I've been thinking a lot lately about how to get my textbook online without asking everyone involved to work for free. It's not an easy problem.
There's a myth out there that some places like MIT are putting up all kinds of useful information for free. The Open Courseware project sounds really exciting until you realize that they can't publish any of the slides they use in their powerpoint presentations because they're all copyrighted. It also doesn't take much perusal to realize that many MIT professors don't know as much about their subjects as you might imagine.
There's a new book advocating the concept of "Open Education" ("Opening Up Education" T. IIyoshi and M.S.V. Kumar eds. MIT Press). The book is reviewed by Sean Eddy on PLoS Biology [Open Revolution].
Sean Eddy used to be an active participant on the talk.origins newsgroup back when he was a graduate student so I eagerly followed the link to his review. I wasn't disappointed. It's the same Sean Eddy that I knew 12 years ago. He can still recognize bullshit when he sees it.
So, while I like storming the establishment with pitchforks and torches as much as anyone, when I picked up Opening Up Education (or rather, when I downloaded the PDF to my Kindle), I was looking for pragmatism, not utopianism. After 500 pages of “the silos we all know about in higher education are under assault in the new world,” the “hated textbook publishers,” the “epistemological hegemony of higher education,” and the “noble philosophy” of making everything free—“traitors” and “patriots” and “communists,” oh my!—my hopes were beaten down. Many of the 30 essays in this collection are more manifesto than explanation, and many of the 38 authors are writing more for their fellow revolutionary comrades than for us.Life is never as simple as the Web 2.0 fans make out. Somebody is going to have to do a lot of work before the quality of a website matches what's in the best introductory textbooks. And it's extremely naive to think that all that work is just going to be given away for free.
I'm not just talking about authors. There's a whole team of people involved in publishing my textbooks. This includes editors who correct my spelling and grammar—an onerous task in my case. It includes artists who make the figures and editors who obtain permissions and copyrights for photographs. Then there's the staff at the publishers who receive and mail out manuscripts for review and editing and who handle all the paperwork/electrons associated with a major project.
Are we going to ask all of them to work for free by putting everything on the web? Of course not.
Sean does an excellent job of bursting the bubble.
“Remix,” “collective wisdom,” “Web 2.0”—many of these essays ride a bubble of popular digital punditry enthusiastically but too uncritically. Many technologists today are infected with an idea that “community is king,” that high-quality content will rain down freely merely because we connect digital communities openly. This confuses ways of sharing ideas with ways of creating ideas. It is a kind of magical thinking that has much in common with the cargo cults that cut landing strips in the jungle and carved radios from sticks in hope that more sophisticated beings would parachute technological artifacts down upon them. With all respect to the passionate and pioneering initiatives described in this collection, building landing strips to receive open educational content will not be enough. More attention must be paid to the fact that someone still needs to spend time painstakingly developing artful ways to make difficult concepts understandable—to teach!—and that it will take even more time (thus money) to render these hard-won ideas using multimedia web technology compared with writing textbooks. Success hinges on the adoption of open licensing by the professionals who make digital educational resources, and on finding ways to finance their work.I have some ideas. I'd like to put my book on the web so that everyone can read it but nobody can download it or print out the figures and text. If you need a printed version you can sign on to the server and print out a chapter for $3. The pages would come with your name and email address printed in the header and footer—or perhaps as a watermark. The idea is to make the material available at minimal cost to an individual user while inhibiting the distribution of photocopies.
No matter how easy it is to read something online, I think there's still a market for a printed version of the material. I know from personal experience that highlighting and scribbling in the margins on my computer monitor doesn't work.
Online textbooks have several advantages such as hyperlinks, frequent revisions and updates, and interactive learning. But we need to find a way to pay for it. If you think the work is going to be given away for free then you are living in a dream world. Check out the MIT Open Courseware site under Biology to see what the cargo cult version of Web 2.0 gets you.
[Photo Credit: Nature]
[Hat Tip: Jonathan Eisen at The Tree of Life]