Is Open-Source Education Next?

Apr 28, 2008 by

We now have numerous options for open-courseware from various colleges and universities: course materials and (sometimes) video lectures from professors. Cost to people who use these materials? FREE But really, it is the tuition dollars of the students who go to these schools, the state and federal government, foundations who provide grantes, …

Now there is a call for instructors to use open textbooks: editable textbooks provided on the Internet, which can be printed on-demand for the cost of printing. Who’s really paying for this one? The author -who has spent a LOT of time to create the course materials. OR if the author is releasing the copyright on a book that is no longer in print, it is the students who paid for it in previous years that bore the cost. OR if the author’s school supported the project, it was the tuition dollars of THOSE students that paid for the book.

To the students, parents, open-textbook movements, and media representatives that are demanding free textbooks:

Why is there a demand for FREE resources for college education? In particular, why is there a demand for free textbooks? Do you understand that SOMEONE sits down for hundreds (sometimes thousands) of hours to write a decent textbook? And that a team of people spends a similar huge amount of time to put the textbook into a cohesive, well-designed book? And then a team of programmers writes code to create a complete system of online problems to go with this book? Somehow, this is not worthy of pay? This is to be pro-bono work? Seriously?

Then, why not demand that college instructors teach for free too. I mean, if you’re going to demand open-source free texts, then why not open-source education too? Why should your professor get paid to teach your class? Surely they should also volunteer their time to provide learning material for your education.

Or, since the argument is that you should be able to buy a textbook without all the bells and whistles (the bundles of stuff that some instructors DO demand and use), then why not be able to “unbundle” your education?

I’d like that math class without the homework or the final exam … all right, we’ll apply a 50% discount for the reduction in workload for the professor.

I’d like that English class without office hour support … all right, we’ll deduct your request from the instructor’s salary at a cost savings of $100 for you!

I’d like my tuition without supporting the Athletic department or Fine Arts please … all right, that results in a savings of $1200 on your tuition bill.

I’d like to come in and just be tested on the knowledge that I learned on my own … allright, that will be $150 and if you pass, we’ll give you a college degree. Oh, wait… we already have this system – diploma mills!

P.S. I’m not claiming that there aren’t some serious concerns about the cost of new textbooks, but I don’t think demanding free for everything is the answer. Would you do YOUR job for free?

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  1. Robert

    I’ve always said: I teach for free; they just pay me to grade.

    As for the math class without the HW or final exam — we already have that now, and it’s called “auditing”! And it’s a LOT less than 50% of the cost of the full class. (But without the rather important feature of a fully certified credit in the course.)

  2. Anonymous

    i suppose you’re against
    public libraries then, too.
    just think of all those lost revenues.
    people reading magazines for free.
    it’s unamerican i tell you.

  3. Maria H. Andersen

    There is a big difference between reading books or magazines from a library and the used textbook industry.

    A library has a fixed number of copies of a book or magazine. Magazines must be read AT the library (at least, at mine). A library book can only be checked out for a fixed length of time (usually two weeks).

    If you want to check out a textbook out of our campus library, you can do it – and you know who supplies those free copies for the library? The “evil” publishing companies.

    We encourage the use of library textbooks. But… we aren’t supplying the whole student population with textbooks via the
    library. We are providing a few copies for appropriate (temporary) use.

    To be clear, I am not against some free resources. Heck – I am providing all the information in this blog for free, aren’t I? (actually, I’m losing money on it because I refuse to include advertising).

    All I’m saying is that “free” is not a god-given (or american-born)right.

  4. Anonymous

    First, let me say that I enjoy reading your blog very much. But in regard to the price of SOME college texts, I must disagree with you. I teach “basic” math (=arithmetic) and algebra in a junior college setting. My students tend to be poor (economically) as well as struggling with math. The college I work at expects them to spend over $100 for a basic math textbook. The textbook is adequate, but hardly exceptional. I wouldn’t mind having my students purchase “Math for Dummies” or something like it for $15, but I can’t justify asking them to spend over $100 for an arithmetic book. The result is that I have evolved my own materials (admittedly it took two years) and hope to start adding more interactive features and video in the near future. I give handouts in class and post my materials on the Web for easy access. I don’t plan to “publish” my materials, nor do I think they are brilliant. They just don’t cost $100. My students are grateful, and some of them are learning.
    So, yes, I support higher prices for texts that deal with more advanced topics. I think authors (and teachers) are entitled to earn something for their work. But I don’t support exhorbitant prices, no matter how much the work that went into the text. If the work is very good, it will find a market at a reasonable price. If the work is highly specialized, and the students and practitioners can afford it, let them pay. But the open source movement has much merit. I am willing to share what I know, as long as someone is paying me something reasonable. And I hope others will be equally generous in areas where I am a student.

  5. Maria H. Andersen

    First, thanks for reading! I appreciate it.

    “I am willing to share what I know, as long as someone is paying me something reasonable.”

    You said it. That’s all I’m asking.

    I’m just worried that we are creating a culture of entitlement. What happens to the first instructor that makes the students pay for a more expensive book? What happens when your dean sees other instructors at other colleges writing the resources for their students at no extra pay and demands the same thing from you?

    I have a complete set of Algebra Review materials that I wrote in 1997 that is no longer in publication and I am wrestling with the idea of putting them up on the Internet as open-source material. On the one hand, I would rather someone can use them and benefit them. On the other hand, it was a lot of work for the $200 in royalties that I was paid for their publication.

  6. Robert

    I question the reason for an “open-source education” especially when discussion is reduced to the purchasing of textbooks or obtaining free open-source textbooks over the internet. Many of the open-source computer programs were designed to meet a need that was not being met by the available software marketed by the major software companies at that time. I am not so sure that the problem today exists of a lack of excellent available texts, although I will admit that improvement could be made in some areas.

    This move to open-source textbooks can be the ultimate in the devaluation of an education that also includes a course originally designed by full-time faculty but now administered by adjunct faculty, graduate students, or even departmental secretaries. The question that needs considered is whether these choices in the method of instruction are educationally beneficial to the student, or if these choices were made only to decrease the cost of administering instruction so the college can be more profitable or the course can be administered more cheaply.

  7. Derek

    Let me play devils’ advocate a little here… What about instructors at public colleges and universities? Since they’re being paid by the state, shouldn’t the fruits of their labors be “open” to the citizens of that state? Who owns the copyright on their course materials, anyway? Does that matter in who gets to decide what to do with the course materials they generate?

    And continuing as devil’s advocate… Yes, writing a textbook takes many, many, many hours of work. For some faculty members, couldn’t that work be part of their job as faculty members? What if the fact that a faculty member wrote an open-source textbook was important in tenure and promotion decisions? Then, that faculty member would be compensated for their time.

    Finally, I think you’ll enjoy a series of posts on the idea of a open or free education by Mills Kelly, a historian at George Mason University, on his blog, Here’s the first post in the series.

  8. Jason Dyer

    For some faculty members, couldn’t that work be part of their job as faculty members? What if the fact that a faculty member wrote an open-source textbook was important in tenure and promotion decisions? Then, that faculty member would be compensated for their time.

    What incentive do colleges have to subsidize the writing of free materials? “Free advertising for the school” doesn’t cover the amount of time necessary.

    And of course, somehow the benefit would have to be made greater than the normal considerations of tenure / promotion obtained by writing a traditional textbook.

    Thanks for the George Mason link, that was interesting.


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