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Open-Source Textbooks Need to be Configurable

Is the MOST Initiative’s effort to reduce college textbook costs doomed to fail?

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College textbook costs are high. The Maryland Open Source Textbook (MOST) Initiative (see figure) looks to reduce those expenses, but will it be enough? Being an engineer and programmer with a bit of web experience, I think it’s a valiant effort—but one that will fall short unless the delivery mechanism changes.

MOST was started back in 2013 as collaboration between the University System of Maryland Student Council (USMSC) and the System’s Center for Academic Innovation (CAI). The latest news from them is the announcement of a MOST mini-grant program that provides monetary support for generating open-source content. The mini-grants are a couple thousand dollars and only provide an incentive to increase adoption in “high impact, high enrollment courses for which high-quality OER already exists.”

The Maryland Open Source Textbook (MOST) Initiative looks to reduce those costs by providing open source textbooks at no charge.

Open-source documents are often used in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that are both open- and closed-source systems. Most MOOC courses have minimal fees, typically to cover management or to provide materials or testing services. Many courses are completely free. MOOCs are often supported and used by universities that have opened their courses and courseware to the public. Some are used to provide online courses and are often used as part of a curriculum for degrees.

Content repositories are spread throughout the internet. The University of Cambridge has some links for finding this content; this includes platforms like Google Scholar. The Digital Repository at the University of Maryland (DRUM) is another resource where scholarly works can be posted by the contributor for access by the public.

Also of note is Khan Academy, which provides free online courses. This is tailored more for delivery of interactive content packaged by subject, ranging from math to the humanities. It targets middle and high school students.

Another source of content and training materials for the embedded space are vendors that provide free access to app notes and tools, although these days you need to give up at least your name, e-mail address, and phone number. Many also have training materials, including videos. Of course, these are targeting their products, but that’s what customers (even students) usually need. Much of the change in this arena is targeting the emerging maker and maker pro space, where users are still learning what is available and how it works, both to create new products and evolve new ideas.

The Problem

There are a host of issues related to open-source content, MOOCs, and so on. Teachers may not want to use them in place of their own teaching methods, and finding suitable content is sometimes an issue. Searching for a content match for a particular course isn’t as easy as you might think.

One major problem I see is the delivery and use of static content like e-books. This includes PDFs and even slideshows. The problem is that these are static, packaged items—often with limited annotation tools—designed to be given from a provider (usually a teacher) to a consumer (the student). This assumes that the content is suitable as is and that the provider or student cannot or should not modify it in any fashion.

Certain topics change quickly. This means that content in a static container will often be dated, though perhaps only in fringe areas. This is why major books have multiple revisions with only minor changes to the content. For printed material, teachers are forced to wait for new revisions providing their own material to complement the current or available edition.

The migration from printed textbooks to e-books has seen only minimal benefit from the hypertext underpinnings of the hypertext internet. Hyperlinks within an e-book are a step up from the textual references an indices found in a printed book, but it is surprising how limited this step was compared to what is really needed and could be implemented.

A Solution

What is needed is an e-book format that provides services like alternate presentation streams, including multiple tables of contents (TOCs), a journaling system for tracking changes, and tools to provide extraction and migration of structural annotations. These would be in addition to annotation tools. While definitely a tall order, it’s one that could be built on existing e-book technology like the EPUB format, which is already built on HTML files.

There are a host of issues that need to be addressed for this type of environment, but ones that already have solutions. For example, every page or group of pages within an e-book would need a universally unique identifier (UUID) so changes could be tracked between documents. This would allow a teacher to edit their copy of an e-book and export changes that could be merged with a student’s document.

The added content could include information the teacher created or copied from other e-books. This is actually a key item, because the copied information would have identifiable information about where it came from and who provided it. This might even be something that gets linked to a blockchain tracking system.

The approach would also provide a way for an e-book author to provide updates. The journaling system would be used to track changes and provide rollback capabilities.

I admit that this is a holy grail, and one that is such a major project that most will forgo even looking at such an approach. Nevertheless, it’s one that could gain support in the commercial space, where most successful open-source projects gain traction. Documentation, training, and dissemination of content has been relegated to a web that is ill prepared to provide more than the current incarnation of static content in forms that can be downloaded and utilized. The possibilities in terms of advertising, support, and reduced maintenance costs are significant. It could even be integrated into training and testing regimens.

I would use it as a research tool as well, since this could be used for distributing curated content. It would be an effective way to provide downloaded content from a website that would be integrated into a document, which would then be distributed. The downloads might include additional material that might be useful for some, such as teachers or purchasing agents, while being placed in an alternate TOC and presentation stream.

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