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Books Education The Almighty Buck

University of Minnesota Launches Review Project For Open Textbooks 133

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the textbook-lobby-looking-nervous dept.
New submitter Durinia writes "Minnesota Public Radio is running a story about the University of Minnesota's Open Textbooks project. The goal of the project is to solicit reviews of college-level open source textbooks and collect those that pass muster onto their website. The project will focus first on high-volume introductory classes such as those for Math and Biology, because as David Ernst, director of the project, states in the interview: 'You know the world doesn't need another $150 Algebra One book. Algebra One hasn't changed for centuries, probably.'" Requirements for inclusion include: Open licensing (Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike), complete content (no glorified collections of lecture notes), applicability outside of the author's institution, and print availability.
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University of Minnesota Launches Review Project For Open Textbooks

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  • Well, good. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ShakaUVM (157947) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @05:10AM (#39780049) Homepage Journal

    I was talking with a history professor (rljensen) the other day, and he said that free textbook ebooks would never catch on because, quote, "They're all terrible. And if they weren't terrible, they'd be selling them."

    Hopefully sites like this will not only prove him wrong, but bring education, world-wide, to the next level.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @05:25AM (#39780099)

      Wow, what a non-sequitur. "If 1 + 1 isn't equal to 3, then why do schools say otherwise!?"

    • Re:Well, good. (Score:4, Informative)

      by cheesybagel (670288) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @06:31AM (#39780209)
      Uh, I already read stuff like The Prince from Project Guttenberg and it wasn't terrible at all. There is so much literature from the XIXth century or before to read that you would be hard pressed to read it all. Of course they do not sell because they do not cost anything duh.
      • Re:Well, good. (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Hadlock (143607) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @09:22AM (#39780985) Homepage Journal

        There's historical works, and then there are works meant to be studied and absorbed by students of this century. Yes, you and I would have no trouble at all with an Algebra book written in 1975, laugh at some of the rather dated soviet russia cartoons explaining parabolic arcs, and probably pass the state standardized test as a result, but how well can you comprehend the Harvard 1899 Entrance Exam [nytimes.com] at a glance?
         
        It takes considerable skill and effort to write a text for the appropriate age group, make it engaging, easy to read, yet cover all the material required without losing the 50th percentile students who are struggling to pass so they can stay on the football team (or insert stereotype here).
         
        Tools that modern students can relate to aren't simply slapped together in an afternoon, and require a serious editorial staff.

        • by twistedcubic (577194) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @01:00PM (#39783817)
          C'mon, you're pretending that current and past textbooks "engage" students and contain content "students can relate to", thus unnecessarily raising the bar for open texts. Truthfully, most modern textbooks suck. Their selling point is that they have great typesetting and pretty diagrams. One publisher I talked to wanted us to use a newer edition of a geometry text because the figures were in color (but black and white in the older edition). It's hard to take these people seriously. Anyway, it's a zillion times easier to write an Algebra 1 text than the linux kernel. You can get a great book done in a year with say, 3 contributors and 3 editors. We just need the right leader, and the revolution will begin.
        • by Chryana (708485) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @01:01PM (#39783847)

          Not only that, but I would like to add that I do not think personally that the few books I have read from project Gutenberg are suitable for educational use... I don't want to slap the project Gutenberg, I like what they do, but the few books I got from their website (mostly French literature) were shock full of spelling mistakes, probably caused by faults in OCR recognition. Maybe schools could run classes where students would have to fix a few chapters during their semester and give back the output of their work to the project (after revision by the teacher, of course).

      • by azalin (67640) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @09:27AM (#39781017)
        That's because their copyright expired and everybody including P.G. is allowed to reproduce them. There are also many commercial reprints available.
        Machiavelli still sells quite well even though it is public domain (or were you talking of another prince?)
    • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @07:45AM (#39780425) Homepage Journal

      A lot of supposedly intelligent people who should really know better conflate high price with high quality.

    • Re:Well, good. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Joce640k (829181) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @08:28AM (#39780635) Homepage

      Everybody should read this [textbookleague.org] before commenting on whether school text books are any good...

    • by ledow (319597) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @09:08AM (#39780865) Homepage

      It's a short-sighted response, certainly.

      They won't catch on because there are still THOUSANDS of universities across the world and each one serves the end-products of hundreds of other, smaller schools. And yet, every school you go into has a different set of books, every teacher uses different books to teach from, and every one has a different idea about which is the best book.

      So collating that into a single resource that, what? You expect everyone in the world (or a significant majority of people ANYWHERE) to just pick up and use as the sole source for everything on that particular subject? That totally destroys the value of teachers (whether really or just perceived) and provides a monoculture that cannot possibly suit everyone.

      There's a thousand Algebra books because there are a thousand times that number of teachers and all have their own preferences. Throughout school and university, I never viewed a book as anything more than a recommendation and I was forced to buy precisely ONE book (and that because the teacher set exercises by page number, which is nothing to do with the book itself - but it does make you wonder who got the back-hander). Most teachers would take things from multiple books all the time because they would all do different things "better" and even then some children understood one more than the other.

      Modern teaching is not only firmly embedded into society, but has ideas about teaching children as "individually" as possible because of things like learning styles, learning disabilities, different entry requirements, etc. It doesn't happen, but blanket-teaching from the same book everywhere would effectively cut out a lot of students that need something extra. And if you have to buy something else to fill that gap, well you have two competing books, or more, and they all have their own way of doing things and we're back to square one where they compete (even in free vs paid).

      I can learn just about any skill or mathematic I like by googling for it and finding a tutorial. Almost certainly the best one won't be the first one, or the most popular one, or the simplest one, or any other descriptor you could differentiate them on. You can quite literally "learn C in a month", to the same standard it would be taught in a school, from free resources on the Internet if you put the work in and its written in a way you find interesting. But you can't say that what worked for you works for everyone, or that the particular resource you used is somehow "definitive".

      Open textbooks are great things to have but, like all things, and especially all things open, the best driver is competition. One "definitive" resource is worthless. Schools are not going to throw everything away and only use that one document, even if algebra hasn't changed in decades (and it has, and the children have, and the teachers have, and the facilities available have, but that's besides the point). It's not even stubbornness, it's just good sense.

      Let every university put up their resources and immediately the global value is increased, the possibility of locating errors is enhanced, reputations and competition mean that the quality will only improve over time. Yes, it's a duplication of effort. But so is every junior programmer who writes their own "memset" routine or whatever. The duplication of effort results in 1.01 versions of the final document, on average. That 0.01 is the crucial bit that makes one document "better" than the other and they will BOTH have that and in a way that you can't combine in one document/explanation/analogy without repeating yourself. And for every extra version, you'll get more value that CANNOT be combined into a single, concise document.

      Open textbooks were around when I was in university - there were websites written in HTML1 that linked to various free online courses from major universities. My university lecturers distributed their own material and provided textbook recommendations. With the exception of blatant cashing-in by not

      • by UnknownSoldier (67820) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @10:20AM (#39781457)

        > you expect everyone in the world to just pick up and use as the sole source for everything on a particular topic

        You want to tell that to the thiests? :)

        It is absolutely *idiotic* to waste human effort duplicating the same thing. *HOW* many fricken textbooks do you _really_ need on any one subject?? More then 10 is just pure greed.

        The biggest flaw of capitalism is that it encourages people to waste their lives duplicating goods and promotes the mindless archaic concept of competition instead of rewarding people who cooperate.

        Go watch the TED video on choice if you still mistakenly believe more choice is a good thing. SOME choice is the optimal amount.

      • by Half-pint HAL (718102) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @06:39PM (#39788649)

        There's a thousand Algebra books because there are a thousand times that number of teachers and all have their own preferences. Throughout school and university, I never viewed a book as anything more than a recommendation and I was forced to buy precisely ONE book (and that because the teacher set exercises by page number, which is nothing to do with the book itself - but it does make you wonder who got the back-hander).

        You were forced to buy one book? That means you were given the responsibility for buying books -- lucky you. I think you'll find that a great many teachers go their entire careers without ever getting a say on the books they use in class.

        I think the biggest advantage of this project will turn out to be not the price, as everyone would expect, but the academic rigour in the review process. Given the horror stories floating around about the poor standards of review boards for high school textbooks, I can only imagine the delight of teachers seeing a textbook with a university's seal of approval on it.

    • Re:Well, good. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by SecurityGuy (217807) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @09:27AM (#39781023)

      Maybe you should have talked to a future professor. :)

      People might have said the same thing about software. Plenty still do, but free software does quite well these days. Some of it is terrible. Some of it is spectacularly good. The bottom line is enough of it is good enough.

      This also ties in with a story last week or so about Florida (I think) not wanting to be bothered with correcting their tests where students were directed to pick the right answer out of four, but in some cases three of them were technically correct. The stuff we pay good money for isn't very good, either.

    • by srobert (4099) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @10:37AM (#39781681)

      And was he by chance an author of a history text that was required for the course? I took a chemistry class once where the $200 text was written by six professors, one of whom was teaching the course. On the other end, I also had a math professor who confessed that our 400 page calculus text was a rip-off. He stated that nothing about calculus had changed for decades and a 100 pages would have been more than enough to cover the topic. Unfortunately the choice of text was not up to him.

    • by argStyopa (232550) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:15AM (#39782181) Journal

      What's funny/sad is the inanity of that professor's statement. Is that representative of educators at-large?

      I mean, I don't have ANY problem paying for textbooks. People that write and edit those things need to live.

      But paying several times the market price for a comparably-sized book, especially when the bulk of that book is regurgitated content functionally identical to what's been produced in the previous 12 editions?

    • by gl4ss (559668) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @12:56PM (#39783767) Homepage Journal

      I was talking with a history professor (rljensen) the other day, and he said that free textbook ebooks would never catch on because, quote, "They're all terrible. And if they weren't terrible, they'd be selling them."

      Hopefully sites like this will not only prove him wrong, but bring education, world-wide, to the next level.

      you should have pointed out that there are plenty of people willing to sell those free books to people who are stupid enough to buy them! (appstores are full of such stuff!!)

    • by BlackCreek (1004083) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @04:46AM (#39792395)

      When I was in university, I used books written by the professor teaching the course itself. That happened with 3 different professors.

      One of them would let us have the .PS file of his book and print it out ourselves (actually, many of us had access to his LaTeX files). A second required us to buy his book or check it out of the library. The third guy was a very senior man, who had already been legally retired but couldn't care less and still taught all sorts of Analysis courses (mostly functional analysis). Many of his books were not in print anymore, but regardless of being in print or not (he still owned the copyright to all of them) and had clear instructions on the university copy shop that anyone at anytime could make a copy of them.

      Not all scientific authors are like (Oxford's?) Atkins ("Physical Chemistry") who made a small fortune selling textbooks.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @07:17AM (#39780325)

    Here we go again, the pirates are at it again!
    Do you know the enormity of the lost revenue for publishing/printing companies when all ancient knowledge would go open source?

    With a lot of struggle, the publishers managed to make wikipedia sound untrustworthy, but now a real university is going to review textbooks. It's the end of the industry.

  • by charliebear (887653) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @07:42AM (#39780411)
    Everybody knows that if you don't open your textbook, it is easier to return as new at the end of the semester. This is just a ploy by the bookstore to foil my plot to save money.
  • by adosch (1397357) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @07:53AM (#39780463)

    This is a great concept, but who does this benefit in the end? I know quiet a few professors that I took classes from that the very books we used in 'their' classes were one's they 1) either knew a close colleague in their field that reviewed it or provided input into it (see liner notes for their names) or 2) endorsed or provided input on the writing or content of it themselves. Outside of that, there's always going to be that uber passionate professor that isn't going to like the quality, content or organization of the open textbooks they have to choose from and opt to still pick the book of their choice for the benefit of their students and curriculum.

    So let's say this flies for gen-ed courses, which is totally could. I don't see it working at all for actual studies or specific majors with changing content or new adoptive technologies.

    Hoping on the student loan bandwagon a second, let's say even half of a students book moved to an openly available one, it still wouldn't make a dent in reducing costs for the student in any manner of impact. I also thought my university's bookstore thoroughly enjoyed raping student's pocket books on the re-re-re-reselling of used books at a dirt cheap by-back tactic. Either way, if I see the fee or cost difference falling right back into the student's lap as some 'new' fee line-item.

    • by metrometro (1092237) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:38AM (#39782525)

      It helps the people who currently have to pay $150 for an Algebra book. How is this even in question?

      Let's look at this for a moment: Say there's 100 people in an Intro Algebra class. That's $15,000. Knock off $1000 for paper and ink. That's enough money to write a decent first draft. Let's say the book is used twice. That's enough to edit it. Everything after that is waste.

      • by adosch (1397357) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:57AM (#39782823)

        Must be pretty normal for you to just come on slashdot to be a douche-troll, argue-for-the-sake-of-arguing moron? I find it insulting to quote myself, you can re-read parent. I said it would have potential to fly for gen-ed. But what about outside of that?

        Great caveman-checkbook-foolery math, "Lets take 100 people x $150 and make a BIG number to post about". How about this for reality math for just one of those 100 'mystery' people you mentioned:

        * $150 - Cost of one ged-ed book

        * Maybe 8 gen-ed books at maximum for open book substitute ($150 x 8 = $1200 in book savings over two semesters)

        * Total Cost for a 4 year (lets be honest, most ppl do 5 years now) decent school, all on student loans = $38,000

        WOW! Maybe a 3% savings on your total school bill? Who cares. Any student with half a drive can go get a part-time job at McDonalds for $12 minimum and put a bigger dent in that school bill than waiting for the openbook miracle to save them some $$$.

        So what was your argument again? I thought so, Will Hunting.

        • by gl4ss (559668) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @01:20PM (#39784181) Homepage Journal

          150 bucks buys a lot of potatos, if you don't know it you never were shoe stringing it as a student and what about those shitty schools? it's not like they wouldn't need good books on the cheap.

          here's some ascii art:
          +3 +3 +3 +3 +3 +3 +3 +3 +3 +3

          that's 5 years, 4500$. a good chunk of money regardless if you spent 38k in 4 years or not.

          the biggest racket is when the professor makes a separate business from his position by hocking books - either for straight up cash, booze or goodwill from someone who arranged him some weed and a bj. remember that when paying 50 bucks for some photocopies or hundred bucks for a book which cost a fiver to print and nobody would be using unless it was the professor who co-wrote it and pushed it to his students - and which consists of poorly translated 20 year old ideas unfit for the modern world.

          wtf do we even need books for in an age when the professor could(if he could be bothered to take time from boozing and scheming for grants) just write down the material electronically as the course advances, because he uh, knows the material he is teaching... right?

          • by adosch (1397357) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @02:53PM (#39785715)

            150 bucks buys a lot of potatos, if you don't know it you never were shoe stringing it as a student

            Right. What would I know about shoe-stringing. I'm surprised you left your 'woe-is-me' story out of this post. I really am. $150 today is two tanks of gas for commuting and eating out with the wife and kids once a week. Shoe-stringing or not, it doesn't go as far as it used to and everyone has that expense, white collar or not.

            the biggest racket is when the professor makes a separate business from his position by hocking books - either for straight up cash, booze or goodwill from someone who arranged him some weed and a bj.

            You must have went to a tech school or some half-ass community college where they call half-ass knock-off professionals 'step-in night professors'. No one professor I know in any decent state school or Big 10 college did that. ever. period. Baseless.

            wtf do we even need books for in an age when the professor could(if he could be bothered to take time from boozing and scheming for grants)

            You sound bitter. Perhaps you should have read that $150 Algebra book more, got a PhD and have become a professor. Sounds like 'the dream life'; booze and free money.

        • by metrometro (1092237) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @01:37PM (#39784457)

          > Maybe a 3% savings on your total school bill? Who cares.

          Creating value equal to 3% of the general education outlay, scaled to the English speaking world, would be kind of a big deal. Particularly when it also creates open courseware that can be freely used by non-enrolled students as a happy externality.
           

        • by ArsonSmith (13997) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @03:51PM (#39786691) Journal

          Astroturfing of a book publisher. Obviously.

  • by bmaguire (1533089) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @08:04AM (#39780515)
    This kind of peer review is absolutely the most important missing part of the Open Text puzzle. One of the things text publishers still have going for them is the stamp of approval they give simply by publishing a text.
  • by Durinia (72612) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @12:53AM (#39791429)

    Man, your records don't back far enough for me, it seems. ;-)

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