philanthropic support. You are absolutely right that high-quality books are enormously expensive to create. We’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per book, okay? Let’s put it that way. But the payoff is that if these initial five books that we’re releasing get even just 10 percent of the college market, that small investment could save students over $90 million in the next five years. So it really is an idea of an investment in order to save people money and give students access to a higher-quality education.

Steven Cherry: That sounds pretty terrific. There’s more to Connexions than just downloading books—it’s really like a whole ecosystem, right? And it includes modules as well as books?

Richard Baraniuk: Yeah. So the thing that might be confusing to some people is that we’re talking both about OpenStax College and Connexions. Connexions is a platform for supporting the development and distribution not just of e-textbooks but all kinds of learning materials, and the key element you just pointed to is that they’re not only free and open source, they’re also modularized, so the books are basically built out of smaller Lego blocks. And that allows instructors to be able to customize them so they can swap chapters in, swap chapters out, correct errors, add new examples, new context. So they can have the perfect book for their course rather than just an off-the-rack kind of learning experience.

Steven Cherry: This module thing is really showing up in the lecture space as well. We had a show a few weeks ago about the Stanford University online courses, and then there’s, like, the Khan Academy and stuff like that. So this fits in pretty well with those, I guess.

Richard Baraniuk: Absolutely. In fact, what Khan Academy and Stanford’s online courses are doing is disintermediating and disaggregating the lecture and classroom, and that’s exactly what we’re doing with OpenStax College to the textbook. So when you start to combine these things, right, you have a complete solution that can be Internet-based, that can be completely free, and that could have some very interesting positive and negative consequences or fallouts over the next few years because these are truly disruptive technologies.

Steven Cherry: Now, you use the Creative Commons Attribution license. I guess that’s never really been used for textbooks before. Were there any complications there?

Richard Baraniuk: Well, the reason we use the Creative Commons Attribution license is because it is the most open of the Creative Commons licenses. So authors retain the copyright to their work, so they can relicense it in different ways if they like. They get attributed when their work is used, but then it really allows a completely free use of the material around the world. And one of the things we’re very interested in is involving not just educators but education providers, like providers who develop either textbooks or homework systems tutorials. So the idea is much like the Linux operating system: to use the licensing to be able to build a community or ecosystem around our books that live in a symbiotic relationship with OpenStax College, like Red Hat lives in a positive relationship with Linux operating system.

Steven Cherry: I’m glad you brought that up, because my next thought was, do you think we’ll see, like, the forking of textbooks, the way that we do with operating systems?

Richard Baraniuk: Yes. In fact, we already have, and it’s an indication that the system’s working, right? So, we have a statistics textbook that’s used at a number of colleges around the U.S. and around the world, and they’re now—after a few years, there’s not just one version of that book, there’s actually six different versions in Connexions, each of which has been tuned and customized to a particular college, particular demographic of students, and what they’re interested in and what their learning goals are. So I think as long as you have the technology in place to keep track of all the forks, it actually provides an even richer set of materials for both educators and for students.

Steven Cherry: I sometimes teach writing, essay writing and creative writing, and those books have readers built into them—that is to say, essays and stories usually written by famous writers. Publishers clear those rights for those stories and pay royalties. Can anything like that work here?

Richard Baraniuk: Well, it can. For example, you could have a company or an organization who are aggregating together Connexions materials—maybe they’re the sort of theoretical materials on writing, right? The facts. And then they could combine those with copyrighted works that are owned by other authors and other publishers. As long as they’re dealing with the copyright clearance of those works, there’s no problem with our materials being mingled with those. That’s another great virtue of the Creative Commons license we’re using, is it really allows a free mixing of different sources together.

Steven Cherry: But there’s not machinery within Connexions that would help do that the way a publisher does it.

Richard Baraniuk: No, there’s not a machinery, and the reason why Connexions itself is exclusively Creative Commons Attribution license material is precisely to keep things clear and simple. Once you start mixing in content with different kinds of licensing, well, it just becomes incredibly complicated. And copyright clearance is a big issue, and there are entities that specialize in that kind of thing, so we decided to let them handle that kind of aggregation of material, and we’ll just handle creating the open-license stuff.

Steven Cherry: Fair enough. We talked about the blurring before of books and journals, and there’s something I would have mentioned anyway in the interest of full disclosure, but Connexions has a connection, so to speak, with the IEEE—specifically, the IEEE Signal Processing Society. How does that work?

Richard Baraniuk: So, that’s a great example of expanding the concept of review of educational materials from the standard way it’s done today—which is, publishers develop material and send it out to reviewers—by engaging professional societies. And I happen to be a proud IEEE member and very active in the Signal Processing Society. So, several years ago we got the society involved in a two-pronged effort to both encourage members to develop and share signal-processing educational materials—these would be electrical engineering materials—and then participate in quality review of those materials so that we can put the IEEE stamp of approval on them, to both point or direct other educators towards those so they can find really good materials to use in their classes and also to reward the authors of the material, because now they have a peer-reviewed piece of work that is being widely used.

Steven Cherry: Very good. You know, I started the show talking about the sort of inertia of these big textbooks that are out there today. Do you really think that open-source textbooks can sort of blast professors out of their complacency of using the same book for years and decades?

Richard Baraniuk: Yeah, I really do think so, and I think things are going to evolve extremely rapidly over the next three to five years, not only with what we’re doing with OpenStax College but these other massive initiatives that you mentioned: online courses, Khan Academy–type stuff. The precise reason we started OpenStax College this year is exactly because of this inertia, that we’ve had 12 and a half years of experience with Connexions, right? With a platform that tries to reinvent how we develop and distribute educational materials. And what we realized [is] that it’s a really cool idea, and it’s what I believe is the future of learning materials. But there’s a chasm, right? There’s a chasm that instructors have to cross, because it really is a different way of thinking about the role of the textbook in your class and the way that you’re going to use it. And so OpenStax College was created precisely to be something that’s much more comfortable to the instructor—namely, these are textbooks; they match the standard scope and sequence of the courses that they’re intended to be used in; they’ll come with all the usual ancillary materials like PowerPoint slides, like artwork; they’ll have links to homework systems that the instructors can use. So the idea is to really take, if you will, a step back to move forward by developing something that is still housed within Connexions but just feels much more like a standard publisher. And we’re already seeing tremendous interest from instructors all around the country about adopting the first two books: Sociology and College Physics.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, Richard, if books cost students less and are even better than they are now, that would be a really terrific thing, so good luck, and thanks for joining us today.

Richard Baraniuk: Oh, thanks so much for discussing.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Rice University professor Richard Baraniuk about free, high-quality, open-source textbooks.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 29 February 2012.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
Follow us on Twitter @techwisepodcast

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

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