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Open-Source Textbooks a Mixed Bag in California

Downloadable and free, maybe--but the schoolhouse Wiki revolution will have to wait



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As California moves forward with the first open-source digital textbook program in the nation this fall, the best content seems a lot less like Wikipedia and a lot more like traditional publishing.

Bulky, hefty and downright expensive, conventional school textbooks may rank as the most outdated part of our nation's public education system. Many observers, including Chris Anderson, author of Free, have speculated that crowd sourcing could help bring down the cost of textbooks and improve their quality--but chipping away at the publishing industry's last profit center has proven more challenging in practice. In 2002, the California Open-Source Textbook Project aimed to produce a history textbook via Wikibooks that it estimated could save California $200 million per year. To date, the project has never cobbled together a complete book.

The open-source dream got a new boost in May, when Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger, responding to his state's budget crisis, asked content developers to submit their "open-source digital textbooks" to California Learning Resource Network (CLRN), a 10-year-old project established by the Board of Education that has long hosted supplemental electronic resources for the state.

Schwartzenegger's call sent three nonprofit organizations and forward-thinking textbook company Pearson scrambling to get their course materials up to snuff and to demonstrate how well they met the California content standards that align with standardized tests. CLRN had asked organizations to "freeze" their content for two years and make it available as a PDF—a move that director Brian Bridges admits may seem anachronistic in a Web 2.0 world, but in the future he hopes to review updates more frequently. Earlier this week, CLRN released reviews from the 16 science and mathematics books submitted, revealing their adherence to the content standards—and providing a first peek into the progress of the textbook 2.0 revolution.

While the real power of open-source textbooks, Bridges and others say, is being able to tap into the knowledge of the nation's 3 million schoolteachers, a look at the recent crop of books suggests that's not an accurate reflection of how educational content is being created. So far, the front-runners were typically written by just one or several authors, and the one major organization that has fully embraced a Wiki approach failed to impress CLRN reviewers.

Take the case of Connexions, which is based at Rice University in Houston, Texas and has amassed 14,000 "modules" from teachers around the country that can be shuffled in and out to assemble into hundreds of textbooks, known as collections. "We welcome everybody to contribute," says Connexions' community development specialist Jonathan Emmons. "We are not putting a restriction on who can use our content."

Yet the Algebra II book that the group submitted this year, which CLRN gave a score of 26 out of 27 possible points, was written by a single author, a North Carolina charter school teacher named Kenny Felder. Felder was pleased by the high grade his unconventional text received, but he feels no particular allegiance with the open-source movement. "I'm proud to be part of that, but it's not something I set out to be part of," he says. "If instead of being approached by Connexions, I'd been approached by Houghton Mifflin, I wouldn't have said no."

Meanwhile, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based CK-12 Foundation submitted seven books, all with impressive CLRN scores. Founded by Neeru Khosla, wife of Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla, CK-12 even boasts Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales on its board. But again, at this stage most of its books still represent a traditional mode of authorship—although they are making use of free images, such as Wikipedia photos and graphics.

On the other end of the spectrum is the nonprofit Curriki project, founded by Sun Microsystems and built on the XWiki platform, a next-generation Wiki application. Curriki's textbooks are the closest thing to Wikipedia in terms of the content creation interface, but they were among the lowest-scoring of the bunch. Their chemistry textbook received just 44 points out of 73, and their Earth science book got just three out of 46.

"I think the process we are engaging in is what's exciting to us, but we may have been a little bit disappointed with the score we received," says Curriki spokesperson Peter Levy. 

Levy attributed the low score in part to "poor communication" on behalf of CLRN and a mix-up in the document that Curriki submitted describing the textbook's match with California standards. While Curriki was granted seven days to provide additional documentation following their review in July, they never did, CLRN officials said.

"Being open-source doesn't mean high quality," says CLRN's Bridges. "All sources have to be vetted."

Overall, Bridges says he is pleased with the results, and the program will keep growing with new waves of submissions in the coming months. The digital textbooks still face major hurdles before they can end up in classrooms, since no money has been allocated to provide laptop computers or e-readers to students.

Even so, Bridges argues that it's still a lot cheaper to print out these textbooks for $10 than to purchase commercial ones for $90. "Our argument is this is a change process," he says. "Not everything will happen at once."

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