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Open-Source College Textbooks Gaining Mindshare 423

bcrowell writes "The LA Times has a front-page article about how open-source college textbooks are starting to gain traction. One author says, 'I couldn't continue assigning idiotic books that are starting to break $200,' and describes attempts by commercial publishers to bribe faculty to use their books. The Cal State system has started a Digital Marketplace to help faculty find out about their options for free and non-free digital textbooks, and the student group PIRG has collected 1200 faculty signatures on a statement of support for open textbooks."
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Open-Source College Textbooks Gaining Mindshare

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  • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @09:41AM (#24657639)

    ...few have lived to tell the tale.

    Seriously, though, you can expect a HUGE pushback on this from the publishing industry (college textbooks are a big moneymaker, especially considering how overpriced many textbooks are) and even from some professors (they write the books, after all).

    And there is another issue too: Who is going to write these open source textbooks? Even though academics don't usually get paid particularly well for their writing, it's unlikely that many academics are going want to tackle something as big as a survey-level textbook for free (with the occasional exception like the professor in the article).

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      "Who is going to write these open source textbooks? "

      Easy... Just look at Wiki. We all know how factual everything is there.

      • by 91degrees ( 207121 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:42AM (#24658515) Journal
        So, what parts of Wikipedia do you consider to be fundamentally wrong?

        It's certainly not perfect, but it's pretty good considering any fool can edit it.

        A textbook would be a lot better. Only edits made my actual professors in a subject would get anywhere near the main branch.
        • by magarity ( 164372 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @01:37PM (#24661307)

          So, what parts of Wikipedia do you consider to be fundamentally wrong?
          Pointing out exactly what's wrong the problem, isn't it? Sure, most of it is reasonably accurate, but what parts aren't? Who knows when someone who really knows the material last looked at it and corrected the mistakes? At least with a book there are authors (real people, not handles), editors, and dates attached to the editing.

    • by db32 ( 862117 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @09:44AM (#24657677) Journal
      You can expect a huge pushback from the proprietary software industry (proprietary programs are a big moneymaker, especially considering how overpriced many programs are) and even from some programmers (they write the programs after all).

      And there is another issue too: Who is going to write these open source programs? Even though programmers don't usually get paid particularly well for their writing, it's unlikely that many programmers are going to want to tackle something as big as the Linux kernel, Apache, or Samba for free.
      • by Thelasko ( 1196535 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:04AM (#24657949) Journal
        Nice analogy, but now the whole discussion will be talking about Linux instead of open source textbooks.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by db32 ( 862117 )
          It wasn't an analogy. It was a simple search/replace. You know, like the People and Pandas creationist book after the court ruling. (Now with any luck I have brought religion and creationism into the mix too, muahahahaha!)
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by thedonger ( 1317951 )
            You are right, the Bible is the perfect open source text book. The science section is a little outdated, but it works great whenever I need to calculate how many sheckles a cubit of grains cost.
          • If I had mod points, I don't know if I would mod that funny or troll.
      • How many members of the Linux Kernel team, the Apache team or the Samba team are actually unpaid for their work on said project? Last time I looked, the vast majority of all those teams were made up of dedicated, paid developers.
        • by db32 ( 862117 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:25AM (#24658245) Journal
          And I imagine most of the professors writing books would be employed by a university. So the situation is still pretty much the same. The programmer paycheck isn't coming from selling the software, nor would the writers paycheck come from selling the book.
          • Publish or Perish (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Nerdposeur ( 910128 )

            Great idea. And it seems to me that academic writing is more about prestige than money, anyway. I would think that a university would love to brag about how much its professors contributed to the textbooks that their rivals are using.

            Finally, there should be a great "public good" argument in favor of this. Universities get a lot of public funding and many have huge treasure chests [] built up. If they help to create great textbooks that are FREELY available to public schools, that would be be a clear public se

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          Set up a foundation, financed by Universities, to pay knowledgable people to write the books. Then have the foundation release the results openly.

          If you cannot see how that can be good for education, you need to consider the question better.

    • by db32 ( 862117 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @09:48AM (#24657723) Journal
      Also...can you imagine a world were college text books are clear and concise and stick to the topic at hand? You can't sell a 100 page book for $200, but if the subject can be accurately covered in 100 pages... I don't think I have taken a college course yet that has used more than maybe 1/2 of any given $100-200+ book that I had to purchase. If the professors aren't being paid by the page volume trying to sell megabooks then you could conceivably take a course that only includes the pages that you will need in the course. Modular text books so to speak. What a wonderful world that would be. Even if they get printed and you pay some amount, can you imagine a world where you don't have a back injury from carrying more than a few college books around?!
      • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:19AM (#24658151) Homepage

        Hell with that.

        Imagine a world where current higher education materials are available to ALL OF HUMANITY instead of a select few rich enough to go to college and pay these "rich people only please" prices. Such a move would further destroy the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

        Also to shoot down the "go to the library" cheap shot done here a lot : Incredibly few college textbooks are in libraries, the few that are are usually 5 or more years out of date.

        • Incredibly few college textbooks are in libraries, the few that are are usually 5 or more years out of date.

          Incredibly few subjects change enough in five years to render textbooks out of date.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Tubal-Cain ( 1289912 )

          ...the few that are are usually 5 or more years out of date.

          Because Algebra/Geometry/Calculus have changed so much in the past few years...

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by mtairhead ( 1341037 )
            Tell that to the professors who assign a new edition every year. Really. Tell them. Do you want names? I've got names. *Just paid $200 for a "new" Calc. book*
        • by lawaetf1 ( 613291 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:35AM (#24658409)

          I greatly disagree with your conclusion that available education would "destroy the gap between the haves and have nots." There has never been a time like today when so much education is available for free. Not even close. Big city libraries are dwarfed by the amount of educating material that is available to someone sitting at a computer in Nowhere, Alaska. MIT and many other .edus have their syllabus (and sometimes full streaming video of each class!) online for free.

          I could arguably give myself a master's level education in most fields without leaving home. But too bad it won't give me the connections and other leg-ups that attending a $50k/yr brick and mortar will. (Think an MBA candidate learns all that much at Harvard Business School?) And too bad a diploma means more to most companies than know-how.

          Close the gap? Sorry, but each and every day, more and more wealth consolidates with the wealthiest. IMHO, it's a bug in our implementation of capitalism.

          But back to the article - I'd love to see open source textbooks as I think they'd stand a greater chance of being lucid. I remember the garbage book by professor had us buy for assembly class. It was barely relevant to the course.

        • by db32 ( 862117 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:39AM (#24658467) Journal
          The "5 or more years out of date" is the exact innane argument that allows text book companies to give everyone the shaft. At the Associates or Bachelors level how many subjects are really moving that fast? Physics has remained largely unchanged, chemistry, geology, astronomy, calculus, algebra, statistics, english, speach, history, foreign languages, etc. Hell the only thing that has seemed to change that much is biology and that is legislated changes to curriculum, not scientific. Almost every subject taught at that level is mostly very old information. You typically don't get into the fast moving subjects until a bit higher in your education, and by the time you reach that level of understanding you are probably better off at a bookstore/library anyways. At the higher level in those fast moving fields it is more about active participation in expieriments and paper writing and such rather than sitting and listening to lectures and reading textbooks.
        • by meringuoid ( 568297 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:42AM (#24658513)
          Imagine a world where current higher education materials are available to ALL OF HUMANITY instead of a select few rich enough to go to college and pay these "rich people only please" prices.

          Yes, just imagine it. []

    • by Technician ( 215283 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:03AM (#24657941)

      Seriously, though, you can expect a HUGE pushback on this from the publishing industry (college textbooks are a big moneymaker, especially considering how overpriced many textbooks are) and even from some professors (they write the books, after all).

      This is the pushback against high monopoly pricing. They are starting to find the breaking point in an otherwise inflexible market (Ya gotta have that book).

      As the alternatives start to errode the monopoly, the publishers will adjust to find the maximum profit point, but the policies that are put in place to curb runaway prices will remain for quite some time.

      • by Hyppy ( 74366 )
        I can see this devolving quickly into a war involving students, publishers, and professors on a very large scale.

        How long until we see textbooks being "Licensed" instead of sold? How long until BSA-style crackdowns, complete with SWAT teams and tear gas, on secondhand textbook stores?
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by h4rm0ny ( 722443 )

          I disagree. It would be a possibility if "Professors" were some monolithic guild, but I think they are not. Whilst some might make lots of money from having their books set as required textbooks, the majority of lecturers have no incentive to set proprietary books and in fact have several incentives not to (not having to keep up to date themselves on where information in the book has shifted to this year, is one of those). Hence if a viable alternative to the expensive textbooks appears, the majority will
    • by larry bagina ( 561269 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:06AM (#24657975) Journal
      Aside from the money, a writing or contributing to a published book is a good line item on their cv and counts towards tenure, peer recognition, professional requirements, etc. I can't find the quote right now, but Terence Parr (ANTLR parser generator, USF professor) stated that's one reason the ANTLR v3 documentation was published rather than put up for free on the website.
    • by Amouth ( 879122 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:07AM (#24658005)

      well there is an extra wonderful thing about this.

      why do we need 20 diffrent math books?

      why not have one in which allthe prof's can contribute to? so what if that one book has a thousand chapters - it is digital.. you can easily add/ change/ remove content and link to other peices.

      you don't need one or tow guys to write the whole thing.. they jsut need to write a section. and when it comes down to most math books for college the only change from one edition to the next is typo's - some times added exlinations - and changeing of the questions and work sets.

      if you could provide a book that is live and being updated - then you could do the questions as a list and let the prof just selected a set of them to assign as home work, and if ones he wants arn't there.. he can jsut add them to the list and then use them in his set and someone else can use it later.

      it really supprises me this hasn't been doen before - but i am damn sure it can be done and would be extreamly useful.. but i bet money is the reason why we don't see it happening..

      after having to pay >300 for a book for a single class - which happened to be writen bythe prof.. yea he got a hell of a kick back.. cause i know they don't pay him enough.. (might that not be the root of the problem?)

      • by finiteSet ( 834891 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @11:00AM (#24658821)

        why do we need 20 diffrent math books? why not have one in which allthe prof's can contribute to?

        Not all variety in textbooks on the same subject is accounted for by differences in what material is left out; often authors disagree on how best to present the same core concepts. This variety is good: professors can find the best match to his or her course, and students/researchers can seek out books that resonate with their learning styles. One massive, exhaustive textbook would be a valuable resource for its completeness, but potentially a nightmare to learn from. The problem would only be exacerbated if the authors did not conform to a single standard for notation and terminology, which in itself is asking a lot.

    • Who is going to write these open source textbooks?

      Only one person has to take the initiative. After that, the community will make any corrections or updates necessary. That's the beauty of open source.

    • by xutopia ( 469129 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:12AM (#24658061) Homepage
      In europe some universities do without textbooks. The teacher teaches and guess what? The students have to write everything the teacher says.
  • What's the deal? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @09:48AM (#24657719) Journal

    Can some people with more experience explain? I went to uni in England. The lecturers wrote stuff up on the board/projector/used powerpoint and handed out a sheet of questions and some pages of notes each week. They suggested one to three suitable textbooks for a course, but that's as far as it went. There were usually a bunch of the library and if the lecturer was suitably ancient, then the books were out of print by a commensurate amount.

    Then, there was a big old bunch of final at the end of the thirf and fourth years (first year too, but they didn't count).

    I gather that in the US system, it's common to have the course structured around a 3rd party textbook. Is this correct?

    • Re:What's the deal? (Score:5, Informative)

      by db32 ( 862117 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @09:54AM (#24657799) Journal
      Basically yes. Even if the course isn't structured around a particular book, instructors are going to be receiving pressure from the school to use the latest and greatest book from publisher XYZ that they have a deal with. It is a money issue more than anything. To be fair, some subjects do change often enough that you need to refresh books frequently, but many don't. How long has it been since Algebra or Calculus has changed significantly enough to warrant a new book?

      I have never taken a college course that was really structured around the book in a start to finish style. Typically the instructor takes the few sections he wants to use, arranges them how he wants to teach them, and then uses the homework from the book and the grading key to deal with assignments. It keeps everyone at the same reference point.
    • by Swizec ( 978239 )
      It's the same here in Slovenia and I guess most Europe. Further to this, I don't think many people even buy the original books, we just buy the photocopied versions photocopying shops sell for a fraction of the price. I have no idea about how legal or illegal this is, but then, I don't much care either.
    • Re:What's the deal? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by jhfry ( 829244 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:00AM (#24657903)

      Exactly... the US educational system is, like everything else, all about making money. I actually had professors tell us on the first day of class that we needed to have a certain book, but (wink wink) we won't actually use it during the course. Appearently he was being forced to name a text book, but wanted us to return it at our earliest convenience.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        Of course, this is part of what drives the price of textbooks up. I used to manage a college bookstore. For every textbook returned, the bookstore has to sell two to break even. When a professor orders a textbook he doesn't use, the bookstore ends up having to return a lot of copies. I always pushed the professors to only order textbooks that would be of value to the students.
    • My book budget for a 3 year UK degree was around £20, for the entire 3 years. I spent more on pens and paper than books. The college library was an excellent resource. This was in the early 1980's so there was no interweb thingy. What is it with the US universities?

      (But I did only get a Desmond)

    • by mikael ( 484 )

      Before the days of the Internet, my undergraduate university made a deal with the local bookstore - in return for the university making a course textbook a "mandatory purchase", the local bookstore would give a "10% academic discount" on those titles. The university even gave the bookstore a student list so they could check out who qualified for the discount and who had made the purchase.

      Otherwise, lecturers just made overhead projection slides and gave out course handouts (with the strange exception of dat

    • by blueg3 ( 192743 )

      Only my most introductory undergraduate classes were structured around a particular textbook. I think that was mostly because the classes were very large and they wanted to have some level of homogeneity across years.

      Beyond that, most classes had a single recommended textbook and sometimes an optional one or two. People generally thought that the "recommended textbook" absolutely had to be purchased (and sometimes they were right, such as when it was heavily used for homework problems). A handful of classes

    • The older lecturers (which didnt do the lecture for the first time) usually had a script that was either published for printing cost by the faculty (something like 5â), or downloadable from the internet.
      The newbies usually said something in the line of "my lecture is based on the books x,y,z".
      Which might cause you to buy them, read them in a library. Or just write your own notes during the lecture.
      As i have _never_ seen any need for stuff from a certain textbook that wasnt taught in the lecture.


    • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

      here in the USA college is not about education but about how much money they can suck out of the students and their parents.

  • by maillemaker ( 924053 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @09:49AM (#24657747)

    Calculus hasn't changed in like what, 400 years? And yet they keep coming up with new texts all the time. Why is this?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by richie2000 ( 159732 )

      Because copyright isn't 400 years. Yet.

    • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @09:59AM (#24657891)

      Why is this?

      Because academic texts 400 years ago were mostly written in Latin and modern students don't know Latin?

    • by jbeaupre ( 752124 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:00AM (#24657897)
      New ways to teach it. At a minimum, you'd hope that they'd update the examples some time over the 400 years.
    • Have you looked at most new mid to upper level math books recently? There are an embarrassingly high number of mistakes in most math books. When I took Calc 1-3 then Differential Equations in college the books were filled with everything from simple mathematical errors to the answers in the back of the book being all wrong.

      My Diff EQ. prof actually apologized mid-way through the semester because a new book that was written by a colleague of his (who was supposedly a "top mind" in applied mathematics) had
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by hal2814 ( 725639 )

      Well, in my case I had to get the updated copy of my Calculus book because my Differential Calculus professor was the one who wrote it. You'll not see him advocating free text books any time soon. It didn't help that it wasn't even a particularly good textbook on the subject. My Integral Calculus professor even formed a committee to find alternative textbook. He was not invited back the next year.

  • Open Source? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Zordak ( 123132 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @09:58AM (#24657869) Homepage Journal
    What, do they come with LaTeX files or something?
  • A friend just dropped 200 bucks on a math book for a fairly low level math course. It was brand new, because of course it was a new revision for this year.

    Differences? Bug fixes, essentially. So because they fixed a few of their own errors, he had to spend full price instead of the used price ( which is still a rip off ).

    Couldn't he have gotten the old one online for a good price? No, because on the first day of class his professor checks to make sure he has the right book.

    If none of this raises anybody's suspicions, I have a bridge for sale. cheap!

  • Open source texts are a great idea, but you'll need two things to make them work: (1) credentialed people willing to write and edit them, and (2) companies willing to supply a nicely bound printed version of the text for a reasonable price. Purely online texts won't cut it; reading a highly technical text on a computer screen becomes tiring very quickly.

    But let's say someone does write an open source text, and someone else offers you a printed, bound version for $20. The problem is that you're now competi

    • but is this a battle about open source textbook knowledge vs. proprietary textbook knowledge, or is this about making critical information available to students at a reasonable cost?

      whatever side becomes dominant, gray market or open source, students having access to $20 textbooks is a win for them.

      supposing gray market books do take over the market and make selling printed open source text's unfeasible; publishers still can't sell $200 texts in that future.

      i am OS supporter, I am not an OS zealot.

      I see thi

    • (1) credentialed people willing to write and edit them, and

      Such as the teacher giving the lectures. You see, mathematics is mathematics, not some branded fashion statement. It remains true or false whether it is written by His Majesty on gold-foil or by a beggar on a piece of lavatory paper. A mathematics course goes through a number of relevant theories, proofs of therems etc - all of which can be found in any number of textbooks. There really is no need to get ripped off.

      (2) companies willing to supply a nicely bound printed version of the text for a reasonable price.

      Such as the university printer. I remember buying bound lecture notes for about $5 each, writ

  • by Greg Merchan ( 64308 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:09AM (#24658029)

    In 1994 there were publishers trying to get professors to order customized textbooks. It was the same type of rip-off shown here: .

  • Multimedia CD (Score:3, Insightful)

    by SilentResistance ( 960115 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:16AM (#24658119)
    Many of the publishers are including a multimedia CD in the back of the book, which is pretty much useless. Perhaps this is part of their excuse for increasing the cost.
  • by dmomo ( 256005 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:16AM (#24658131)

    Textbooks are knowledge. Knowledge should be free. Especially in established subjects. A lot of math doesn't really change much. The textbooks shouldn't have to either. The publishers struggle to keep changing the text so old versions will become irrelevant. They add new problem sets, pretty much. It's their way of squashing the second-hand market.

    Publishers should sponsor free Open-Source books. The work has already been done. Improvements and corrections will happen organically and become available as they happen. There is little cost to their upkeep and students will always have access to the most recent version and can update at any time.

    Where is the money made? Invest in creating new problem sets that are companions to these open source books. Universities could take them or leave them, but since there is an actual "added value" in putting the effort in to create and verify these problem sets, I think it would be profitiable. Publish and sell these workbooks.

    Make old problem sets available online for free. Heck, it'd likely be a tax deduction! Make the answers to these problem-sets available freely and in an obvious way. This will encourage schools to pay for the newest problems sets to discourage cheating.

    I honestly think with this model, everyone can win.

    • by AP31R0N ( 723649 )

      Instead of having text books, the prof could just post a series of links to sites that offer the desired info. Maybe it's a wikipedia article, maybe it's a google doc he or a colleague wrote.

  • by RaigetheFury ( 1000827 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:25AM (#24658253)

    Most professors at NC State during my time (1994-2002) we realistic about the books. I was there when books went from cheap to retarded in price. NCSU is currently in the works to prevent books costing over $150 from being a choice, and to prevent teachers who use books they wrote or co-wrote from charging over $50 for it. I doubt it will go through and I'm sure I'm behind the actual state of it.

    The worst offender I remember was some douche bag who wrote his own chemistry manual and his WIFE (a non chemist) proof read it. The funniest thing and I couldn't find a link to the picture was the the cover had Avogadro's number on the cover... as

    6.023 x 10 -23... yes I said NEGATIVE 23 in bold yellow on glossy paper.

    the book had so many mistakes. I'm so glad I wasn't in that class.

  • When my dad was still working as a professor, he had an entire multi-shelf bookcase of nothing but free books being sent on a regular basis as samples that he could order for his class. People would send all sorts of free stuff but towards the end of his career, the free books were arriving fast and furious. If you want a free textbook, I can almost guarantee you could stop by the teacher's place at office hours and either borrow one of their likely many copies of the class book, or simply offer to buy one for cheap. (Note: this works if they didn't write the book for the class)

  • new revisions (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Ogive17 ( 691899 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:47AM (#24658591)
    What always bugged me about textbooks was the new revisions that always seemed to be coming out. If you can't get a math book right by revision 14, you should be fired and publically flogged for being incompetant. Shame on the profs that required the most current revision every quarter/semister, they should have their tenure stripped.
  • Textbook Torrents (Score:3, Informative)

    by chainLynx ( 939076 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @11:20AM (#24659081) Homepage
    Why buy if you can download? []

Pascal is not a high-level language. -- Steven Feiner