Hope for Open Textbooks?

One of my primary arguments against MOOC's being a revolutionary force is by comparing them to books. In truth, while my attitude toward MOOCs is fairly negative, I would be prone to having a distinct hope for free, open-sourced, digital textbooks. The advantages seem multitudinous: (1) effectively free of cost, (2) a force-multiplier for the live classroom environment (as far as both cost and burden of carrying them), (3) ability to actually own them on a mobile device and not be dependent on an outside streaming service, (4) ability to read them without any internet connection whatsoever, (5) ability to share and re-host the work freely, (6) ease of editing for fixes, and tailoring for individual courses and local requirements.

Compared to a suite of video lectures, this would seem fairly easy to do – and yet as far as I can tell, even this relatively simple project has failed to succeed to date. I've spent some time surveying open-source introductory algebra texts, for example, and found them all to be surprisingly deficient (rather reminiscent of some video lectures, in fact – frequently unplanned, technologically difficult to access, or with confusing and unprofessional jokes and puns in the text, etc.) I plan to spend some time writing up particular reviews in the future.

An argument: If making information widely available eliminates the need for live in-person instruction, then why didn't the printing press “tsunami” destroy live colleges (when in fact it did the opposite)? If free MOOCs current low quality is something easily fixed, then why aren't the even simpler open-source textbooks yet representing high quality offerings?

So that said, a few news items regarding open-source text developments that do give me cause for hope:

1. California has passed and signed a law to fund open-source textbook development in 50 core subject areas. While there was a similar attempt under the Schwarzenegger administration, that prior try had ambiguous definitions, weak standards, and no funding. This new law sounds like a much stronger attempt that does give me hope.

2. Finnish researchers and teachers engaged in a 3-day “hackathon” in which they completed an entire open-source textbook. While I would be highly skeptical of the quality of such an offering, it at least signals that there is some amount of buzz and excitement for the idea, which perhaps bodes good things to come.


  1. I would say that if the pinacle of MOOC's is just presenting videos, then it will achieve far below its potential.
    I see the MOOC ideally as providing Personalized (Customized) learning.

    Based on feedback/responses from the student, the system would focus on certain areas, ask certain questions from its databank, and basically "learn" how that student learns best.

    The system would encorporate things about the theory of learning such as "spaced repetition" (the idea that you need to review something right before you are about to forget it).

    It would incorporate "active learning", which would require responses/action from the student, as well as problem solving that could be dynamic.

    Think about a recommendation engine such as the one on Netflix, that basically presents choices based on your previous ratings, your choices, your preferences.

    A computerized instructor would work exactly the same way. It would present content based on hou you learn best, as an individual. It would have embedded in it theories of learning.

    There is a big assumption in schools and it is this:
    "Students already know how to study and review and learn. So they don't need to be taught this, they should just be presented with material. "
    This is wrong. I'll give a specific example.

    There are many aspects of learning and synthesizing knowledge, but one important aspect is simply memorization.
    I claim that a student could do pretty well in school if they just are able to memorize a bunch of stuff.

    Yet there are a number of techniques that can dramatically improve how effectively and efficiently you can memorize something. I'm not talking about understanding, but simply regurgitation. These things are never taught in school. Why? We think of good students as knowing the subject matter, but really their primary skill may just be the ability to learn effectively (or even just memorize).

    If classes were only about knowledge, then cramming wouldn't work. Cramming is only about remembering facts. You're not going to synthesize a lot of knowledge in an all-nighter.

    So a learning system should not just provide content, it should also teach a student how to learn about the subject at hand.

    Let's face it, if content is enough to learn math, then everyone could just go on Wikipedia, read it and understand math. Most people are not going to understand math that way. You have to work thru problems.

    1. I agree, especially in remedial math classes, study skills do need to be taught. That's not an unusual observation, many textbooks in the last decade are dedicated to starting & incorporating study skills throughout the text (probably best in that regard: Bittinger Intermediate Algebra, but it's not alone).

      I start my first day with a 20-minute lecture on study skills, and just this past weekend gave a reminder survey to all of my classes. Interesting preliminary result is that the more work they do on their own (study time, homework apart from tutor or math workshop) seems to actually be negatively correlated with grade. More on that later.

  2. I really care about this topic a lot. *Interactive* online textbooks are something pretty new and they rely on recent improvements to browsers to be very effective. We made one about Python which has turned out to be super popular: http://cscircles.cemc.uwaterloo.ca

    It's a lot of work and you have to have an author who cares about the pedagogy, the interface, and the technology. This is better than a MOOC that is available just some of the time and typically has a lot of extra crap attached.

    But online texts without interactivity are not new from my perspective. Good profs have left their lecture notes open and visible online for ages. The internet and http are already great sharing tools!

    1. Lecture notes are fine, but I think the really hard part of a good textbook are well-thought out exercises to practice on (and fully worked out examples, etc.) There kind of needs to be a whole lot of them to provide a complete turnkey solution to run a class with.

      Bon jour!