The free and open textbook industry has made great strides in the past few years. There are numerous open source textbook projects cranking away right now, and one of them Flat World Knowledge, even intends to build a business on the concept. A quick Googling of the words “open source textbook” will give you a sense of how these projects have proliferated.
The action in this area, though, has been largely restricted to post-secondary texts, and the needs of underfunded college students. Some of the revolution happened, I think, because someone saw a business model that would work to meet their needs, and some of it happened because the kids had taken to scanning their texts and sharing them online via data torrents. (Funny how many times the Internet has spawned a business area by making illegal activity such as pirating intellectual property so darned easy. See Napster.)
But recent developments mean that the wait is over for K-12 educators who want to join the open source party. Enter CK12.org, an organization founded by former Sun Microsystems folks. (Funny how many times the Internet has spawned not-for-profit helping organizations with money made from the massive profits in enterprise hardware and software sales. See Bill Gates.)
CK12 has been on a mission to “reduce the cost of textbook materials for the K-12 market both in the U.S. and worldwide.” The website tells us that they plan to do this by “pioneer[ing] the generation and distribution of high quality educational content that will serve both as core text as well as provide an adaptive environment for learning.”
In practice, this means that they are creating textbooks in key subject areas for secondary school educators and releasing them under a non-restrictive Creative Commons license that allows everyone and anyone to download them for free and use them digitally, or pay a small fee to get them printed.
What is even more exciting for K-12 educators is that CK12 recently began offering its top completed textbooks in the popular ePub format for use on mobile reading platforms like the Nook, the Sony, and, through an arrangement with Amazon, the Kindle. (Note, as of this writing, these “open” textbooks come encapsulated in Amazon’s brand of DRM, so they cannot be freely distributed in the way that CK12 intends them to be. In practice, this means that each textbook download can be used only on the device that the DRM designates. Folks at CK12 have acknowledged to me in an email that they recognize that this approach violates the license that they have selected for release of the material, and that they plan to rectify the situation. It should be noted that Amazon has the capability to release these books through its store without DRM, and the cause of its reluctance to do so will be left to the reader’s imagination to discern.)
What is so encouraging about this development is that it has occurred at all. So much of the “open educational resources” movement and the drive to aggregate and mash up these resources is being driven by a “print on demand” philosophy that to find a textbook creator sensitive to the future of mobile reading, its cost efficiencies, and its convenience, is a real pleasure.
So, what is so great about these textbooks from CK12? My six highlights:
1. They are free. No, really, free. (And when Amazon lifts its problematic DRM on these books, they will also be non-commercial.)
2. They have been created with with contemporary pedagogy in mind, by contemporary educators.
3. They are, in the parlance, “mashable.” Teachers may select those sections of the book that they want to use, access it, mix it up with other resources if they wish, and generate their own custom teaching tool. Really beats the inefficiency of the print textbook world where all the sections have to be included in every textbook, whether the teacher needs them or not. See a demo here.
4. They have already been mapped to standards.
5. The simple examples and diagrams reproduce well on the e-ink screen. (This, of course, is a relative statement. E-ink is not really designed for the kind of glorious full-color imagery of either 1) the print textbook itself, 2) the print textbook transferred to a web page, or 3) the textbook formatted for a full-color tablet like the iPad.) Try the Chemistry text as an example: click for ePub download from CK12, or for Kindle download from Amazon. (Image to right is page on cathode ray tube displayed on Kindle Gen 3.)
6. And finally, the sine qua non of truly open education projects, CK12, like Wikipedia, Connexions, and others, encourages you to add, subtract, and edit anything that will make the materials better for your purposes. They say it best themselves: “CK-12 allows one to customize and produce content by re-purposing to suit what needs to be taught, using different modules that may suit a learner’s learning style, region, language, or level of skill, while adhering to the local education standards.” Amen! The new age of the customized curriculum is actually dawning, and CK12 and others are leading the way in allowing educators to make what they need rather than work with what they are given.
Of course, anything this new and revolutionary poses some challenges, and CK12 names two of them:
- “Changing the mindsets of educators who claim not having the time to contribute, CK-12 needs active community involvement”
- “Keeping content contextualized to local, regional requirements as well as curriculum standards globally”
“Changing the mindsets”–a worthy goal. The tagline at the CK12 site says “Download. Customize. Print. Share.” I would only change one thing for the readers of this blog, which explores ereaders in education. I think the tagline should read:
Download. Customize. Print. Share.