Collaborative Textbooks: the Challenges

Two resources for free ebooks/textbooks: The Assayer , an online catalog of textbooks, and stingyscholar, blog dedicated to “how to get university-caliber educational materials on the cheap”. Assayer founder Ben Crowell published a nice piece on the emerging infrastructure to support free/low-cost textbooks. Crowell is a professor of physics and astronomy who has published several online textbooks. He provides a Search URL to illustrate how google books prevents his open source physics textbook from being fully viewable (shame on you google!).

Crowell’s article explains some of the difficulties in constructing collaborative textbooks and gaining acceptance.

While generally an enthusiast for self-published textbooks, Crowell wonders aloud whether the wiki model can ever bring good results:

One of the things teachers want most of all in a text is authority and reliability, and those are fundamental areas of weakness in the whole wiki approach. Another problem is the books’ lack of availability in print. For better or for worse, college professors and K-12 school districts are almost never willing to consider a book that can’t be ordered wholesale from a print publisher. Although a few college professors are willing to adopt a digital-only book and leave it up to their students to download it and print it out on their own, very few books on the Wikibooks site offer versions that are actually formatted appropriately for convenient do-it-yourself printing. There is a fundamental problem here, since wiki software is oriented toward HTML output, but HTML isn’t a very printer-friendly format. And finally, the wiki method doesn’t seem to be a good match to the way textbooks are actually written: by teachers. A teacher typically decides to write a textbook because he isn’t happy with the books that are available and thinks he can do better. The openness and inclusivity of the wiki method are diametrically opposed to the ability of a single author to express his own vision.

(For the record, there are scripts to convert wiki formats to docbook and therefore to printable PDF files).

Crowell writes about putting texbooks under dual licenses to allow the use of Wikimedia Commons material :

A positive development related to this has been the increasing standardization of licenses. There’s a pretty clear consensus these days that new copylefted materials should be licensed either under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license or the GNU Free Documentation License, or both. As a textbook author, dual licensing my books under these two licences allows me to legally use essentially 100% of the contents of Wikimedia Commons. Even for an author who has no particular interest in free information as an abstract ideal, the use of non-proprietary photos opens up the possibility of using free digital copies of a book as sales tools. That’s an option that traditional publishers don’t have, because permissions fees are computed according to how widely the book is distributed.

Finally, Crowell writes about how google’s recent lawsuit has impeded the ability to find and access online textbooks:

Results from books were no longer shown in ordinary Google searches, but only in searches on, and since very few people ever do a search on, the potential for attracting readers was greatly reduced. Then, in an attempt to convince publishers and authors that this wasn’t all about pirating their books, Google changed the name to Google Book Search, and the URL to Then searches began to show less and less of my books, even though my account was still set at 100% browsable. First it would only show a few pages, then only one page, until finally, right now, if you do this search, you’re allowed to view a few lines of text, with the rest of the page obscured by a scary notice: “Restricted Page. This page is unavailable for viewing.” The whole experience makes the reader feel like a naughty ten-year-old boy trying to get a glimpse of the neighbor lady undressing through a gap in her curtains, and given the quality of the experience, it’s hard to imagine that Google Book Search will ever build a viable pool of users.

Crowell sees both an opportunity and a business model in producing lowcost electronic textbooks. Here’s one piece of lowhanging fruit that no one has tried to produce an open source alternative for: literature anthologies! Norton literature anthologies regularly cost $75+ (the retail cost for the two volume Norton Anthology of American Literature totals $115!), and yet a large percentage of primary texts in the anthology are already public domain. Wouldn’t a collaborative/wiki model be a good way of collecting notes/commmentary for public domain literary texts?

Robert Nagle (aka idiotprogrammer) writes fiction and lives in Houston, Texas. . First printed in teleread



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