In the future textbooks are free

By   —   July 21, 2009   —   in News

Textbook prices are a pain students must endure.

This problem is compounded by the need to constantly release updated editions in most disciplines. But thanks to the efforts of a group of radical professors, the content in your textbooks could soon be downloaded as cheaply as music.

The project, called Connexions, began in 1999. Using an open-teaching model and a Creative Commons attribution licence, the online project works like a Wikipedia for textbooks. Users can upload content on any subject, which is divided into modules, and can be reviewed by other authors. The content is free to download and read, or can be compiled into a textbook and printed for a fraction of the average price — a hardcover electrical engineering text typically priced at over $100 can be acquired for $20 from Connexions.

Unlike Wikipedia, however, contributors must give their name with the information. This encourages more professional content since it helps professors get credit for their work. The organization does not review the content it maintains — content is the responsibility of authors and instructors.

Connexions is able to provide content cheaply because it relies on volunteers, and by all accounts, there is no shortage of contributors. The database currently holds 500 open textbooks and 11,500 modules, serving one million unique users a month.

According to Richard Baraniuk, one of the creators of Connexions, most professors do not make money from their textbooks when one considers the several years required to make them, amounting to only “about 25 cents an hour,” he said. The real reason most professors write a book is to make an impact, which makes the worldwide reach of Connexions appealing.

Dinosaurs in Silicon Valley
“There is a crisis in our schools around the world,” said Baraniuk.

He says there are some community colleges in California where the price of textbooks actually outpaces tuition. This problem lies not with the Californian government but with an outdated publishing industry.

The publishing industry is excessively slow and expensive considering that information can be shared online instantly and with little cost.

Baraniuk believes the publishing industry has yet to catch on to the digital revolution that has so deeply altered the music industry.

Why has the Internet changed music and not textbooks?

The music industry has a tradition of using technology creatively. Conversely, the publishing industry has not seen a revolution since the invention of the printing press. This lack of efficiency disconnects educators from their audience.

The barrier lies within what Baraniuk characterizes as an overly restrictive intellectual property system, even though many textbooks by different authors in the same discipline carry almost all the same information.

Another problem is the inability to get constant advances in knowledge to learners in a timely way due to the current high costs. Many primary and secondary school science textbooks still categorize Pluto as a planet, for instance.

Information on Connexions is updated instantly, and with the low cost of printing books, it is affordable to continue purchasing new editions.

Books for the remix generation
On Connexions, educators can compile modules any way they like to suit their needs. This represents a move from the current linear approach to one that is modeled after the ecosystem, where every part of the system is interconnected, says Baraniuk. He believes this open education approach could revolutionize the publishing industry.

“We’re going to get to a point where every kid has their own book,” Baraniuk mused during a presentation to University of Saskatchewan faculty.

The voluntary collaboration of his project has had one major benefit in terms of outreach — translations.

Translations are simply too expensive for publishers to handle, creating language barriers in the spread of new knowledge, but Baraniuk has had some luck in acquiring a translator for his material.

“My book is 14 times more popular in Spanish than in English,” he said.

This greatly improves the power of educators around the world to reach out to a broader audience than they have ever imagined.

Never before have the authors of textbooks been so close to their clientele. This creates opportunities for rapid practical feedback from instructors and students. Baraniuk believes this could help improve teaching methods.

“I think the real power of open education is actually in-reach,” he said.

Connexions can be found at

creative commons internet iUsask open education textbooks
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