Open Source Textbooks: Learning Was Meant to be Free

Open Source Textbooks: Learning Was Meant to be Free

On Friday, 28 September 2012, a small group of Finnish math teachers decided to have a hackathon, no, not the normal software type of hackathon. This group of teachers decided to hack together a math textbook. In three days.

Version 0.9 of the textbook was made available via Github on the 30th as a downloadable PDF. The book only needs a cover, a few illustrations, and proofreading to be considered complete.

Not only was this book written over a long weekend, the authors have decided to release it under a Creative Commons Attribution license, which means that anyone who wants to is able to adapt the textbook to suit their needs, distribute the work, or use it commercially, as long as the work is attributed to the original creator and the same license is applied to whatever derivative creations emerge.

Many school districts around the world are strapped financially. Income is down and costs are up. One of the costs that schools are constantly confronted with are textbook costs. Whether through overuse or obsolescence, school districts go through many textbooks every year.

The problem with textbooks is that the vast majority of them are made by a small number of companies, these companies then charge school districts between  50 dollars to upwards of 200 dollars or more per book, not to mention the prices college students have to pay each semester.

Open source textbooks have started gaining traction in helping alleviate costs. Since 2001, California has been working on the California Open Source Textbook Project. This project’s goal is to create free, open source, e-textbooks for California’s school systems. Currently, California has over 6 million students in public K-12 schools and spends over 400 million dollars for textbooks, each year. Open source textbooks can seriously reduce, and possibly eliminate, that cost.

Earlier this year, Poland started an initiative aimed at creating open source textbooks for 9 to 11 year olds. Ostensibly this would most likely be a pilot program that would later be spread to all other grades and ages if successful.

Currently, a school district can opt to either write their own textbooks, which would be easy to do with a subject like math or English, especially if they stick to public domain stories for reading exercises or purchase books from an outfit such as Flat World Knowledge.

Flat World Knowledge offers all of their textbooks for free to read on their website. Professors or teachers can opt to use one of their books as-is or alter it as needed for their course. Students are then able to use the book either from the website or they can be purchased in several formats, such as a printed book, PDF, or Amazon Kindle format. The vast majority of books on FWK’s website cost less than 45 dollars. More books and subjects are being added all the time.

The difference between FWK’s approach and that of the Finnish teachers’ is in which Creative Commons license they use. FWK uses the BY-NC-SA license, which is the Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-Alike license, which means purchasers are free to distribute the PDF or Kindle file to as many people as they like, so, for example, a group of students could chip in a few dollars each and purchase a Kindle format file that can be shared amongst themselves.

When a child is home doing their homework, another problem emerges: If a student has trouble grasping a mathematical formula, the student can use the free Khan Academy website to watch educational videos recorded by Salman Khan.

Salman Khan started Khan Academy to help students master their educational goals. The site features over 3000 videos narrated by Khan in which he talks about whichever subject the student needs. There are many videos devoted to math, the humanities, computer science, and more. He even has a section devoted to problems on the 2004 SAT math section.

Granted, Khan Academy was not designed to replace the standard model of education, but it does help when a flesh and blood teacher is unavailable.

We are living in an age when all of the world’s knowledge, from the time of Socrates to today is available, and easily accessible, by any and all. There is no reason why there should be illiteracy or a lack of education of any kind in the world today.