Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Education Books Government The Almighty Buck United States Politics News

California State Senator Proposes Funding Open-Source Textbooks 193

Posted by timothy
from the benefit-the-commonwealth dept.
bcrowell writes "Although former Governor Schwarzenegger's free digital textbook initiative for K-12 education was a failure, state senator Darrell Steinberg has a new idea for the state-subsidized publication of college textbooks (details in the PDF links at the bottom). Newspaper editorials seem positive. It will be interesting to see if this works any better at the college level than it did for K-12, where textbook selection has traditionally been very bureaucratic. This is also different from Schwarzenegger's FDTI because Steinberg proposes spending state money to help create the books. The K-12 version suffered from legal uncertainty about the Williams case, which requires equal access to books for all students — many of whom might not have computers at home. At the symposium where the results of the FDTI's first round were announced, it became apparent that the only businesses interested in participating actively were not the publishers but computer manufacturers like Dell and Apple, who wanted to sell lots of hardware to schools."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

California State Senator Proposes Funding Open-Source Textbooks

Comments Filter:
  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Thursday January 05, 2012 @12:35PM (#38597924)

    I hear Houghton Mifflin has goons who break legs. When you make $150 profit on a simple 600-page textbook, you can afford the muscle.

    • How do you "break the legs" of a registered charity like Wikimedia Foundation, which operates the Wikibooks project to create collaborative textbooks licensed as free cultural works?
      • by alphatel (1450715) * on Thursday January 05, 2012 @12:43PM (#38598094)

        How do you "break the legs" of a registered charity like Wikimedia Foundation?

        Press charges in your country against their leader, extradite him, and then try him for "terrorism"

        • Good luck doing that against all the trustees of the WMF [wikimediafoundation.org] at once.
          • by alphatel (1450715) *
            They are all treasonous, can't you see?
      • by tlhIngan (30335)

        How do you "break the legs" of a registered charity like Wikimedia Foundation, which operates the Wikibooks project to create collaborative textbooks licensed as free cultural works?

        By making it hard to donate. You know, by making it really hard to whip out your card and click the "donate" button. Donations to online things drop rather quickly if you force everyone who wants to donate to have to write a cheque and mail it off. No credit card instant donation. No online bank transfers. Snail mail.

        Not only th

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by jimicus (737525)

      When you make $150 profit on a simple 600-page textbook, you can afford the muscle.

      You don't, as it happens. It's a very similar business model to records, in many ways. There's vast costs that the general public not only doesn't see, they're barely aware even exist - things like proofreading, editing, marketing - over and above the basic print and distribute bits that we all know about. (Free clue: A lot of books on the market today would be borderline unreadable without massive editing and proofreading effort.)

      The only difference between textbooks and records in this case is that the pu

      • There's vast costs that the general public not only doesn't see, they're barely aware even exist - things like proofreading, editing, marketing - over and above the basic print and distribute bits that we all know about

        Not valid as the books are usually available at 10% of the price developed countries pay in developing countries
        Usually slightly thinner paper and monochrome printing, but thats acceptable for academic use

      • by Baloroth (2370816) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @01:33PM (#38598976)
        Except when you change a handful of diagrams and re-order a few chapters to produce a new edition of a text-book, your editing costs go towards zero, and even with the relatively few buyers, profits are incredible. Plus, you completely eliminate the second hand-market. This is routine practice for college (and to a lesser degree high-school) textbooks.
      • by bcrowell (177657)

        You don't, as it happens. It's a very similar business model to records, in many ways. There's vast costs that the general public not only doesn't see, they're barely aware even exist - things like proofreading, editing, marketing - over and above the basic print and distribute bits that we all know about. (Free clue: A lot of books on the market today would be borderline unreadable without massive editing and proofreading effort.)

        There is some truth to this, but the reality is more complex.

        One thing to realize is that the cost of textbooks has risen dramatically over the last few decades. The increases are much too large to be explained by factors like the higher cost of paper or the increased prevalence of color. College textbook prices went up 98% after inflation [valorebooks.com] from 1986 to 2004. This is not because publishers are paying twice as many acquisitions editors, twice as many copy editors, twice as many illustrators, or twice as many

  • Tuition (Score:5, Insightful)

    by aztrailerpunk (1971174) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @12:42PM (#38598068)
    Trying to lower the cost of books is a great idea but what stops schools from not raising tuition on the back end when they see those funds become available. Get school tuition under control first and then worry about the books.
    • by Ragun (1885816)
      In the case of textbooks, its not the schools robbing the students so much as publishers robbing students. I am sure there are kickbacks involved to keep the whole thing rolling, but cutting out the middleman is probably in the student's best interests.
      • Re:Tuition (Score:5, Insightful)

        by jcombel (1557059) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @01:01PM (#38598440)

        all of my classes that i felt required a textbook to get an A, the book happened to have been (co)authored by the professor.

        academic instruction as an avenue for royalties hooooo

        • Re:Tuition (Score:4, Insightful)

          by ByOhTek (1181381) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @01:07PM (#38598564) Journal

          I don't think I've ever had a class where the professor [co]authored the book, but plenty where it was necessary.

          Books certainly are a nice way to get some royalties, but it isn't a universal method.

          • at a local community college. The text book was crap, so the instructor told the students not to bother with it, and taught from notes. Trouble was, the book was written by the head of the department. Their grades were held hostage until all the copies of the book at the book store were sold.
        • Professors are not allowed to collect royalties for books sold at the same college where they teach.

          • Books don't cost less at the school where the professor teaches though. Otherwise there would be a thriving business buying textbooks at the schools where their authors teach and selling them to all the other schools.

            If the professor isn't collecting the royalty, then either the publisher or the school's book store is. And using the book at the professor's school has to be good for marketing, which leads to greater adoption and more royalties.

          • That's why they ask the publisher for an advance fee. And publisher are willing to pay it for a book with a guaranteed market. Also, only some schools enforce that rule.

          • Professors are not allowed to collect royalties for books sold at the same college where they teach.

            As an academic librarian, I can say with absolute certainty that this is only true at a handful of universities [insidehighered.com], and is nearly impossible to enforce.

            • by hawguy (1600213)

              Professors are not allowed to collect royalties for books sold at the same college where they teach.

              As an academic librarian, I can say with absolute certainty that this is only true at a handful of universities [insidehighered.com], and is nearly impossible to enforce.

              And often not the best idea - sometimes the book that the professor wrote is the best book (why would he write it if he didn't feel that it was the best?).

              In one class where the professor wrote the book, he told the class to buy a used older edition if possible since the updates in the latest edition were minor, and when he handed out assignments, he gave page numbers for both the new and old edition. And he handed out photocopies of a new diagram that weren't present in the old edition.

              No professor is goin

          • by jcombel (1557059)

            these policies are at the university or state level. most university policies of this sort are not enforced (cost:benefit prohibitive, as exemplified here [kansan.com]), have loop-holes (cannot collect royalties on books they require for their own classes, so professors collude and require each other's book). i haven't heard of (and couldn't find) a state prosecuting a professor who broke a relevant law.

          • by mspohr (589790)

            I've had to buy lots of books written by my professors and I've never heard of this provision against royalties.
            Is this something unique to a particular country or institution?
            I'd really like to hear more about this...

        • I had a few professors who had written books and what I learned from them is that in general they don't make much of anything unless their book becomes "the book" for the subject. Most of the professors who write books do so for name recognition. In college one of my professors who had written a number of books on x86 assembly language used his books as class material, but he gave each student an electronic copy so they didn't have to pay for it or try to find it as they were all out of print and the copyri
      • Re:Tuition (Score:5, Interesting)

        by querist (97166) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @03:30PM (#38601002) Homepage
        I'm a college professor and I've never heard of these kickbacks except from people claiming that they exist. I select textbooks because they are what is available. I hate it when publishers change a few minor things and put out a new edition. I have three versions of the same book published within a four-year period and the fourth edition is coming out later this year. And they keep changing the order of the chapters so I have to change assignments, test questions, etc. Granted, I don't mind keeping my courses up to date, but I think a new edition of a text book every 16-18 months is a bit much, especially when the editions are not compatible for things such as exercises and chapter ordering. I LIKE used textbooks. I would encourage my students to use them if I could, but it seems that the publishers are trying to kill the used-book market for textbooks. I realize that things change rapidly in computer science, but I think they could slow down the update rate a little on these books without sacrificing much. The only thing worse is when a good textbook is NOT updated at all. One of my favorite texts is now horridly out of date, but there is no new edition on the horizon and I really can't find a better book for the subject. I've been forced to use two lesser books (which I also hate doing - I think you should have one textbook per class). Sorry for the rant, but I want people to understand that the professors are just as frustrated by all of this as you are, except perhaps the ones who author the textbooks. The fact that I receive free "desk copies" of books does not eliminate my frustration. I know my students are still paying huge amounts of money for textbooks and there's only so much I can do about it. I'm trying to find open textbook alternatives, and I may have to take time to write one if I can't find one.
        • Could you and other professors in the field collaborate on an open textbook? That way it's less effort on each person's part. Effectively it's a form of peer review also, with multiple eyes reviewing the content.

  • by 0100010001010011 (652467) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @12:44PM (#38598108)

    A while back slashdot had a story about Open Source text books. I scanned through the books they had available and they were absolute junk. It appeared to be written in word with formulas printed out then scanned in as images and inserted inline. Needless to say they looked horrible.

    Has the opensource Calculus book moved on to LaTeX since then or does it still look the same?

    • by spopepro (1302967)
      I'm an author of one of the digital textbooks out there (I did the teacher's guide for Prob&Stats and Calculus), but maybe not the ones you looked at. I don't have any idea why, but they insisted that the manuscript be done in MS Word. My options were to use equation editor, or use eps output from LaTeX for each individual piece of math. The whole thing kind of made my head bleed, and I have no understanding of why it was all done that way. Maybe something about the backend that they use... I know th
  • by ElmoGonzo (627753) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @12:45PM (#38598128)
    Can you imagine the politics over what the textbooks should say about evolution, climate change, economics, history,etc. First edition says Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia but by the second edition, Eurasia has become Oceania's ally.
    • by taiwanjohn (103839) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @12:55PM (#38598328)

      This. The problem with "state mandated" open-source anything is that it's (by definition) not "open" anymore. Apart from that, it's a great idea.

      In fact, it's such a great idea, that you almost don't need the "school" part anymore. Between wikipedia (et. al.) and the plethora of lecture videos on various topics available online, the only thing left is interaction with a teacher/mentor for any questions or skill-building exercises, and even that is probably available online these days too.

      The only problem is: this is only enough to actually learn the material... you still don't get that "accredited" piece of paper. Given the skyrocketing costs of modern education (in the USA at least), how long will it be before people start leapfrogging the bricks-and-mortar education system altogether?

      • The only problem is: this is only enough to actually learn the material... you still don't get that "accredited" piece of paper.

        Which is what it's all about, unfortunately. If employers stopped basing their decisions on where that magic piece of paper came from, and started basing their decisions on what the applicant actually knows and is capable of doing, then you would see the need for that magic piece of paper decline precipitously.

        It's ridiculous, I know people that are completely self-taught with regards to IT that easily exceed the capabilities of their accredited counterparts, but they're forced to basically go throw money

        • by cayenne8 (626475)

          If employers stopped basing their decisions on where that magic piece of paper came from, and started basing their decisions on what the applicant actually knows and is capable of doing, then you would see the need for that magic piece of paper decline precipitously.

          Well, they need some quick method to quickly weed down the applicants, and a college degree is usually one of them.

          These days, however, that doesn't work as well as it used to...college degrees are getting to be a dime a dozen, basically where

          • to stand out in a crowd (at least on first new hire jobs without experience) to stand out, you'll need at least a masters.

            Is a degree necessarily better than volunteer experience? Or is volunteer experience unavailable anywhere that matters due to employment law?

    • by Jawnn (445279)
      Yes, I can. I live in Texas, where certain idiots on the state board of education have been doing just that, dicking with the truth in their children's textbooks, to suit their backwards religious and political predilections. I doubt that it could get much worse if we were to change the publishing medium.
      • by hedwards (940851)

        What's even worse is that since TX is one of the largest buyers of textbooks in the US, those changes don't just stay in TX making Texans stupid, they wind up in schools across the country making students stupid.

    • Actually, this would be easy to work around. AND would expose the crazies for what they are. All we need are COMPILED books, where you have switches for each locality driven items and requirements and the book is reconfigured for that District's standards.

      It might require getting an application built that handles the formatting the book into a format that works, but that shouldn't be too hard. It could make just about everyone happy getting everything they want/need in a single source. We (collective) need

  • That is the key. Will it also be 'government supported'? Will it be the first guy they can get that will 'work for free'?

    While i'm all in support of more openness, i want to be sure what data we are the feeding children is quality, and accurate.

    • by necro81 (917438)
      This is my major concern. Unless the textbooks are produced by salaried professions (i.e., not just those that have the expertise, but can also f*#king communicate and know how make a polished product), how to do you prevent the whole enterprise from being monopolized by ethusiastic, self-aggrandizing idiots that can't write their way out of a paper bag?

      And while certain subjects (math, most of physics, most of biology and medicine) aren't particularly vulnerable to ideology, there are plenty of subje
      • by hedwards (940851)

        Textbooks are always subject to approval, just because you write a textbook doesn't mean that it has any hope of being used. There are committees and the materials are gone through for accuracy and for areas that are thin. The results aren't always correct, but it's not like books get approved without any consideration. With the possible exception of stand alone courses that don't need to move students to the next course, those may or may not be particularly well reviewed.

        Mistakes do happen, for instance th

    • Who said that anyone will be working for free?

      To use an analogy, there's nothing stopping me from paying millions of dollars to someone to develop software for me, then turn around and release it under an open source license.

      All they need to do is pay normal market prices for competent people who can write textbooks to write textbooks, make sure that the contract specifies that the government--not the author--retains copyright, and then release the textbooks under some sort of freedoc license.

  • I'm sure if Richard Feynman were alive today he would be a very vocal proponent of OS text books. In fact, I'm sure he'd probably spend an inordinate amount of time editing them himself!

  • Inevitable, I Hope (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dcollins (135727) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @12:52PM (#38598274) Homepage

    As a college math teacher, my gut instinct is that this is the only damn thing that really makes any sense. Math books are probably ground-zero in that they have no need or right to change very much from year-to-year. They ought to be written once, and released for free for anyone to download and use (and modify and improve if you need to). If there's any more compelling use of computing technology to distribute knowledge, I frankly don't know what it is.

    What I see happening currently is one of two options: (a) Use a mass-market book that the publisher churns with a not-quite-compatible edition every year or two. The statistics text used in my classes (picked by department, not me) is excellent, but a new copy costs $180 to students, which kind of breaks my heart (multiply that by all their classes each year, holy damn!). (b) Use an in-house written textbook custom to the department (done in a lot of lower-level classes) which will be cheaper, lets the department recoup some of the money, but is of much lower quality (fewer exercises by an order-of-magnitude, no proofreading for errors, no graphic design, no color, hand-drawn sketches, etc.) And this work is probably repeated thousands of times at schools across the country.

    Just write the damn thing once, somehow, and give it away free to everyone. Seems inevitable, and I'm eager to see it.

    • Kickstart It? (Score:4, Informative)

      by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn.gmail@com> on Thursday January 05, 2012 @01:35PM (#38599010) Journal

      Just write the damn thing once, somehow, and give it away free to everyone. Seems inevitable, and I'm eager to see it.

      Hey man if you're up for writing it, I'd definitely chuck $25 at a thing like this. I donated $25 to Daniel Shiffman's Nature of Code [kickstarter.com] book and plan on reviewing it on Slashdot once he's done. Here's some examples of his latest products for it: PDF of Chapter 10 [shiffman.net] and Code [shiffman.net].

      Figure out how much money you would need to have your department make some creative common texts and see how Kickstarter responds ...

    • (b) Use an in-house written textbook custom to the department (done in a lot of lower-level classes) which will be cheaper, lets the department recoup some of the money, but is of much lower quality (fewer exercises by an order-of-magnitude, no proofreading for errors, no graphic design, no color, hand-drawn sketches, etc.)

      LaTeX supports color and diagrams; why would you not include them?

      • LaTeX supports color and diagrams; why would you not include them?

        Color costs more to replicate in print than gray, and color ebook readers cost more and don't last as long on a charge (e.g. Kindle Fire vs. Kindle models using E Ink).

        • Is color (print) duplication that much more expensive? And do ebook readers even support dvi? I would believe that students would just view the dvi files on laptops/notebooks.

    • by myc (105406)

      IAABP (I am a biology professor).

      For basic maths or physics, I agree with you that open source textbooks would be a great idea. The problem is when you talk about textbooks for more rapidly evolving fields, such as the life sciences. I can see how open source textbooks would be a very difficult proposition for biology texts. If the government wanted to fund such an endeavor it would not be "write once then forget about it", you would have to constantly update and revise it every few years. This means that t

      • by geekoid (135745)

        A) IT doesn't have to be revised every year. Ideally, yes. But when was the last time soneone showed up to revise a textbook while a student was using it?

        B) wikibook would work. Nothing about Wiki means everyone can edit it. Some places, such as wikipedia allow it, but you can also create a wiki where only experts can edit it.

        WIkipedia is still the best source for a lot of information, even with it's flaws.

        I mean, they pay people to write textbooks now, correct?

    • by hedwards (940851)

      I mostly agree. The main problem that math text books have is in terms of format. The concepts haven't changed much if at all in many decades, at least for the courses most folks take.

      The bigger issue tends to be format, and an open source textbook could definitely deal with that in a way that you could have several different books in use in the same course that all use the same examples, problem sets and solutions, but were slightly different in organization. As in larger print or explanations next to the

    • (b) Use an in-house written textbook custom to the department (done in a lot of lower-level classes) which will be cheaper, lets the department recoup some of the money, but is of much lower quality (fewer exercises by an order-of-magnitude, no proofreading for errors, no graphic design, no color, hand-drawn sketches, etc.) And this work is probably repeated thousands of times at schools across the country. Just write the damn thing once, somehow, and give it away free to everyone. Seems inevitable, and I'm eager to see it.

      All that may be true for the 1st edition, but with each passing year, classes can write their own exercises, and retire the ones that don't illustrate the problem well.

      Why would you just write it once, and make it static? The students themselves can edit and improve. If every class did this, after a few years the book would be near perfect. There's probably a Master's level thesis in Education just proving that one method of exercise is better than another.

    • by bcrowell (177657)

      Use an in-house written textbook custom to the department (done in a lot of lower-level classes) which will be cheaper, lets the department recoup some of the money, but is of much lower quality (fewer exercises by an order-of-magnitude, no proofreading for errors, no graphic design, no color, hand-drawn sketches, etc.)

      I teach physics, not math, but here are some existing math books that I consider to be of pretty high quality:

      1. Hefferon, Linear Algebra, http://joshua.smcvt.edu/linalg.html/ [smcvt.edu] (BY-SA license)
      2. Judson, Abstract Algebra: Theory and Applications, http://abstract.ups.edu/ [ups.edu] (GFDL license)
      3. Corral, Trigonometry, http://mecmath.net/trig/ [mecmath.net] (GFDL license)
      4. Keisler, Elementary Calculus: An Approach Using Infinitesimals, http://www.math.wisc.edu/~keisler/calc.html [wisc.edu] (CC-BY-NC-SA license)
      5. Illowsky and Dean, Collaborative Statisti
  • Access to knowledge should be universal... of course it does not replace schools but at least one has the possibility to learn on their own if they want to. This is particularely true when as tablet usage becomes universal... allowing to carry a whole bookshelf in one tiny object.

    Also, it would enable knowledge access to poorer neighborhoods/countries, allowing the usage of other books when they neither can afford to create material or buy books.

  • There is no reason for college text books to be as expensive as they are now. Any educational institution that takes money from any level of government should be using text books that are open sourced. Anything that can drive down the costs of getting an education without decreasing the quality of that education should be encouraged.

    END COMMUNICATION

    • by cdrguru (88047)

      There is no reason that textbooks should cost anywhere near what they do... except you assume that a textbook and a Stephen King novel go through the same process at the publishing house.

      You can find "textbooks" that have a single author, no peer review process, no technical editing, no educational review and no state board approvals and they are much cheaper. Nobody uses them, but they are much cheaper. The problem is all of the reviewing and editing costs a lot of money and the publishing house gets to

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Limited runs. See how much it will cost you to publish and print 10000 books.

  • Trust *nothing* from the festering maw of Darrell Steinberg.

  • What exactly is an "open source" textbook? Stop using this term to apply to anything but software development because it is almost always used incorrectly.

    The "source" of any text book is inherently open. If you can think you can write a book and thus no-one controls the content of the book you write.

    There is a differences between opening up the standards used to select textbooks in schools systems, but the source content of a book is always open, there is no proprietary source for learning.

    • An open-source textbook would be one that you can modify without having to write the whole thing over. If I give you the LaTeX source code for the book, you can modify and recompile it.

  • Greed (here) is good (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MacAndrew (463832) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @01:15PM (#38598700) Homepage

    It's not just a good idea, it's inevitable. The immediate drive, always a convincing one in politics, is money. the interesting Q is HOW to do it, but whether to start, and to do it with public money is a no-brainer. You might otherwise as well question whether public-financed education is relevant. That ship has sailed, and this is just one part of that critical project. Feynman's essay on textbook adoption is timeless: http://www.textbookleague.org/103feyn.htm [textbookleague.org]

    Current textbooks are overweight, expensive, and boring. Many schools including ours have been reduced into getting students two copies because they were to heavy to take to school and back (really). Now the kids rarely even open the things.

    • by gfxguy (98788)

      Interesting. Our kids get physical textbooks PLUS the ability to see them online (although I don't know if that accounts for EVERY textbook they have).

      One senator here suggested buying every student an iPad (!$!$!$!). I think it's actually on the right track, but how about a lower cost alternative like one of the new e-readers - they'd allow anybody to edit and submit documents to teachers without burdening families with having to buy a computer.

      • by MacAndrew (463832)

        Yes, they get the online version, too. (Arlington VA) The high schools are starting to give out iPads, too. Some number of kids are given laptops if they don't have computer access at home (my not-poor but deprived kid got one of these because, well, we don't do Windows). This is a fairly affluent district, but the iPad used doesn't seem so $$$ compared to textbooks that already cost $80/each. The kids take better care of them than I would have expected, too. I wonder if Apple has a good bulk price for the

        • by gfxguy (98788)

          It's true iPads with open source texts would (or potentially could) be cheaper, but why not go even cheaper still? I say the minimum device that meets requirements should be used. If it's just for text books, they could get $50 e-readers with e-ink displays. If you want more (color or other functionality), I can't imagine you'd need more than a Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet... there should be enough there for any school to be happy with, I think.

          I do worry, though, because no matter what you pick, they are

          • by MacAndrew (463832)

            I like macs but not platform dependence - my kid *had* to run windows software. I wouldn't want iPad dependence, either.

            I think, though, that there is a case to be made for color, real wireless, and meaningful performance. Most of the added stuff for textbooks, animations and so on, don't do a whole lot, but color adds very meaningful and sometimes essential "bandwidth" (for example, an article on color blindness). Presumably you'll be able to get all that for $50 in a few years. $500 isn't even terrible. O

  • was uses as a red herring by the textbook industry.

    You can have digital books AND PRINT THEM OUT for those who need them.

  • How is California going to afford this venture? The last time that I checked, the entire state is in dire straits financially. A holiday road trip from San Diego to Santa Barbara revealed some roads and infrastructure in terrible condition.
  • We subsidize college students at all levels. Surely many of those can also teach and write. So reformat the grant programs so that those that write good textbooks and apps that are actually used can get compensated through tuition.

    What percentage does the average PHD student actually pay for their tuition?

PLUG IT IN!!!

Working...