California universities to produce 50 open-source textbooks

California Governor Jerry Brown gave his pen a workout this past Thursday,  September 27. In addition to signing legislation prohibiting social network snooping by employers and colleges, he also signed off on a proposal for the state to fund 50 open source digital textbooks. He signed two bills, one to create the textbooks and the other to establish a California Digital Open Source Library to host them, at a meeting with students in Sacramento. (See video below.)

Source: Ars Technica



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Update: Thanks to commenter Frank Lowney for bringing our attention to the following infographic from Twenty Million Minds; it illustrates the implications of the bills signed by Gov. Brown on Thursday.

5 Comments on California universities to produce 50 open-source textbooks

  1. Why does this ‘state to fund open-source textbooks’ idea strike me as bizarre? After all, state-funding and open-source are not obviously contradictory like say “the sound of silence.”

    I suspect it’s because the idea doesn’t work out very well in practice. Good open source software is created by willing volunteers rather than state bureaucracies. The latter imposes so many requirements, specifications, and the like, that those free-spirited individuals stay away. That results in poor products created by drudges just in it for the grant money.

    And no, the U.S. military funding for the early stages of the Internet doesn’t contradict that. The military funding came with few conditions. This will come with all the messy burdens that states traditionally impose on textbooks, maybe more so since this is regulation-crazy California.

    Here’s but a slice of the impositions this legislation imposes on this project. Note silly gush talk, as if a state legislature could, by fiat, dictate that something be ‘high-quality.’

    *****QUOTE BEGINS********
    The bill would require the California Open Education Resources
    Council to determine a list of 50 lower division courses in the
    public postsecondary segments for which high-quality, affordable,
    digital open source textbooks and related materials would be
    developed or acquired, as specified, pursuant to the bill. The bill
    would also require the council to review and approve developed open
    source materials and to promote strategies for production, access,
    and use of open source textbooks to be placed on reserve at campus
    libraries in accordance with this section.

    The bill would require that the council regularly solicit and
    consider, from each of the statewide student associations of the
    University of California, the California State University, and the
    California Community Colleges, advice and guidance on open source
    education textbooks and related materials, as specified.

    The bill would require the council to establish a competitive
    request-for-proposal process in which faculty members, publishers,
    and other interested parties would apply for funds to produce, in
    2013, 50 high-quality, affordable, digital open source textbooks and
    related materials, meeting specified requirements.

    The bill also would require the council to submit a report to the
    Legislature and the Governor on the progress of the implementation of
    these provisions by no later than 6 months after the bill becomes
    operative and to submit a final report by January 1, 2016.
    ****END QUOTE*****

    Read and weep. This top-down, legislative-drive scheme will probably weaken and, when it fails, heavily discredit the more open approaches to developing open source course material. Good approaches will be crushed beneath this bad one.

    And the state of California, already $16 billion dollars in the red this year, will stumble on toward what is likely to be our nation’s first-ever state bankruptcy. Nor will the federal government, now $16 trillion in debt (up 60% since 2008), be able help the state even if those in better-run more fiscally prudent states would agree.

    And yes, like tuition, the cost of college textbooks has been spiraling out of control for some two decades. But depending on the same educational bureaucracies that created the tuition inflation to curb that with textbooks makes no sense. It’s not just the textbook publishers who’ve driven this inflation forward. It’s the university faculty who create and profit from those high prices and frequent revisions. They have enormous financial incentives to ensure that this project fails.

  2. Here’s a nice info-graphic in favor of what Gov Brown just did: Note that $5 mil comes from the state and $5 mil comes from “foundations and other private sector players.”

    I disagree with Michael W. Perry who seems to think that this will somehow crush open source eTextbook development. I really don’t see how “willing volunteers” will be dissuaded from what they are doing by this rather small scale experiment. Indeed, they might be encouraged by the prospect of recognition and reward. That a state legislature and governor see their work as important is certainly vindicating.

    So this ail certainly be worth watching. Commercial ePublishers haven’t shown us much so far so let the rumpus begin.

  3. Thanks Frank – I’ve updated the post to include the infographic.

  4. This is one issue where opinions will be clearly divided: big-publishing advocates against; everybody else, for.
    With $167 million a year in California alone, you can expect a strong campaign to de-legitimize the Open Textbooks starting right about…
    (I also expect a lot of publishig reps to be making house calls to department heads and deans all over California.)

    Though why big-publishing ever let it go this far is perplexing. Did their Amazon obsession get in the way? Or do the really think their textbooks are so special as to be irreplaceable?
    Considering the subject of the initiative is entry-level under-graduate textbooks, they’re going to have to spend a lot of money in, ahem, “influencing” university staff.
    (BTW, now we know why B&N bundled the college bookstores into the Newco spinoff.)

    A whole new battlefield for big-publishing to angst over.
    One more time: $167 million a year gone “poof!”.
    Couldn’t happen to a more deserving crowd.
    (Just look at the textbook prices in that graphic.)

  5. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co has already filed for bankruptcy (5/21/12). Textbook publishers are very well aware of their predicament and are scratching around for solutions that will counter the open source movement. For example, there’s an experiment in bulk purchasing of digital learning materials going on right now involving 26 colleges and universities , eBook broker Courseload and Houghton-Mifflenthat will bear watching. See:
    Here is the essential problem faced by textbook publishers: Unlike works of fiction, most of what textbooks contain is not copyrightable. You cannot copyright a fact or an idea, only the unique expression of an idea. So, if you’re writing a history textbook, it’s really hard to uniquely describe Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. It’s been done so many times in so many ways.
    Without the time-limited monopoly granted via copyright, any subject matter expert can write a textbook that will compete well with the high dollar productions of commercial publishers.

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