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Saylor Foundation Awards Prizes To Free College Textbooks 75

Posted by Soulskill
from the price-is-right dept.
Brad Lucier writes "The Saylor Foundation has a vision: Free and open materials for a complete undergraduate university education. To that end, they've announced the first winners in their Open Textbook Challenge: Four textbooks were relicensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC-BY 3.0) Unported license, the most open of the CC licenses, and in return the authors were awarded a prize of $20,000 for each book. See the blog entries and the accompanying press releases for details. The second wave of submissions will be accepted until May 31, 2012."
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Saylor Foundation Awards Prizes To Free College Textbooks

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  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Tuesday February 07, 2012 @06:20PM (#38960397)

    Free and open materials for a complete undergraduate university education.

    I love that vision, but I don't think Houghton Mifflin and all those universities that make money off their bookstores are going down without a fight.

    BTW, on a related note, has anyone else noticed that a lot of universities now are requiring students to not only buy books, but also access codes to course websites? My niece is taking undergrad classes and had to spend about $200 extra on these course codes during her first semester to access MANDATORY class websites (one of them was "MyMathPlus," I remember). Seems like a pretty sleazy way to make even more money for someone.

    • by avandesande (143899) on Tuesday February 07, 2012 @06:27PM (#38960471) Journal

      Time for someone to start an open source college/university

    • by Mitsoid (837831)

      My experiences in college right now have shown those codes such as MyMathLab are usually provided with new textbooks...

      If you buy used textbooks, then you have to buy the codes as well, but they usually are $20-$60, not $200 (unless you're talking used book + codes)

      still ridiculously expensive.. but that's our system for ya ;-)

      • by donaggie03 (769758) <d_osmeyer@hot[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Tuesday February 07, 2012 @07:08PM (#38960907)
        We require MML for our algebra classes. The upside is that the textbook is recommended, so the student is free to choose their own algebra text, new or used, current edition or old, etc). So the total cost to the student is less than $50 for the code, plus however much they want to spend at half price books or online for any decent algebra textbook (international editions are godawful cheap). That's usually far cheaper than the cost of a new textbook, even without the access code.

        I agree though; forcing the student to pay for the access code AND a new textbook is just being greedy/lazy.
    • by jesseck (942036)
      That happened to me years ago as well. I think the idea there is if the instructor used the same book for a couple years, at least the web content could be made to expire and the publisher could make more money. In the end, I bought the used Biology book and the full-price website subscription.
  • by ohnocitizen (1951674) on Tuesday February 07, 2012 @06:20PM (#38960399)
    Look this is an admirable goal, an effort to bring down the cost of undergraduate education (and make materials more readily available to the public). But this trend of offering small prizes in exchange for creative/academic work is a race to the bottom. How long until the private sector tries this with more and more jobs? Its taking the 99designs approach to academia.
    • by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Tuesday February 07, 2012 @06:30PM (#38960499) Homepage Journal
      It's interesting how you're saying this is not good at a large-sum, high-scale level, but in general Slashdotters think that doing it on a smaller scale, with donations to musicians, is a good one. As an IP discussion: when does the 'non-guaranteed pay' model work and when is it toxic?
      • by Endo13 (1000782)

        I think it has a lot more to do with what people need (but don't really like) and what they want (and really like).

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by BasilBrush (643681)

        As an IP discussion: when does the 'non-guaranteed pay' model work and when is it toxic?

        Which ever way means that the Slashdotter gets free stuff.

      • by shaitand (626655)

        "It's interesting how you're saying this is not good at a large-sum, high-scale level, but in general Slashdotters think that doing it on a smaller scale, with donations to musicians, is a good one."

        Why is it interesting? Does he represent slashdot? I actually think is a great model. They were paid $20,000 which equates to 90,000+ sales with a traditional publisher. The publisher won't give it to you in advance. They won't even give it to you when its earned, they will hold it back in case of returns for a

        • Interesting as in "Your opinion vaguely contravenes general accepted wisdom here; let's have a discussion about it." Which you're doing. So that's something of a win.
      • It's interesting how you're saying this is not good at a large-sum, high-scale level, but in general Slashdotters think that doing it on a smaller scale, with donations to musicians, is a good one. As an IP discussion: when does the 'non-guaranteed pay' model work and when is it toxic?

        I would say the 'non-guaranteed pay' model becomes toxic when that model allows people to be paid below a decent living wage. People should be paid decently for their work, if that work benefits society (like these textbooks presumably do). They probably shouldn't be paid millions (lets not even mention sports and athlete wages), but they should get more than a few nickels out of the deal.

        • by tehcyder (746570)

          It's interesting how you're saying this is not good at a large-sum, high-scale level, but in general Slashdotters think that doing it on a smaller scale, with donations to musicians, is a good one. As an IP discussion: when does the 'non-guaranteed pay' model work and when is it toxic?

          I would say the 'non-guaranteed pay' model becomes toxic when that model allows people to be paid below a decent living wage. People should be paid decently for their work, if that work benefits society (like these textbooks presumably do). They probably shouldn't be paid millions (lets not even mention sports and athlete wages), but they should get more than a few nickels out of the deal.

          You can't have a free market economy with guaranteed minimum wages for non productive work, and a cap on high earning sportsmen.

          But then again who wants a free market economy in the first place, apart from rich fucks and gangsters?

      • by chichilalescu (1647065) on Tuesday February 07, 2012 @11:04PM (#38962801) Homepage Journal

        For now I'm a postdoc, but I plan to teach someday. When I do that, I think it would be common sense to have a set of lecture notes, and I think it would be quite natural to turn these lecture notes into a book. It is my understanding that people usually do this when they teach a course on the problems they're researching. Thus I am already getting payed for writing the book (because I get payed as a teacher), and the book should be distributed freely once it's written.

        The prize should not be an incentive to generate the book...

      • Prizes aren't (shouldn't be) offered to pay for the regular development of goods, they are offered as an incentive to make totally new things happen and raise the profile of said things, and when the economic value of the result is unknown. The donation model on the other hand is proposed for regular payment for known types of goods.

        An open source textbook (that's actually used and recommended for coursework nation-wide, not just the professor's lecture notes) is a new thing. A prize makes sense to speed

      • by zotz (3951)

        Not answering that particular question, but if the prize re-license was to BY-SA and not BY it would not be as bad. (If it is bad at all.)

    • by semi-extrinsic (1997002) <asmunder@stud.CU ... minus physicist> on Tuesday February 07, 2012 @06:53PM (#38960743)
      The race to the bottom is complete, in the sense that these books were being given away free of charge long before any reward was offered. This is also the case with many more text books, and not only in undergraduate education. See e.g. Mark Srednicki's Quantum Field Theory book: http://www.physics.ucsb.edu/~mark/qft.html [ucsb.edu]

      Sure, it's a preprint version with a few minor errors, but it was immensely useful when I took QFT 1. (Tony Zee's QFT in a Nutshell was the approved course book, and that is a good book as well, but completely opposite of Srednicki in terms of how detailed calculations they do, etc., so it was useful to have both.)
      • The race to the bottom is complete,

        No, it's not a race to the bottom. Academics aren't paid for the books they write, they are paid for teaching and research. Books are a way to gain prestige, but aren't a condition of employment, and the money (or lack of money) that the book earns is irrelevant, and not a condition for the book's existence.

        A race to the bottom occurs when one's livelihood depends on a shrinking and uncertain income, which is patently not the case for academics and academic textbooks.

    • by shaitand (626655) on Tuesday February 07, 2012 @07:12PM (#38960951) Journal

      Why is it good for a corporation to charge as much as the market will bear for a book but not good for the market to pay as little as possible for one?

      $20k is also actually not a low fee for a book. You need to sell a good 100k copies to see in that ballpark with a traditional publisher.

    • It's not a race to the bottom when all of the open source cars aren't allowed on the racetrack. In the current system, the car manufacturers, the racetrack owner, and the racing sponsors are all in collusion with each other to keep the system just like it is. The open source racers aren't even in the game yet, though they're starting to build the own cars to race on their own tracks.

      When you can get actual course credits from an accredited university using open source materials, then the race will really be

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Do you have to be a graduate of the Khan Academy before taking college level course at Saylor.org, or can you skip ahead if you have a note from Sal Kahn?

  • Free? (Score:4, Funny)

    by Jawnn (445279) on Tuesday February 07, 2012 @06:25PM (#38960455)
    Free textbooks?! This is madness; pure socialist madness. What's next? Free college tuition?
    • Re:Free? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by vlm (69642) on Tuesday February 07, 2012 @06:49PM (#38960703)

      Free textbooks?! This is madness; pure socialist madness. What's next? Free college tuition?

      Maybe we should steal the model of tuition funding and research funding, for textbook funding. If everyone in our culture benefits from freely available textbooks, either directly or indirectly, have the govt underwrite them and release them under a completely open license. You wanna sell paper textbooks? Fine, but you better sell them cheaper than a laserprinter cost per page. Don't like the govt issue? Fine, its CC license, so replace the sections you don't like with your own.

      One killer problem is $20K is way too little to develop a completely new 400 page textbook. Its gonna take at least 1, maybe 2 years of fairly concentrated effort. And $20K/yr is probably way too much to keep it up to date. The solution is not to award money for new books but to award money to pull a currently project gutenberg free public domain book up to current standards.

      • by KhabaLox (1906148)

        award money to pull a currently project gutenberg free public domain book up to current standards.

        How much to update Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica?

      • by JanneM (7445)

        Maybe we should steal the model of [â¦] research fundingâ¦

        You mean, the author writes it for free, pays a publisher several hundred dollars to give away the copyright, and the publisher then proceeds to charge $35 for a ten-page paper or thousands of dollars wor a shoddily printed magazine?

        I'm not sure paying several tens of times more per textbook and not compensating the author is all that god an idea myself.

      • by gwolf (26339) <gwolf@gwol[ ]rg ['f.o' in gap]> on Tuesday February 07, 2012 @07:43PM (#38961221) Homepage

        Somebody in a third-world country.
        Seriously. I am an academician in UNAM (Mexico; largest Spanish-speaking university in the world). A beginning academician as myself earns about US$1500 a month, and the best payed academicians in UNAM will get... Up to 10 times as much. I published a book this year (granted, a book of research results on Free Software and similar communities, not a textbook), and it took me approx. ¼ of my time for 18 months. The university does not pay me royalties on sold copies (and that's part of the reason I negotiated for it to be a free CC-BY-SA book [edusol.info]).
        If the prize is not too distant from a year worth of qualified job income... Hell, it's a very interesting job to take!

      • The solution is not to award money for new books but to award money to pull a currently project gutenberg free public domain book up to current standards.

        I'm an OER activist, and have considered this approach. The problem is that because the copyright regime ensures that PD works are so old, this usually ends up requiring just as much work as starting from zero.

      • by gnapster (1401889)

        One killer problem is $20K is way too little to develop a completely new 400 page textbook. Its gonna take at least 1, maybe 2 years of fairly concentrated effort. And $20K/yr is probably way too much to keep it up to date. The solution is not to award money for new books but to award money to pull a currently project gutenberg free public domain book up to current standards.

        Seems to me that the prize is not being offered as an incentive to create a textbook, but to release a textbook with a permissive license. They have extended the deadline; I cannot tell how long this prize has been out there. (It's certainly the first I've heard of it.) But as you say, there is far too little time to create a text from scratch. If I were working on a textbook, though, this might be the incentive I need to release it to the world.

        Also, the whole point of having a permissive license is t

    • Re:Free? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by BasilBrush (643681) on Tuesday February 07, 2012 @07:02PM (#38960831)

      I'm all for text-books being free. So long as the academic that wrote it was somehow paid at a suitable rate for the time he spent creating it.

      A competition tends to mean X people create a work, and X-1 people don't get paid anything for that work. Its a morally vacuous way of getting work done on the cheap, whilst wasting most peoples time. It's neither socialist nor capitalist, but more closely fits slavery.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        A competition tends to mean X people create a work, and X-1 people don't get paid anything for that work. Its a morally vacuous way of getting work done on the cheap, whilst wasting most peoples time. It's neither socialist nor capitalist, but more closely fits slavery.

        You mean like Web sites that get customer's to create content for them, for nothing more than Karma?

        • by tehcyder (746570)

          A competition tends to mean X people create a work, and X-1 people don't get paid anything for that work. Its a morally vacuous way of getting work done on the cheap, whilst wasting most peoples time. It's neither socialist nor capitalist, but more closely fits slavery.

          You mean like Web sites that get customer's to create content for them, for nothing more than Karma?

          Yes but no one gets any money for posting to slashdot (apart from the legendary paid shills for Microsoft/Google/Apple everyone keeps mentioning).

      • by gnapster (1401889)

        A competition tends to mean X people create a work, and X-1 people don't get paid anything for that work.

        No, this competition means that X people create a work, only 1 gets paid, and only 1 gets used by Saylor. Complaining about this is like complaining that only one architect gets paid for a construction job when 6 architects went to the trouble of creating bids.

        • No. An architect creates concept drawings and/or models at the bidding stage. But most of the work is done once the successful bid has been selected. And the selected architect gets paid by the hour for that time.

          This competition is based on complete books. Where all the work has been done by all the competitors up front. And it doesn't vary by amount of work put in.

          • by gnapster (1401889)

            I have worked as a draftsman for an architect. The fact that you have to obtain surveys, visit the site, create drawings and models, and calculate your bids is exactly what I was talking about. Especially the fact that only the selected architect gets paid. You were claiming that if X (e.g., 6) creators submit work then a full X-1 (e.g., 5) creators get paid, which is not the case unless you only have two competing for the prize.

            As I said in another thread, this is definitely not sufficient compensatio

    • Public universities are free in Argentina, just like primary and secondary school. I've never understood why US has such unaffordable universities. It's not socialism, education should be free and accesible to anyone nowdays.

  • While looking at the copyright page for the real analysis book that "won" I found this ...

    "Distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) license made
    possible by funding from The Saylor Foundation’s Open Textbook Challenge..."

    I'm not saying there's foul play afoot, but it seems odd.

    Cool none the less. I wonder if the books are any good.

    • by Matheus (586080)

      I don't see that as evidence of foul play at all...
      "I'm giving this book away for free because they offered me me money to do so."

      Anyone who submits to this could post the exact same wording in their CW page and be honest. Honestly I wouldn't be surprised if there was some condition of the deal where you were required to include that wording. ("Hey... we'll give you money to give away your book to everyone else but every time someone looks under the cover we want them to see our name... deal?")

      Now if a sh

    • by godel_56 (1287256)

      Cool none the less. I wonder if the books are any good.

      So download them and see. After all, they are free.

      • Indeed, I am reading through the Real Analysis one to see.

        A math buddy of mine has wanted to write a textbook for years as a big Middle Finger to the establishment. I like the model here. The Real Analysis book, at least, is free for teachers and self-teaching students. Available for a small fee for the classroom. See publisher http://trillia.com/ [trillia.com].

        Props to you, Trillia!

    • by chrb (1083577)

      From the summary: "Four textbooks were relicensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC-BY 3.0) Unported license, the most open of the CC licenses, and in return the authors were awarded a prize of $20,000 for each book."

      That is all that the text you quote is saying: this book is distributed as Creative Commons thanks to the prize money from the Textbook Challenge.

      • Right. Just seems a little odd that the distribution was made possible by prize money that was awarded for being a textbook with that license available for distribution. Chicken and egg problem.

        • The book wasn't distributed under the CC BY 3.0 license until the Saylor Foundation awarded the prizes. The copyright notice was changed after the prizes were announced. The texts were freed.
  • by MikeTheGreat (34142) on Tuesday February 07, 2012 @07:22PM (#38961037)

    On the one hand I really like the idea of keeping incidental costs of education down by doing things like making textbooks available for free. On the other hand I'm mature enough to realize that nobody is going to create a (quality) textbook for free*.

    So my concern for the long-term sustainability of this model is this:
    1) One-time grant money is made available to create a free textbook
    2) The free textbook reduces the profitability of the proprietary books, which then leave the market
    3) Since the money in step #1 is one-time, and since grantors looooooooooove to fund New Awesome Advances but hate to fund Ongoing Operating Expenses, Maintenance and Upkeep the free textbook languishes
    3.1) Making non-trivial changes to the textbook is a huge undertaking, so the already-overworked teachers using the book won't be making wholesale revisions to it regularly
    3.1.1) Maybe I"m wrong on 3.1, and I've love to see links to projects that contradict 3.1

    4) The textbook market is now gone but the free textbooks aren't being maintained either.

    I'd love to hear discussion on this, but I'd particularly like to see established, free textbooks that are genuinely self-supporting.

    * Yes, yes please do feel free to reply to this post with whatever online, free books you know about. I look forwards to seeing your list

    • http://flatworldknowledge.com/ [flatworldknowledge.com] has an interesting model. You can read the book online for free, and you pay extra for the dead-tree version and extra student material. Their books are CC/BY/NC/SA, and they have, as their site puts it, "an easy-to-use editing platform called MIYO (Make It Your Own)" to customize a book. Full disclosure: I'm using one of their books in a course that I teach.
    • by gslj (214011) on Tuesday February 07, 2012 @08:25PM (#38961547)

      "nobody is going to create a (quality) textbook for free."

      http://www.lightandmatter.com/books.html
      http://lightandmatter.com/french/
      http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/
      http://oerconsortium.org/discipline-specific/
      http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/display/ (an extended, on-line version of the University of Toronto's long-time textbook "Representative Poetry")

      Keep in mind that many of the textbooks assigned for English classes are classic books, now public domain.

      Look at it this way: a professor is going to put together the equivalent of a textbook in handouts and lecture notes anyway, over the years. They don't necessarily think it will make them money in a crowded market. Many, in those circumstances, wouldn't mind sharing, and would keep it up to date for their own use. If they bring in a few like-minded souls, they could keep it up to date just like an open-source programming project.

      • Thanks for the links - these are definitely interesting!

        Some of these look good (I had forgotten about 'Eloquent JavaScript'), but many don't ("Introduction To Computer Science", at http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Introduction_to_Computer_Science [wikiversity.org] (linked to from http://oerconsortium.org/discipline-specific/ [oerconsortium.org]) contains hardly any material at all).

        a professor is going to put together the equivalent of a textbook in handouts and lecture notes anyway, over the years

        From what I've seen this is not true. Instead the professor puts together the handouts and lecture notes for their specific course(s) over the years.

        The difference b

    • Textbook market? You think there's a textbook market? No, academics themselves get practically nothing for writing textbooks. Almost all of the money goes to the publishers.

      • academics themselves get practically nothing for writing textbooks. Almost all of the money goes to the publishers.

        I've never written a book myself, but people who have have told me that your statement is absolutely right.

        That still doesn't change the underlying question - if there are textbooks out there for free, will publishers leave the market because there's no money (no incentive) for them to stay?
        And if they do, will there be enough other incentive to keep people working on the maintenance of the free textbooks?

        Another interesting question just occurred to me: O'Reilly seems to be doing ok (at least, that's my im

  • The best solution would be community edited books and curriculum, similar to how wikipedia works.

    All teachers and professors could contribute and the material would be accessible to everyone over the internet. The content would be always up to date and unbiased with an editor structure similar to wikipedia's.

    The material would also be of the highest quality, because most of the contributions will come from teachers who actually care about teaching.

  • I love this idea ... but the implementation is awful. In the chemistry book there are dead links, bad formatting, numerous typos. I know it's a work in progress, but there needs to be a great deal of progress before any school will conceive of using these.
    • There is no chemistry book among the four texts chosen in the first round of the Open Textbook Challenge.

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