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Ivory Tower Revolutionaries: Free Textbooks Still on the Rise
Julia Levitt, 15 Sep 08


In a move to counter the tight hold that publishing companies maintain over the supply of educational textbooks – and the resulting staggeringly high textbook prices – several institutions and individual professors are taking a stand to make their own works accessible and affordable through online distribution. As reported by The New York Times:

In protest of what he says are textbooks’ intolerably high prices — and the dumbing down of their content to appeal to the widest possible market — Professor McAfee [an economics professor at Cal Tech] has put his introductory economics textbook online free. He says he most likely could have earned a $100,000 advance on the book had he gone the traditional publishing route, and it would have had a list price approaching $200.
“This market is not working very well — except for the shareholders in the textbook publishers,” he said. “We have lots of knowledge, but we are not getting it out.”

To further influence the economic system surrounding his book, McAfee introduced competition by allowing two different companies the right to sell print versions of the text. The resulting competition, according to the Times, means that students can access a print copy for about $60 or less.

Other authors and publishers are getting bolder about taking their academic works into the world of open source. We've covered MIT's OpenCourseWare previously here on Worldchanging, but it seems that five years later, that innovative movement is growing, particularly in disciplines that involve rapidly developing new technologies and frequent updates. According to Richard G. Baraniuk, an engineering professor at Rice University who founded the open-source distributor Connexions:

“If I had finished my own book, I would have finished a couple years ago,” he said. “It would have taken five years. It would have spent five years in print and sold 2,000 copies.” Instead, he said, he posted it on the Web site and there have been 2.8 million page views of his textbook, “Signals and Systems,” including a translation into Spanish.

Connexions uses content licensed by Creative Commons, and encourages users to build in additions, reorganizations and connections between different pieces in a modular fashion.

It's exciting to see teachers taking a stand to protect against publishers who would prey on their captive student audience, and also to see the academic community increasingly opening itself up to collaborative understanding and expansion of ideas. The result will not only guard against companies abusing their exclusivity in a financial way; it will also ensure that ideas of any one person or institution cannot become an unquestionable standard. An open-source learning environment encourages students to take responsibility for their education and development from the outset, building a community of individuals who are more confident in their right and ability to innovate.

Read more on the topic of free textbooks in Alex Steffen's article: Science For All.

Photo credit: flickr/sobriquet, Creative Commons license.

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Back when I was in school, we always assumed that profs. assigned their own books partly to goose sales -- but considering the ridiculous costs of going to school today, it really is laudable what McAfee is doing.

Posted by: DennisSC on 15 Sep 08

Perhaps the biggest travesty for the environmnetal movement is the price of the 'Selected Works of Arne Naess' (SWAN), this ten volume collection of the works of one of the world's foremost ecological philosophers retails on Amazon for $1,823.99!

If I could afford it I would buy a copy just to produce a PDF pirate version for free distribution over the internet.

Posted by: Warren Draper on 22 Sep 08



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