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Open Source Textbooks

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 5/19/2011

Open source has been a bit of a buzzword lately, and with good reason: open source ideals are infecting everything from its traditional software base to hardware specifications to even textbooks. This article examines some recent open source textbook projects.

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    Wikibooks

    Following the same lines as its sister project Wikipedia, WikiBooks generates free open source textbooks in a community-driven project—textbooks that anyone can edit. The idea is that people can use these textbooks either for teaching themselves, as a supplement to university materials, or even as a complete replacement to expensive proprietary print textbooks.

    While use of these textbooks obviously hinges on good Internet access, they have proven to be extraordinarily useful and a catchy concept for many, especially college students who may not be able to afford expensive textbooks, or perhaps just want a different explanation of the material.

    Obviously, defining what constitutes a “textbook" can be a bit difficult. For instance, an anthology of Romantic-era British poetry would qualify as a textbook for a course in English literature, and many of the pieces may even be in the public domain, but they still do not constitute original content and thus are not included int the project. These belong in the sister project Wikisource. However, annotated texts are included, as they provide an invaluable aid to study. Similarly, auxiliary texts like glossaries are also included when necessary, though definitions generally belong in yet another sister project, Wiktionary.

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    California Open Source Textbook Initiative

    While granted California is not exactly mainstream America, it represents a healthy proportion of the American populace, and has proven to be a wellspring of innovation. California's budget problems are well known and somewhat endemic, and pricey school textbooks for public schools play a small but significant portion of this to the tune of $400 million plus a year. Chronic textbook shortages have also been a issue.

    Here's comes that “wellspring of innovation" bit. By creating and utilizing a database of open source textbooks for use in the schools, not only would they dramatically reduce costs, but they would also be able to provide more breadth of content at greater depth, as well as being to more quickly update the textbooks for current developments. Those pesky textbook shortages would also cease to be a problem.

    This isn't a replacement of printed textbooks, far from it. This is merely an attempt to reduce the costs on the proprietary ends of things, as textbook prices have gone up astronomically over the years despite research that they could be produced every bit as effectively for significantly less, savings of around $200 million a year.

    The content is planned to be made publicly available online as well, though not for public editing in the same way as Wikibooks. That being said, the textbooks are being created using the already existing open source project, Wikipedia, as a tool.

    For more on the plan, including the phases of its development over the course of the next decade, check out the project website at OpenSourceText.org

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    OpenTextbook.org

    This site does not host open source textbooks, but rather provides a register for independent free open source textbook projects around the web, as well as news that relate to the open textbook movement and calls for content on subjects that are lacking open source textbooks.

    This format allows for independent open source textbook projects to gain popular momentum in an age dominated by expensive proprietary heavyweights.

    At the writing of this article, the textbooks listed on this site are as varied as an Introduction to Free Software provided by the Free Technology Academy, a multivariate statistics textbook already taught in classrooms in the UK and in Italy, and one on the basics of fluid dynamics. While there is a certain bias towards programming and the hard sciences in this register, it reflects the overall bias of the open source textbook movement in general.

    For more information, check out their website.

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    Flat World Textbook

    Open source, but not necessarily free, the Flat World Knowledge company offers a variety of open source textbooks geared primarily towards college students. These textbooks are written by experts in their fields, and yet they are completely “remixable", that is, professors can mix and match chapters and whole texts to compile the perfect blend for their class.

    When accessed in-browser online, this service is completely free for everyone to use. Beyond that, they require 20$ for a PDF download for offline use, or 60$ for a print version. Still pretty cheap, when you compare to the proprietary print textbooks you generally are required to get for your classes! This service is already used at more than 400 colleges, and growing. There are also plans to make these books compatible with various e-book readers, such as Kindle, for even more flexibility.

    For more information, check out their website at FlatWorldKnowledge.com. For an excellent, detailed overview of their program, check out this Wired.com review, or another one that is somewhat more critical of the concept.