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A textbook case - the Open Education Movement

January 27, 2008

One of the supposed reasons for playing the lottery is that it gives people the chance to fantasize about what they’d do if they won.  Hell, I do that anyway and the fact that I’ve never bought a ticket has no significant effect on my chances of a big win.

So here’s my fantasy: I’d like to do something about crappy textbooks that schools foist upon our children.  Have you looked at kids’ textbooks lately? They’re garbage.  Seriously, as instruments of study, they aren’t worth the paper the publishers’ advertisements are printed on.

For as much as they weigh and as much as they cost, our kids ought to need their craniums let out to make room for their brains after reading them.  But that isn’t what happens.  Our textbooks are not ‘written’ by an ‘author’, they’re cut and pasted together by a committee, taking care not to offend anyone who might annoy school boards that have purchasing power.  They’re confused, boring, politically correct, and so are the textbooks they create.

These are not books we’d read ourselves, so why do we expect our kids to spend extra time poring over them after a full ‘work’ day?  Make no mistake, a kid’s day at school does not leave them wanting to spend their evenings on the same material.  Do you enjoy spending your evenings on your job?  Or do you prefer to watch TV, pursue a hobby, and relax?  Why is an entire day of regimented subjection to authority not enough time to learn the modest instructional goals of that day?

I’d start an open-source textbook foundation that would recruit good educational authors and pay a base rate for writing, plus a per-copy royalty, bypassing the clunky and special-interested-ridden way in which textbooks are made today. We’d have a testing institute to tweak the books for effectiveness in laboratory classrooms.  Then I’d offer them to schools around the world on a nonprofit, publish-on-demand basis through Amazon or other outlets.  Each book would have its own website with resources and a mechanism for correcting errors.  Readers who identified errors that were later confirmed by expert review within the field covered by the book, would receive a cash reward and honorable mention in the next edition.

It wouldn’t take a lot of money to pay the authors.  My dad wrote textbooks and trust me, there ain’t a lot of money in it, at least not for the author even if the book has one.  And with actual authors putting their names on the content, someone would be responsible for its accuracy and clarity. (Read the link above)

But most importantly, the books would be as free as humanly possible of political correctness.  It’s a math textbook, not a self-esteem enhancer for kids.  It’s a biology textbook, not a slimy way of finessing around evolution for queasy school board members.  Learning math will enhance kids’ self-esteem, and health class should discuss everyone’s health, not just that of middle-class celibate-teen heterosexuals.

OK, I admit that is a nerdy ‘lottery win’ fantasy but it’s mine.  At least the books would be available – at very low cost – to school boards that do want their kids to learn science and math and English.  The way things stand now, it’s almost impossible to buy a really good textbook for grade schools or high schools.  I recommend reading Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police for more on this.  There’s also has a book out from Charles Sykes on how curricula are dumbed down, but I have not read it yet because my blood pressure has been at alarming levels lately.

But it turns out someone is already working on open-source textbooks.  Check these out:

Richard Baraniuk proposes a ‘knowledge ecosystem’ in which textbook content becomes modular, assembled by anyone into tightly focused resources for a given course or purpose.  The content is vetted by ‘lenses’ of review and his organization is listed by the Cape Town Declaration as a ‘Related Initiative’ – along with many others some of which I knew about and some I didn’t.  I may not have won the lottery, but I’ll be exploring this movement to at least find out how it can help our schools.

End Notes:

Categories: Education
  1. January 28, 2008 at 13:54 | #1

    What a fantastic idea, and what a fantastic coincidence. I’ve been noodling around with a semi-personal, semi-educational blog, and just this morning decided to turn it in the direction of self-education, doing an end-run around schools, the dumbing down of America, etc. Thanks for the resources. I have a long list of them, but I can always use more. And I’ll be blogging this post.

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