Rice University And OpenStax Announce First Open-Source Textbooks



When we think about the distribution industry being disrupted, we tend to think about music and movies, whose physical media and vast shipment infrastructure have been rendered mostly obsolete over the last decade. To a lesser extent, we hear about print, and the effect of e-readers and web consumption on books and magazines. No one is making the change particularly gracefully, and the same can be said of the textbook business, which does millions of dollars of business every year selling incredibly expensive items to students — who likely consider them anachronisms.

Rice University, which has been pushing alternative distribution mechanisms for scholarly publications for years, has announced a new initiative, by which they hope to publish free, high-quality textbooks in core subjects like physics and biology via a non-profit publisher called OpenStax College. It’s the polar opposite of Apple’s iBooks textbooks, which, while they too help drag this dusty industry into the present, amount more to a new sales vector for the publishers than competition.

Rice and OpenStax aren’t the first people to propose open-source or free textbooks. There are collections here and there, like Flat World Knowledge and Apple’s iTunes U — but they’re decidedly short on the type of books a freshman might have to buy for their year of survey courses: Biology 1, Physics 1, Sociology 1, Psychology 1. And 11 Learning has a similar idea of collaboration producing a book, but their creation model may not be economically feasible.

And of course there are the many companies that want to remove textbooks from the equation entirely. Setting up textbook platforms on new devices like Kno and Inkling, making an environment for meta-curricular activities and non-traditional learning like Khan Academy, or virtualizing the whole education experience, something with which many universities are tinkering.

But textbooks are still big business, and their utility in the education system is difficult to argue with right now. So OpenStax splits the difference: fueled by grant money from a number of private foundations (i.e. not government grants), they’re putting together full-on textbooks, peer-reviewed, professionally laid out, and all that. These textbooks will be provided for free in file form. But supplementary materials — quizzes, videos, presentations, and the like, presumably — cost money.

It would be petty to call this a bait and switch, since the bulk of the material is being provided for free. And a savvy professor or TA can scrape quite a few supplementary materials from the web already, thanks to those post-textbook services already mentioned. Providing the meat for free and the potatoes for a price is perfectly reasonable.

What remains to be seen is the quality of the textbooks. So far OpenStax has signed up “in the low tens” of colleged and universities to use the books. Institutions probably are waiting to see how the next year or so plays out: everything is in flux and to commit to one platform over another when the true costs and benefits are still unclear would be a bad move.

OpenStax’s first textbooks, for physics and sociology, will be coming in March, with others following later in the year. A strange time to make a debut, in a way, as the school year is well underway and many intro courses won’t be offered. But it will give time for the creaking machinery of academia to notice, acknowledge, examine, and judge the OpenStax offering. It may be that they can demonstrate their agility in fixing, improving, and expanding the content on the fly, which could either impress or terrify nodding faculty members who use the same text for a decade at a time.

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Wednesday, February 8th, 2012 news No Comments

the whole story, regardless of where you jump in


Over the years, stories have become more than just single bursts of information. These days, there’s as much drama in the consumer technology world as there is sports, politics or your average episode of Days of our Lives. Take SOPA, for example. We’d be remiss of our duties here if we simply reported on what it was, without ever following up on protests, delays, judgments and other vitally important developments. In fact, it’s tough to think of too many stories covered today that don’t correspond with some sort of saga — even the departure of RIM’s co-CEOs represents just a single slice of a far larger tale. For those that follow this stuff 24/7, jumping in at any point in the story is no issue; piecing together the past with the present is second nature. But if you’re actually working during the day, hopping aimlessly into an ongoing saga mid-stream can be downright disorienting. Painful, even. We’ve been working hard to come up with an unobtrusive solution, and we think we’ve found it.

We’ve actually had our Follow The Saga functionality since January of last year — we quietly debuted it with the launch of Verizon’s iPhone 4 — but today’s iteration is far more interactive. We’ve been testing these out over the past few weeks, and today we’re happy to officially introduce them. If you see the badge shown after the break in any post that pops up here at Engadget, just give it a click to be taken to the full saga, and scroll up and down to see related stories before and after the one you happen to ! be looki ng at. We’re hoping it’ll be particularly helpful to those who happen to stumble upon a saga somewhere in the middle, but want to get caught up on what happened prior and where we stand now. As with everything we do, we’ll be continually tweaking and evolving the tool in the months ahead. Enjoy!

Psst… want to see it in action? Have a look under the body of this SOPA post to see how we got to where we are today.

Continue reading Introducing ‘Follow The Saga’: the whole story, regardless of where you jump in

Introducing ‘Follow The Saga’: the whole story, regardless of where you jump in originally appeared on Engadget on Mon, 30 Jan 2012 14:18:00 EDT. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Tuesday, January 31st, 2012 news No Comments

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