Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Open access textbooks

There are many curious ironies about the open access movement, and indeed the shift from print to electronic in general. Not least of these is that while advocacy efforts focus on the peer-reviewed research article, progress towards open access is happening in areas where no advocacy efforts are directed at all, to my knowledge. One such area is open access textbooks.

This came to my attention one day when searching for online math textbooks. I was not expecting to find free texts at all, on the assumption that textbooks were an area where the commercial sector would obviously prevail - after all, who would write an entire textbook without expectation of financial compensation?

Imagine my surprise, then, to find the extensive list of Textbooks, Lecture Notes and Tutorials in Mathematics by Alexandre Stefanov. All resources are free, and are divided into topics such as general mathematics, number theory, algebra, algebraic geometry, topolisis, analysis, geometry, mathematical physics, probability theory, formatting documents (TEX, LATEX, etc.).

Alexandre links to a number of other substantial lists, including the list of
Online mathematics textbooks, including over 40 textbooks as of October 2005, maintained by George Cain, School of Mathematics, Georgia Institute of Technology.

Why is this happening? This explanation, from George Cain's website, may help:
"The writing of textbooks and making them freely available on the web is an idea whose time has arrived. Most college mathematics textbooks attempt to be all things to all people and, as a result, are much too big and expensive. This perhaps made some sense when these books were rather expensive to produce and distribute--but this time has passed."

There may be more similarity between the writing of textbooks and the writing of peer-reviewed articles than one might think at first. Unlike the writers of articles, those who write books generally are paid for their time - however, in academia this is not generally a lucrative business proposition. Rather, faculty likely see a need for a textbook, or for a better textbook, and so they begin to write one. If there is financial assistance, it is most likely to compensate for the faculty member's time, so that they can be released to spend time writing the textbook.

The more I think about it, the more open textbooks make sense, particularly in mathematics. Printed textbooks are expensive - one cannot ask students to purchase more than one mathematics textbook. Yet it seems obvious that the student is much better off having access to the dozens of free textbooks that are already available. If a student is having difficulty understanding a concept explained one way, does it not make sense to provide an alternative explanation?

If writing a textbook without financial compensation seems like a puzzling thing to do, picture this: caculus tutorial. An endless line of students, all struggling to understand this complex subject. Some may be working hard, and may be taking the course for the second or third time, but still struggling. Doesn't writing down your best explanation of a given concept, to share with everyone - your students, and the students of other professors, everywhere, make sense?

If there are areas where subsidies for production for open access make sense, is this not one of them? If mathematics is covered in public education, and providing free resources can help more students to pass their math courses the first or second time (rather than the second or third time), does this not fulfill two very important public policy goals at once: efficient use of tax dollars, and maximum development of a critical skill area?

What about learning objects, too? If one person develops a learning object that helps students to master a complex concept, why not share this with everyone?

For that matter, could there be a role for students to help develop learning objects and/or explanations for textbooks? Could textbooks and learning object repositories be developed collaboratively, perhaps wikipedia-style?

Some opportunities for research based on the open textbooks phenomenon:

Contact the writers and publishers of open textbooks - ask them what inspired them to do this, would they recommend that others take the same approach, etc.

Do students with ready access to a range of textbooks do better than students with access to only one textbook?

Learning objects and concept mastery - it should be possible to design research that would test the relationship between students exposure to learning objects (on an individual or group basis) and their mastery of particular concept(s) - perhaps even years later. This in turn could help to identify the most useful learning objects. This kind of research would have some complex ethical / privacy dimensions to address.

This posting is a further development of a theme earlier discussed on the
SPARC Open Access Forum and Open Access News.

Update Dec. 28:
According to Peter Suber, "There's a growing number of OA textbook sites, but as far as I know just one searchable portal that tries to be comprehensive: Jason Turgeon's Textbook Revolution". From: Open Access News.

This post reflects my personal opinion only and does not represent the opinions or policy of the BC Electronic Library Network or the Simon Fraser University Library.

1 comment:

  1. I like your perpective on this and I'm going to link to this blog entry at my website, TextbookPOWER.com.

    I recently started it and it's basically a democratic, interactive site that mantains a database of all the places to buy and sell textbooks on the web in addition to textbook alternatives like e-textbooks.

    Students can vote on which sites that have had the best experiences with, leave reviews, etc. Let me know what you think of it. I also follow all the current news on textbooks and encourage students to post their tips, tricks and opinions on how to save in the site's forum.

    There are some more resources on the site, but you can just check it out and let me know what you think and how you think I could improve it...

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