Professors Gone Paperless

Three faculty members involved in developing free online textbooks explain why they're sold on the open source model.
April 16, 2008

Continuing their campaign to draw attention to the cost of textbooks, the Student Public Interest Research Groups celebrated Tuesday what they're calling a major milestone -- reaching 1,000 professors who've signed a statement supporting the use of free, online and open source textbooks.

Colleges and individual faculty members continue to experiment with putting course information and material online, and "open textbooks" typically are licensed to allow users to download, share and alter the content as they see fit, so long as their purposes aren't commercial and they credit the author for the original material. This allows instructors to customize e-textbooks and offer them to students for free online or as low-cost printed versions.

By signing the statement, professors promise to include open textbooks in their search for course materials. "As faculty members," the statement says, "we affirm that it is our prerogative and responsibility to select course materials that are pedagogically most appropriate for our classes. We also affirm that it is consistent with this principle to seek affordable and accessible course materials for our classes whenever possible."

While noting that the supply of open textbooks is still "admittedly small," the research group says the statement of solidarity is a step toward "giving commercial publishers a run for their money."

Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, said "any faculty member or group that is willing to make that level of commitment to provide a free textbook, I applaud them."

But he said the content creators should keep in mind the need to keep information current, offer supplemental educational tools and built-in class management systems (for grading purposes), and ensure that the cost of instruction doesn't rise with the use of the online material.

As with much of free online content, some open textbook chapters and academic articles have caught the attention of a wide audience, and others haven't. It takes years for a traditional textbook to move through the review and revision process, and professors undertaking these online projects know that they are always a work in progress.

Here are three professors who have gone from assigning traditional print textbooks to writing their own online versions:

An Information Scientist's Experiment -- 10 Years In

1998 was the last time that John Gallaugher, an associate professor of information systems at Boston College's Carroll School of Management, used a traditional print textbook. He assigned it to his graduate-level introductory course in information systems. The book cost about $150. He also assigned supplemental reading -- trade press articles, online case studies and the like. Student feedback was clear: The textbook cost was too high, and they valued the supplemental material more.

He agreed on the price complaint, calling some versions "oppressively expensive." So Gallaugher stopped assigning the textbook and began developing syllabuses from existing online materials, including his own. He's posted PowerPoint slides and podcasts of his lectures online ever since.

Gallaugher's is a fast-moving field, and his area of research -- market formation and the role of technology -- lends itself to online experimentation. To no fault of textbook authors, by the time an edition reaches bookstores it can already be outdated.

Gallaugher said he still looks at offerings from publishers and would consider using printed textbooks again. "I'm making the decision mostly on quality and not price, but if there's just 20 percent of the content that I want to use and I'll end up supplementing it anyway, I can't justify that purchase."

Over the years, Gallaugher has amassed a lengthy collection of his online assignments and academic work. He's working with a publisher to create a textbook out of that material. The idea is that professors can use the entire free open textbook or assign and customize individual chapters. A printed, paperback version for $25 will also be available -- and Gallaugher said he'll likely accept a small royalty.

"It'd be nice to be compensated as an author, but it's not my primary goal that drives this," Gallaugher said.

With the help of the publisher, Gallaugher can track who's looking at the textbook. He said he's not concerned about misuse of the information, because people in his field can pick out and quickly discredit bad information.

An Economist Embraces Open Source

R. Preston McAfee, a professor of business economics and management at the California Institute of Technology, said more than any other question, he gets asked whether he's concerned that his open source content will be mangled and his name unfairly attached to shoddy work.

"My answer is generally no, I'm not worried about that -- there are 50 other ways you can do the same thing to me," said McAfee, who's at Yahoo while on leave from Cal Tech. "I would only really object if someone puts up another version and a third party decides to quote me on it."

Several years ago, Cal Tech asked McAfee to teach a principles of economics course. Instead of using one of the traditional textbooks, which went for more than $100, McAfee decided on creating his own version, which he calls "The Open Source Introduction to Microeconomics."

Under his licensing agreement, McAfee controls his original copy of the online textbook but can't necessarily track if others make changes on their own versions. He asks that users make a good faith effort to cite him on the original work, and that they don't use the material for commercial purposes. The hope, though McAfee said it hasn't happened yet, is for colleagues to offer competing versions that incorporate some of his chapters.

Students can read the textbook free online or buy a printed copy for $11. McAfee said he doesn't take royalties. Of the 60,000 people who have visited his site, fewer than 10 percent downloaded the book. McAfee said he is planning to work with a publisher on an updated version of the textbook and will take royalties from printed copies, given that the publisher in that case makes a profit on sales.

McAfee said embracing open source content is most crucial for professors in fields like his, where the information isn't rapidly changing, because it's a way to give another option to students who often complain that publishers create new additions with few substantive changes. (Hildebrand, for his part, has pointed out that professors regularly cite the importance of the supplemental material that comes with the new editions.)

A Mathematician's New Assignment

"The world doesn't need another linear algebra textbook on the market -- it needs a free one." That's been the mission statement of late for Rob Beezer, a professor of math and computer science at the University of Puget Sound.

Beezer has worked on his project, an open source math textbook, for roughly four years. He's coded it in language that will look familiar to other mathematicians and chemists who want to edit the information.

Like the other professors, Beezer once used a printed textbook that cost more than $100. And like the other online alternatives, Beezer's is free for students and professors to use. He is planning on releasing a new edition this summer, a soft-bound book for $24.50. (Beezer gets $5 in royalties from each copy.)

He is asking students to bring $25 on the first day of class to cover the costs of printing and binding copies of the book. Beezer said he encourages students to have the printed version because it's helpful to write in the margins.

While Beezer said he doesn't expect to get rich from the sales of his printed version, he hopes to spread his work -- two courses outside his university just started using the book. And he'd like to demonstrate that professors who provide free content can eventually make it financially worth their while.

"Once people get over the 'you get what you pay for' syndrome, they'll try this out and see the benefits," he said.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top