Open Source Textbooks: Babies, Bathwater, and 'The Temple'
Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010
It is easy to be sympathetic to students who because of the greed, vanity, and corruption of the people who make and assign textbooks must spend inordinate amounts for worthless tomes stuffed full of unnecessary graphics and obeisances to political correctness of one sort or another… but they are not so oppressed that this is yet or can ever be a justification for pulling down the whole temple.” - Mark Helprin in Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto
Mr. Helprin’s double sentiment is a compelling one. While I would certainly fall short of accusing our clients of “greed, vanity, and corruption”, it is widely said that current business logic and product models are at least in need of appraisal and, at most, outmoded and unsustainable.
I do agree completely, however, with Helprin’s assertion that neither view necessitates “pulling down the whole temple”. What Helprin is specifically decrying is rampant scanning and illegal sharing of textbooks online – a clear violation of copyright and, by extension, of the entire utility of intellectual property and the economic foundation of the creative professions – the temple indeed.
However, ’The Temple’ can expand to include not just copyright and intellectual property issues but also the entire endeavor of academic and creative professionals producing quality pedagogical materials. You may have read this article in last Sunday’s NYT. The article essentially presents, as a replacement for textbooks, Curriki – a nonprofit that states its mission thus: “to provide free, high-quality curricula and education resources to teachers, students and parents around the world.” Curikki leverages the crowd; volunteering educators generate and disseminate, via
the Curikki site, lessons and curricula.
But why should educators be doing this for free? Don’t they do enough? And what is the real utility of providing educators on the receiving end with a vast collection of unvetted content? While the current textbook scene may be unpopular, perhaps it is not yet time to abandon the entire model. I hope there is still room for remunerated professional content providers, instructional designers, and interaction designers to create powerful pedagogical experiences for a variety of platforms.
While involving professionals may incur a cost to consumers, new business models can greatly reduce that cost. Perhaps “high-quality curricula and education resources [for] teachers, students and parents around the world” can be achieved more effectively by the textbook publishers themselves. They do have the resources to achieve this efficiently and now. We can appeal to these businesses to formulate a solution. Maybe we should not be so eager to throw out the baby with the bathwater, or with the temple for that matter.