Thursday, August 04, 2005

Free Textbooks
Jimbo Wales, the founder of the amazing Wikipedia, is guest-posting at Lessig's blog this week about his vision of the future of open-source content. Today's post suggests that one of the next areas to tackle is textbooks.
An open project with dozens of professors adapting and refining a textbook on a particular subject will be a very difficult thing for a proprietary publisher to compete with. The point is: there are a huge number of people who are qualified to write these books, and the tools are being created to leave them to do that.
I'm all for it. Textbooks are an enormous burden. They cost too much; they are written in either a purposely uninteresting style, or a disgustingly campy attempt to seem contemporary; they offer narrow dogmatic approaches to complex problems, or else they over-complicate matters where there's not really much there (usually to help a topic fill a "chapter"). Worst of all, textbooks are never willing to turn a questioning eye back on their own discipline.

Plus, they cost a ridiculous amount. Students are required to have books, so I'm obligated to make use of them. Then, the kids feel a safety net about not coming to class or not taking notes/paying attention because they feel like they can always study the book at the last moment, refusing to grasp the fact that much of what I teach is either not in the book, or is on some level contradicted by it.

An open source textbook project would allow constant self-criticism and revision. And it would be free. But most importantly, being a free Internet resource would make the textbook a clearly supporting guide to the actual "course" taking place in the classroom, rather the other way around--as many of my students seem to approach--as if the purpose of class is to illuminate and help them understand The Book.

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