The panelists talking about Textbooks of the Future represented a nice diversity of perspectives, though they’re all strongly in the Open Educational Resources camp. We had Melissa Hagemann from the Open Society Institute as moderator (she didn’t say much, unfortunately), Richard Baraniuk from Rice University, Samuel (SJ) Klein from One Laptop per Child, and Erik Moeller from the Wikimedia Foundation.
Baraniuk and Moeller saw the textbooks of the future coming out of print on demand technologies, while Klein believes that POD is all wrong for updatable fact-based works. He argued that the web is superior for textbooks because our understanding of science and lots of other things is constantly changing, and those changes can be incorporated into a networked electronic text instantaneously, while paper is static, and therefore instantly outdated. I don’t agree; print books are still a very useful technology, even for fact-based textbook-type things. Customizable, cheap, print on demand books have the potential to be even more useful.
I thought the most interesting part of the session was hearing Richard Baraniuk from Rice University talk about Connexions, a nonprofit that provides “a place to view and share educational material made of small knowledge chunks called modules that can be organized as courses, books, reports, etc.”
Connexions offers a collaborative medium for quickly creating and sharing scholarly work, and they’re working to provide some sort of peer review-esque credentialing system. My understanding is that while it’s a collaborative platform, it’s also closed. They aim to have experts creating and developing content, and have partnered with groups like IEEE to recruit authors and reviewers.
They use XML to turn all their pieces of content into recombinable building blocks that can look like a single, unified textbook. The final products end up costing many times less than conventional textbooks – the sample engineering textbook that Baraniuk mentioned would have cost $130 from a traditional publisher, and cost $20 from Connexions. It seems like a very promising model.
According to Baraniuk, three big changes made Connexions a viable project:
- New technology (XML)
- New intellectual property regime (Creative Commons)
- New quality control mechanisms.
The panel also spoke a bit about the copyright regime that open educational resources require. Creative Commons has been a boon to Connexions, while the OLPC folks prefer works without any licensing restrictions at all. According to Klein, once the XO laptops are widely available, “The only barrier… to getting textbooks to the third world [will be] the licensing barrier.” I’m not sure if I buy this, given the other major barriers to education in developing countries, but certainly in an online world, I agree that licensing is the biggest barrier to access.