The Digital Textbook

The reason many developers become involved in open source projects is to “scratch an itch”, to fix a problem they are having with some software (or lack of existing software) when trying to accomplish something. Wikipedia works in much the same way, readers who see problems, omissions or errors (at least in theory) become editors fixing the problems. In general this works pretty well in terms of producing excellent output which meets the needs of the community, at least those contributing.

Textbooks have long been the domain of publishers and authors contracted by those publishers. K-12 textbooks especially have been notoriously inaccurate and out of date when it comes to sciences and technology. I think that openly licensed digital textbooks are set to change that. Much of the outdated information comes from the long lead time for traditional textbook editing and printing. When inaccurate information is found it is often either too late to do anything about it or the person finding it does not know who to contact to get the error corrected (or the person they contact can’t or won’t do anything about it).

The advantage of an openly licensed textbook is that any teacher or researcher who finds an error can correct it and republish the updated book. These “patches” can either be integrated upstream or “forked” in much the same way as is done with open source code. We certainly want schools and teachers using these textbooks to vet them prior to implementing them in the classroom, but this is not a problem with the model itself, it is just a shift from trusting the publisher to vet the textbook (was that ever a good idea anyway?) to trusting the school or district to do it. In some cases it may make sense to have some experts “certify” versions of the textbook as accurate as well. These certifications might also provide some kind of revenue model.

In addition, the fact that digital textbooks can be easily corrected and re-distributed or updated as new technologies emerge and discoveries are made helps keep information up-to date and as accurate as possible. Don’t get me wrong I think it will still be quite a number of years before schools are replacing all their textbooks, but the cost savings and advantages are significant so I suspect it will begin to happen sooner rather than later.

Two websites which are helping to move things in this direction and which are providing some digital textbooks to schools now are the California Learning Resources Network Free Digital Textbook Initiative and CK-12 Foundation.

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