Is K-12 Ready for Open Content Textbooks?

Fasten Your Seatbelts

Please keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle at all times…Wikibooks Growth Chart

Since the Wikibooks project turns three years old today, I thought it was a good time to think out loud about the potential promise of “Open Content” textbooks. I have been reading, downloading and bookmarking on this for a while, so this was mostly a matter of putting a few hours into reviewing and organizing my resources.

In pulling my thoughts together, however, it has become apparent to me that the degree of change necessary for most districts is both deeper, and more central to school reform and improvement than it appears on the surface.We really are talking about a systems level change. The technologies exist now, and tools are emerging almost daily to make alternative instructional planning and resource models available.

So why am I not jumping up and down about the state of Open Content? The state of curriculum design and use in schools is far more…grim…than I had ever realized. I think I’ve been the proverbial ostrich in some ways.

As a teacher I only used textbooks minimally – mostly for student reference and background while they were out of the classroom. I used many, many other types of resources as the basis for our activities as a class. As an administrator I encouraged, and continue to encourage, that type of teaching. The empahsis is on student and group needs, as compared to our standards, as the central steering points for designing instruction. To me, textbooks were and are just a loose framework, a skeletal image that require much support to engage students, and produce meaingful learning.

I have known for my entire career that textbooks were weak, watered down versions of mostly interesting topics. Textbooks are mostly just flat out boring. That was evident to me as a student in the 1970’s, and was something that I carried with me into my chosen profession. My own teaching never relied on textbooks. I took that opinion for granted.

Research shows, however, that for most teachers in most schools, the textbook actually is the curriculum. The links to the research are below. In addition, the process that resulted in poor textbooks in ’70s and ’80s has only gotten worse, and is more deeply ingrained in many places than I realized.

When we ask many teachers and school administrators to consider Open Content textbooks, we are asking them to essentially abandon their entire curriculum. Since Open Content users are also, we assume, contributors to the projects they are using, we are also asking teachers and administrators to move from the role of passive consumer to that of at least partial producer of instructional content.

The question then becomes “If not this, then what?”. There are many different flavors of Open Content being built at the moment, and no clear answer for K-12 organizations interested in exploring alternatives.

School districts who step away from the status quo will need to inspire, provide incentives, and cajole teachers and students to participate in Open Content projects well ahead of any planned change. They will need to build the capacity to slowly transition as Open Content resource become available, and the political and administrative climates adjust.

But most of all, the leaders for change in these schools and districts are going to have convince teachers and educational leaders in their organization that there is a need for something more. They are going to have to teach everyone about the differences between curriculum, and the resources that support that curriclum. They will need to change the way that textbooks are viewed, as well as the way most teachers teach. And, they will need to break the mold of textbooks adoption if they live in a state with those procedures in place.

These changes are not about technology, and they are huge. They are not impossible, but will require collaborative effort between schools or school districts in order to make a difference. There will need to be organizations which can take the initiative to work together over several years to build and use collaboratively created Open Content textbooks.

Meaningful improvements in schools will have to be associated with this Open Curriculum and Open Content textbook work, and some data will have to tracked and shared so that others will be able to gather the organizational capital to step outside the box.

These are major risks for educators to propose, and the more support they can garner to show that there have been successes with similar projects in the K-12 space, the more likely they will be to convince teachers, other administrators and parents that change is worth doing.

Where Are We?

Wikibooks is our “Lighthouse Project”, and utilizes a robust wiki engine format based on the Mediawiki technology. The Wikimedia Foundation runs the Wikibooks site, and its wildly more popular cousin Wikipedia. In addition, these projects utilize the resources in the related Wikimedia Commons site.

The first Wikibook edit took place three years ago, and according to the Wikibook site’s announcement, the English language Wikibooks server now has over 15,000 Wikibook modules, over 1000 Wikibooks, over 500,000 edits, with more than 25,000 registered users.

Not all of these modules and texts are near “completion”, if there is such a thing in a dynamic editing environment. Perhaps I should say that not all are nearing “usability”. Wikibooks has a visual indicator next to the names of the resources to give a rough guesstimate as to the level of completion of that item. Only a relatively small number of projects are in the upper stages of readiness.

Although we would like to see more Wikibooks texts in higher stages of completion, and would love to see more active use and acceptance of their system, it is only three years old! It serves as a lighthouse project for open, collaborative textbook construction.

There are other Open Content Textbook and Free Textbook efforts, but there is no larger project out there specifically for curriclum and texts. There are some very active online course sites which we discuss below, but only one that approaches Wikibooks in terms of Open Content publications and resources for teachers to edit and use. The Connexions Project is similar in some ways, but is focused on “modules” and courses in content units that can be linked together, and use multimedia as well as textual sources. Since modules and courses can be printed to PDF, they also serve as textbooks in theory.

Think about this: If all the creators of Open Content would just contribute a little – perhaps the best? – of their material to the Wikibooks site, it would grow in quantity and quality at much quicker rate than it has. If you are already using Creative Commons or similar licensing, it really doesn’t matter if your material is mirrored or seeded there, does it? ;-)

Open Content Projects Differ Significantly

While Wikibooks is based open collaborative editing and creation using wiki technology, there are numerous other projects that are aimed at either producing free textbooks using different technologies, or are approaching the creation of content in other ways. Open Content projects differ in intended audiences and how they interact with that content, formatting and structure of content, and the degree of openess.

The term Open Content also differs from “free content” – much like the differences between Open Source software, and free software. These differences are usually reflected in their licenses. For our purposes here, we use the Wikipedia definition of Open Content because it is simple, and non-legalistic:

“…any kind of creative work including articles, pictures, audio, and video that is published in a format that explicitly allows the copying of the information….Content can be either in the public domain or under a license like the Creative Commons License. The term is also used to emphasize content that can be modified by anyone; not exclusively by a closed organization, firm or individual.

There are also many different approaches to course management systems which can contain “open educational resources”, or OER as it frequently termed.. These are sometimes full of content that addresses a curriculum, but not in textbook form, exactly. So, the term “Open Content” in the K-12 setting could mean entire courses with content intact, modulare content which can be used in courses, as well as digital representations of the essential content of a course now – the “textbook”.

What makes a web accessible set of resources organized for a course a “textbook”? The ability to print? I’m not sure I know. So, I want to look at some examlpes, and think out loud a bit in this post.

I think that we have below a representative sampling of what’s out on the web listed, and that it is important to realize that there are very few options in terms of “Open Content Textbooks” per se. There are more course-oriented, and course module projects available, and the entire world of “digital object repositories”. But very little other than Wikibooks if you are looking for what most teachers would call “textbooks”. Even those can’t always be printed easily. Some seem to be set up to take advantage of “print friendly” stylesheets, and organized more traditionally than others.

There are also specific subjects where individuals, such as Ben Crowell, have created nice products, but nothing else I can find at the level of “collections” or projects that are producing multiple textbooks from different content areas. None of the other large scale projects I can find have easily editable textbooks through a web interface, and that is the key to a successful project that would generate the level of involvement needed for widespread use.

Some Open Content projects, such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare, are places where entire courses are open to use, but not editing; this site is intended for students to take pre-existing courses for free. Others, like Rice’s very interesting Connexions, allow users to create, consumer and share courses and content modules on an ad hoc basis online, and then convert those resources into a new form; conversion to PDF is automatic with a click.

The University of Southern California’s Institute for the Future of the Book, a project of the Annenberg Center for Communication, focuses on the new formSophie - The Institute for the Future of the Book of the “book” idea as a network. It is introducing the interesting sounding “Sophie” software this July (?) as method of producing dynamic, open source content that replaces PDF type texbook resources in a networked environment, and which allows collaborative creation of documents. Since the site does not have more than a description up at this time, it is not considered more fully below.

Still other sites exist to distribute specific free textbooks that have been created, are but not for collaborative editing of those resources ( Finally, there are sites that exist as directories in order to link available eBooks and free textbook resources together in various formats (Free Curricula Center; The Assayer), but not for content creation itself.

What most interests me are projects for collaborative creation of curriculum.

There are not many of these that I’ve found that are interested in K-12 curriculum, other than our own at Bering Strait School District. The BSSD project uses the same wiki engine as Wikibooks for both curriculum, and for Open Content textbook construction. The site is open to all educators and interested parties who want to register. We also have a course management system (Moodle) that can be used by staff with any sort of resource, including Open Content textbooks.

I have found at least one other school district using wiki tools for curriculum work – Goochland County Public Schools. However, their system is only open for collaboration within the district’s own WAN/LAN environment. I do not know if they are working on textbook construction to support that curriculum.

The California Open Source Textbook Project (COSTP) sounds interesting, and now has a stub up for their first textbook, a World History project, on the Wikibooks site. There appears to have only been limited activity thus far, but I would encourage others in California to take a look at this effort, and either participate or provide feedback for the organization in charge.

There is, however, the Connexions Project out of Texas’ Rice Univsersity. Unlike the other higher education digital object and course repositories discussed below, this site allows K-12 teachers and others to create content in modular format, and create and share content already contributed by others. It is “open” in the traditional sense, and seems to have gotten more so in tone and intent over the last two years or so. The Connexions site currently has over 3266 Modules, and 168 Courses.

Despite the openess of the Connexions terms of use, and some pretty nifty tools for importing and converting file types, there is little K-12 content that has been entered in the repository so far. Most content for now is focused on higher education curriculum- mostly on technical sciences such as “digital signal processing”, health and music…or so it seems by my limited browsing and searching.

Connexions is significant because it:

  • specifically mentions and acknowledges K-12 as both a potential consumer and contributor
  • is a flexible, modular approach to Open Content creation
  • allows collaborative construction
  • seems to be a true “content repository” rather than just a collection of digital objects or textbooks

Chick and I have been experimenting with their software. I’m sure we will be writing more about how this approach can work for K-12 schools soon. Teachers4Schools is currently building a demo server for school distritcts which uses the Connexions source code ;-)

Unlike a pure “textbook” structure, the Connexions project sees content operating differently in the future. Content, in the Connexions view, includes textual information, objects, and multimedia resources. This view of Connexions as a “knowledge factory” is worth a few thousand words on that topic. Click the image or this link to see a larger version.
Derel Keats’ peer-reviewed article Collaborative Development of Open Content deals with universities working together to create content in Africa. He makes some interesting observations about the relative differences in Open Content projects in general.

The following chart is based on his work.

Centralized Publishing
Community of Construction
Organizational Structure
One or more experts who create content as part of a single organizational structure
One or more experts who create content as part of a multiple organizational structure
Involvement of Main Users
Users not involved in construction
Users actively involved in construction
New Development Partners
MIT Open Courseware
Wikipedia, Wikibooks, Connexions

I would disagree with assigning reliance on experts to the Community of Construction column. Is everyone an expert who starts a Wikipedia article or Wikibook? Only if the term “interested party” equates to an expert ;-)

However, Keats is onto something here. He sees a continuum that has perceived value on one side, and the degree of “community construction” on the other. The more more value seen in the content project, the more inclusive and open the community hosting the project can be. Centralized Publishing would then primarily be for less valued projects. I support his assertion that Open Content projects should begin with high value, commonly supported goals as initial targets.

For K-12 schools to get involved directly in meaningful Open Content projects I believe there would need to be open access to educators and administrators. Formats would need to be flexible. In addition, I think that an “Open Systems” approach – where students, parents, and community members could be provide valuable input and formative guidance- would be central to developing the “critical mass” required for developing curriculum that could support locally relevant learning standards.

Open Source software projects are successful when a community of interested users can be formed to jointly craft the solution to a common problem. For K-12 to generate this kind of involvement for curriclum and textbooks, there would need to be a large enough set of eyeballs to provide guidance. Education is a state responsibility, and locally interpreted. The federal government in the United States has increasingly taken a role by using funding strings, but most curriculum decisions are still the province of the states.

The first targets for large numbers of teachers and administrators to agree on should be high value, core curriculum areas that are common form state-to-state. More specialized subjects may attract a core of a few motivated particpants, and still generate some reusults, but will not attain the breadth of participation needed to make Open Content textbooks of very high value to larger numbers of users.

Using a vague adaptation of Keats’ continuum, I’ve compiled a chart of representative Open Content instructional materials projects. The schema used here is where “Centralized Publishing”would be “Closed” participation; this would be situations where only staff members of the organization could contribute. On the other hand, complete access for anyone to contribute in a “Community of Construction” would be “Open”. A project that was “Limited” would primarily allow only approved or vetted applicants to contribute.

By “Structure” I mean format requirements. A requirement for format that was predetermined in file type (PDF only, etc.) and format would “Structured”. Information and resources simply entered into a web form, or some interface that generates a web template (Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) would be “Highly Structured”. “Loose Structure” would indicate that content and resource organization was flexible and mostly up to partipants to decide. “Proprietary” would indicate that only the organization’s managers or writers can decide content.

I’d love to have some help developing a rubric for classifying such projects, but that is beyond our scope here. I am still arguing with myself on how to classify Open Content projects. By all means, feel free to disagree, leave comments and show me how I’m missing the mark!

Click the graphic to read Keats’ article.

Keats - Continuum of

Project / Site
Loose Structure
All Levels


Wikibooks has over 15,000 Wikibook modules, over 1000 Wikibooks, over 500,000 edits, with more than 25,000 registered users. Chart of growth. Completely open to editing and creation of textbooks resources. Uses Mediawiki engine. See comments and examples in above narrative.Since this site is wide open, styles, formats and “printablility” vary quite a bit. Although not perfect, I think this is the most useful resource model for curriculum and textbook development that exists right now. It is not designed to be used as courseware, and would not be good for that purpose…for a number of reasons. More information on this project.

Organic Chemistry

United States History


European History

South African National Curriculum

Project / Site
Free Curricula Center
College Level

Free Curricula Center

The Free Curricula Center website “serves as a focal point for the development and sharing of textbooks, instructor guides, and other educational materials.” The site uses the term “Free Curricula”, and indicates that the preferred method of licensing is to releas to the public domain. The site suggests, and uses, some textbooks that have passed into the public domain over time.

FCC recognizes that, once placed in the public domain, its works may be freely reproduced, distributed, transmitted, used, modified, built upon, or otherwise exploited by anyone for any purpose, commercial or non-commercial, and in any way, including by methods that have not yet been invented or conceived.

For those who prefer not to do this, they allow open source licenses. Each project here can have a different type of license, including The Creative Commons, GNU Free Document License, the Academic Free License, and the Version 2.0 of the Design Science License.This is a very structured site which assigns roles, limits visitors in their ability to do much initially besides suggest topics. Textbooks may be suggested, but are only initiated through a university style committee process. To act as “chair” of a textbook committee, you must have an advanced degree – doctorate preferred. Here is a more detailed description of how the FCC site operates.Textbooks are available mostly in PDF format, although a few are also available in Word. The site mentions that it will be using Moodle for programs and courses, but I don’t see a link yet. There are no discussion groups, but there appear to mail lists.As far as how active the site is, it is hard for me to tell. Participants “apply for a Fellowship”. There is only one “Fellow” listed on the site’s page for that purpose, although six PhDs appear as members of an “Advisory Board”. Two individuals are listed as staff members. Participants need to apply to contribute. Academic credentials for contributors are encouraged.There are seven textbooks currently on the site. Four of these are Ben Crowell’s from, and two are books that have had their copyrights expire. One is a College Statistics textbook by the Fellow mentioned above, but only has two chapters so far. The two that are up in PDF appear nicely laid out, short and to the point.

Contemporary College Statistics

Project / Site
Loose Structure
K-12 Level

California Open Source Textbook Project

COSTP uses the Wikibooks interface at this time, although its future plans are less clear. For now I am assigning the same status as Wikibooks itself. The only existing textbook pages are for a World History project. I am not sure how long the project has been active, but an Edutopia article about the initiative’s goals is from September of 2004.The COSTP effort is particularly interesting because one of it’s professed goals is replacing California’s dependence on commercial textbook purchases. This blog has an upcoming post specifically about California’s relationship to the textbook industry because of its convoluted textbook adoption process. The COSTP site does not indicate how it is funded.

“COSTP will provide a new model for textbook creation in the State of California by 1) leveraging free, already-existing, and widely available K-12 educational content in the public domain; 2) better leveraging the substantial curriculum-based intellectual capital of California’s best K-12 teachers; and 3) using innovative copyright tools to secure new and dormant K-12 textbook content that would not otherwise be made available.COSTP is projected to augment current K-12 textbook supply chain, be self-supporting with 18 months of starting up, and save the State of California upwards of $200M+ per year for K-12 textbook allocation within five years.”

The Wikibooks project page does address adoption, and more specifics:

COSTP’s aim is to use California State K-12 Standards to develop printed, open source textbooks that will be approved for adoption by California’s State Board of Education for use in California public schools at far less cost than current commercial textbook offerings, thus helping the State of California save money (more than $200M per year) while providing more robust content for its public schools.In order for open source books to pass peer review (and thus approval for public school adoption) at the California State Board level (this is also true in most other states), textbook content must conform to the written state K-12 education framework standard, or it can be specially submitted to the Governor for approval.

It appears, though, that Wikibooks will not be the platform used for anything but a “placeholder pilot that is helping to prove the open source concept in the K-12 textbook sector.” Since the the COSTP site implies that the textbook materials will be sold in the future, the licensing used on Wikibooks will likely not work since they are covered under the GNU Free Documentation License.

In phase two of the COSTP plan (following year five), California will be able to offer (by license, at nominal cost) K-12 textbook and curriculum materials to other educational organizations and international agencies. This will create substantial cost savings for those entities, and will result in the complete elimination of all funds heretofore budgeted for California’s K-12 textbook purchases – currently $400M+ per year. Additionally, California will realize a surplus (profit) from it’s K-12 content licensing activities as this second stage of COSTP is deployed.World History

Project / Site
Structured - Physics Image
All Levels

Light and Matter

This site provides free textbooks, but the content is not “open” to submisions or creation of new content. I’ll call it “limited” for that reason, but books may be reused and rewritten with permission of the author.The site is run by Ben Crowell, a professor at Fullerton College in California, and the same gentleman who maintains the Assayer site listed above, and who has contributed a Calculus textbook to the FCC site.His site offers six free introductory physics textbooks that you can download, or buy for a nominal fee in print format. According to the information on te site, the books have been adopted at ten colleges and universities, and 14 high schools.The HTML versions are also available online, but the Google ads drive me a bit nuts. The PDF texts are pretty good looking, and appear quite well done to my layman’s eye. The texts are available as either Creative Commons Licensed, or GFDL. The author will send you the files in editable LaTex format, and you are allowed to edit and redistribute non-commercially as long as you credit Ben.

Newtonian Physics – Online Textbook

Project / Site
Internet Archive Logo
Digital Archive
All Levels

Internet Archive

This is a very interesting non-profit group in San Francisco that has been building an ambitious digital object repository since 1999, and which does have an Education Section. All copyright types are represented, including Open Source type license. There are tons of audio and video files here, and there quite a vast array of objects in almost every imaginable format. The collection includes that of many other online book projects, such as Project Gutenberg.This is an incredible resource for primary sources for educators, and you can even us the “Wayback Machine” to see archived websites from years past – how cool is that?However, as their site says, the size of the archive is such that meaningful “use requires some programming skill” through secure shell (ssh) user accounts. It has been my experience that not very many teachers can operate in an ssh environment.

Still, there is a web interface, and it includes a text section that showed 30,021 entries the day I was writing this post. Are there textbooks? I found some from Project Gutenberg and other sources that have passed out of copyright over time, and are available in text format. These would be excellent Open Source textbook fodder for those writing today, and just having students fact check, edit and update history and science texts from earlier eras would be an engaging way to have students learn and think critically!

Contributions? No problem. Use of the Creative Commons copyright encouraged, but not required. You can contribute quickly and easily by registering, but since it is an archive, there is no facility for collaborative construction of content. You must contribute in final finished format, and designate your copyright type.

In terms of contemporarily written textbooks, I did not find any. Here is an examlpe of older textboooks from K-12, of which there are a handful in the database:

Introductory American History (Bourne & Benton)

Project / Site
OCA Logo
Digital Archive
All Levels

Open Content Alliance

This is Yahoo’s response to Google’s scanning and indexing of books. Since Google has greatly restricted access to their collection, I’ve not listed them as an example. There is a long list of corporate, university and museum partners, as well as the William and Flora Hewitt Foundation. The list includes MSN, Xerox and Adobe, as well as the Smithsonian and Library of Congrss. Searchable PDF appears to be the output type, and the project is not harvesting metadata at this time, but is planning to do so in the future.Read about their plans here. Most sources will apparently come from library collections, and participation is only open to large, higher education and government organizations, not individuals or schools.Further clarification was provided in an article about the OCA’s inaugural event:

Despite the wonders of technological developments, as Feldman points out: ÒThe technology has existed to create digital library collections for more than a decade. The money, the labor, and the legal problems are the touchy part.Ó With two copyright lawsuits hanging over its head (one from The Authors Guild, the other from the Association of American Publishers), Google now faces the ÒtouchinessÓ of the problem. However, the solution may still not lie in turning back the hands of time to nothing later than the dawn of the last century or nothing later supplied by anyone but government agencies.

Brewster Kahle stated that OCA would try to target the 80 percent of books published between 1923 and 1964 that are out of copyright, then expand to include orphaned books, where the publisher and author can not be found, then out-of-print works, and finally in-print material. He called the effort Òtricky but doable.Ó This could put a lot of pressure on participating libraries to develop ways of verifying copyright ownership.

Management of the OCA project is being handled through the Internet Archive folks listed above, although the details are not clear to me on how the OCA differs. The Internet Archive lists them as a “scanning sponsor” on their site. The OCA site says that their content will be found on their own site, as well as through Yahoo! itself, so it seems that OCA will draw on the resources of the Internet Archive, and fund them to do the conversions from other partners.An “intitial interface” for OCA – built by the Internet Archive staff – is up at the Open Library site:

Open Library - Brewster Kahle

How the Projects Relate….

The interface for books at the Open Library site is “book-like”, with page turning, highlight searching, and virtual highlighting. Some of the books will have audio versions, and Print on Demand services (see below) will be available.What’s the bottom line for Open Content textooks? Unknown, but none of the current offerings are textbooks, and it appears as though the source collections will not contain many textbooks ready for classroom use in the K-12 environment.Also, since only organizations such as libraries can contribute to the project, their is no way for individuals or K-12 to participate….except as passive consumers.

Project / Site
Online Courses
College Level

MIT OpenCourseWare

The OCW project is a course management system full of course that are free to anyone. More accurately, a number of leading universities around the world have adopted this system to use with their own curricular materials and staff. The list of university projects includes at least four in the United States, 156 in China (!), eleven in France, six in Japan, and one in Vietnam.

The MIT OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW) project has always had a dual mission:

* Provide free access to virtually all MIT course materials for educators and learners around the world.
* Extend the reach and impact of MIT OCW and the “opencourseware” concept.

The vision of the MIT faculty who first developed the “opencourseware” concept at MIT was that one day, there would exist a vast network of universities around the world offering open access to high-quality educational materials in a variety of different disciplines, in a variety of different languages, creating a global Web of knowledge that will improve education around the world. So MIT is very pleased to be joined by other institutions around the globe in openly sharing educational materials as it helps us fulfill the second part of the OCW mission — to extend the OCW concept to other leading universities. The collective body of high-quality educational materials made available by these institutions provides a remarkable free and open network of resources for educators, students, and self-learners everywhere.

The course content varies widely from just posted reading lists and a syllabus to detailed content and linked multimedia files of lectures and support resources – including some textbooks.

Only instructional staff members from the universities using the OCW system can contribute, and only on their own organization’s server. At MIT, all courses for undergraduate and graduate classes are in process or already posted. These courses have no “instructor” available for outside particpants, and so the courses are “self-serve” only. The OCW website says that are over 1400 courses already posted. I tried several years ago to contact MIT’s Open Courseware project managers about getting access to the software for building our school district’s own course management interface. To be polite, they were not very interested in talking with me. At all. After several attempted contacts, I gave up and adopted the Open Source Moodle interace. Although that may have turned me off to the project a bit, it is a very impressive effort. The OCW folks have done some great work here, as have the professors creating the content.

Some of the courses also have embedded textbooks to support the curriculum. These are typically in a table layout with PDF download links for each chapter or section. Here are a couple of examples:

Calculus – Gilbert Strang

Physical Oceanography – Warren & Wunsch

I have listed the MIT OpenCourseWare as “college level”, but technically anyone can access the content there. There is no interest, apparently, for the OCW project to extend to “leading public schools”…let alone rural Alaskan school districts like the one I work for ;-)

While the MIT OCW uses Microsoft’s proprietary server and CMS software, other OCWs use Open Source Plone / Zope combinations, and the EduCommons software which Utah State’s well known OCW sites use. In short, some OCW projects are Open Source based, and others are not. More information is availble through the OpenCourseWare Consortium.

The MIT project is the most visble of the OpenCourseWare projects, and has received lots of press, funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and to some observers represents a great potential for higher education.

Utah State University OpenCourseWare

Johns Hopkins University OpenCourseWare

Project / Site
Loose Structure
Connexions Project - Rice Unviersity
Content Repository
All Levels

Connexions Project

The Connexions Project is a non-profit startup managed out of Rice University in Texas. It is the only “OpenCourseWare” system run by a university that seems to have shifted toward open contributions of content and courses. Their philosophy statement is worth reading.

Connexions is a unique web-based teaching and learning environment that aims to change the way we develop and use course materials.

Connexions is based on a set of intuitions that are shared by a remarkably wide range of academics: that knowledge should be free and open to use and re-use; that collaboration should be easier, not harder; that people should get credit and kudos for contributing to research and education; and that concepts and ideas are linked in unusual and surprising ways.

For authors and instructors worldwide, Connexions combines free authoring, course building, and publishing tools with an open-access content repository (see For students, it provides modular, interactive courses that are freely accessible. In Connexions, an author can create “modules” of information that are small documents intended to communicate a concept, a procedure, or a set of questions. String some modules together, and you have a web course or textbook, or weave a curriculum entirely of your choosing.

Connexions directly challenges the current notion of a “textbook” by exploding it and asking different people to create its parts in a semi-structured but re-configurable manner, rather than having a single Maestro do it all and take all the credit. All Connexions content is open-licensed using the Creative Commons attribution license. All Connexions tools are free and open source.

Connexions is being used in traditional college and K–12 settings, in distance learning, and by lifelong learners around the globe. Demand is surging; in January 2006 alone, the Connexions servers handled over 16 million hits representing over 500,000 unique visitors from 157 countries. Volunteers are translating modules and courses into a range variety of different languages, including Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, and Thai. Many of these are already very popular.

It also specifically mentions K-12 education as both consumers and contributors, and allows for collaborative construction of resources and courses. Here is how their site describes their outlook:

Connexions is a non-profit start-up launched at Rice University in 1999 that aims to reinvent how we write, edit, publish, and use textbooks and other learning materials. It is a global repository of educational content that can be described in four words that borrow from an Apple advertising slogan and a great book by Larry Lessig:

Create – in Connnexions, everyone is free to create educational materials and contribute them to the repository

Rip – in Connexions, everyone is free to copy the material and customize it

Mix – in Connexions, everyone is free to mix the material together into new books and courses

Burn – in Connexions, everyone is free to create finished products like e-learning web courses, CDroms, and even printed books

All of this is accomplished using open-access software tools and free-use material through the Creative Commons Attribution license. Connexions is not a tool for creating lesson plans and it is not a container for course syllabuses.

Anyone can contribute, but a peer review process is being worked on that will borrow elements from Amazon style reviews and ratings, as well as tags and trackback style information. Some mention of “editorial boards” is also made in both their 2004 and 2006 white papers, but I see that as a potential retreat to the “cathedral” model. The way it is now involves only review by your “workgroup” – you and others you invite to collaborate with you – and then relies on “market forces”, which is as it should be:

After publishing a course, the market forces provide the course review. Namely, many Connexions users will link to the interesting and informative courses and few will link to the not so interesting or informative courses…

Over 3266 modules and 168 courses are in the system. Content guidelines call for each module to be able to stand alone, and provide links to pre-requisite knowledge. Modules can be linked together, versioned and repurposed, and strung together into courses. See the Knowledge Factory view of Connexions for a graphical representation of this potential.

Some of the features of this system that make it stand out included document conversion from Word format into XML, instant PDF printing of modules and courses, and the ability to handle a wide range of multimedia file types, and metadata about objects and resources, math notation tools, and flexible copyright options.

Unlike a “course management system”, courses here are not run by specific instructors. The resources are open, and some self-check type quizes and questions are embedded in the content, but no testing facility or grade management for groups of students are provided. Connexions has a nice interface that is Plone / Zope based, and is quite flexible.

Connexions has also recently absorbed Rice University Publishing, and formed an agreement with Qoop, a Print on Demand (POD) service that will allow inexpensive printing of modules and courses as textbooks.

Despite the potential for K-12 consumption and contribution, most content for now is focused on higher education curriculum- mostly on technical sciences such as “digital signal processing”, as well as health and music. There are many other topics, but I am speaking of first impressions.

If this project interests you, I encourage you to read their recent white paper, browse their content modules. Funding for Connexions comes from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Atomic Molecular Theory of an Atom of the Romantic Era

Something like the Connexions Project for K-12, or even a less “branded” version of MIT OpenCourseWare type approach for K-12 would be great. I wonder, though, if the distributed, curricularly factionalized K-12 education community in the United States would support it? What about Open Textbooks that supported Open Content courses for K-12? Either or Wikibooks, Connexions modules or (potentially) something like “Sophie” would allow that to happen. Would state departments of education participate and/or validate such efforts?

One thing is certain: there would be significant resistance and spin against any such effort from the multi-billion dollar K-12 market vendors.

In addition, there are inherent problems with how state boards of education, state departments of education, and individual school districts all view their various responsibilities in determining curriculum, textbooks, and graduation requirements. Unlike most countries, education in the in the United States has a complex web of relationships which determine who can teach what to whom, not a unified system.

There is no “national curriculum” in the United States. I don’t know if the diverse organizations involved – state departments of education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the state school boards and myriad professional groups promoting thier own standards – could ever agree on how to handle a collaborative venture on shared curriculum. There would be Task Forces formed, universities would write grants when called in for advice. Tremendous amounts of money spent on planning. It’s entirely possible that nothing which challenged the status quo would result.

In the final analysis, though, here is little chance that the states would agree that curriculum created outside their own boundaries and oversight would lead to a high school degree in their state – the ultimate high stakes outcome for K-12 institutions. Resources….no problem. Degree? Big issue. The curriculum itself is too important to local and state constituencies in K-12.

The states have struggled for many years with the concept of “National Teacher Certification”, or a shared credential for K-12 educators. Any effort to validate a national curriculum would be far more difficult. Despite federal Special Education regulations, each state has to have its own plan and process. The plans all have subtle differences, but are then approved by the US Department of Education…or the state does not get federal Special Education funds. There are many, many other examples of how states continue to assert local and regional preferences into any K-12 rule, regulation, process or procedure.

Schools are not even “certified” as offering quality programs by the federal government in the United States. Instead, the “accreditation process” is used. This is a system that is heavily vested in the idea of “expert knowledge”, and “indicators of quality”. Would these organizations see Open Curriculum as valid? I tend to doubt it.

However, this may not matter if we distinguish correctly between “curriculum” and “content”. Grassroots content construction would only be possible if it was firmly reinforced that curriculum, not textbooks, are what states approve. Isn’t that what the movement toward state and local standards is supposed to be about? Nobody could agree on national standards, but the state level standards were supposed to be the central theme of education in the school districts Local standards would also be developed, but basically could not be less rigorous than the state ones. Local standards could also ensure that education in the school district would remain “relevant” to the communities there.

Extending the standards-based education idea is the concept that the content, the educational resources could come from anywhere to support a standards-based curriculum.

The chances of a Connexions-style project succeeding are far better than an MIT OpenCourseWare for K-12, especially if state-to-state barriers to agreement and “equivalence” or “alignment” were removed by having the repository down regionally with content that could realistically be said to address state standards. Schools could contribute or use as much or as little as they liked, and still have the badge of local relevance.

Do school districts have the ability to choose instructional materials from wherever they would like now? Well, not exactly. There is the “textbook adoption cycle” to contend with in twenty-two of the fifty states. We will talk about that in our next post.

What About an “Electronic Textbook” Industry?

Although schools buy and use a wide range of content resources, the main vehicle for content is still textbook. And textbooks are not just a matter of selecting resources from a catalog. There are…complicating factors. We will look quickly at the technologies, and then at the textbook adoption process.

Textbook publishing has recently began an aggressive effort to include digital modular content, and to embrace web-based content delivery methods. This is an effort to capture and secure emerging markets. Nobody seems particularly happy with the quality of textbooks, or the process used to create them.

Some observers, such as Dean Baker from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, are even calling for eliminating copyright policies for textbook publishing as a now inefficient remnant of the “guild system”.

At the same time, small technologies, and numerous models of eBooks, collaborative writing systems, digital object and online course formats are competing to be widely recognized in the education space. The consumers of textbooks – both learners and teachers – are increasingly used to fresher, more individualized content in almost every other aspect of their lives.Where is it all going to lead? Can textbook publishers take control, or is personalized content and connectivism going to make them less relevant? How does any of this relate to teaching, and the pedagogy of schools? I don’t know that I have answers, but I have tried to pull together some disparate threads here. I also guess at some potential futures, but as always, your mileage may vary.

Despite the efforts of the Wikibooks project so far, I don’t think that the $7 billion textbook industry feels very threatened quite yet. Industry members do seem to be aware that a sea change is going to occur in their markets. They know something is happening with Web 2.0, but do not seem to know how to tap into it yet.

Most schools are still using traditional textbooks in traditional ways. The textbook industry has continued to assimilate smaller publishers into larger ones, and has greatly expanded it’s holdings in data systems, testing products, and the data analysis packages to explain the results to districts. In short, they make the textbooks, the tests, and the remedial materials to improve the test scores.In fact, the handful of companies that control textbook publishing are purchasing digital products and services in the hopes of creating new markets for proprietary knowledge distribution. Most now have online textbook enhancements, multimedia supplements, downloadable enrichment guides for teachers and so on.

Some, like Holt, Reinhart and Winston’s secondary division, have “online textbooks” which “provide expanded access to interactive activities and assignments, offering students a place to store work and teachers a place to manage assessment and progress of student work.”Pearson and others are now talking about Podcast and iPod friendly delivery formats….although the products proposed so far are simply digital audio and video using the latest buzz terminology, and not yet capitalizing on RSS and other Web 2.0 ideas. Pearson recently bought PowerSchool, Apple’s web-based student information system, and indicated at time of the sale that part of the agreement involved a partnership to produce iPod-based content. Since Pearson now owns virutally all of the top three SIS systems, it is unclear if the iPod tie in will be related to that market, or to instruction.

In general, the industry continues to see takeovers and purchases of smaller, regionally relevant firms by larger, international media corporations. Depending on the source you site, the idustry is now controlled by either four large firms. This centralization of control has had a significant impact on the industry, and resulted in the extensive use of contracted “development houses” for publication lines rather that in-house writers and editors.

Profits are down, and textbook prices have soared. Textbooks are still a very profitable business for publishers, but less so than a few years ago. The industry seems to be struggling to find its way right now. Nearly all the major firms reacted to the calls for increased accountability under NCLB by further extending into testing and test preparation, made a ton of money doing so. Textbook publishers now control the textbooks schools use, the acheivement tests themselves, and the remedial programs sold to schools to increase their test performance.

It will be interesting to see how the industry reacts to the essential struggle between perceived control of knowledge by experts – the current system – and Web 2.0’s revolutionary ideas about who owns and vetts knowledge. The interactivity, exploding connectivism, shorter “shelf life” of knowledge will be hard for them to incorporate without giving up some essential controls. . Ideas about knowledge, the role of digital resources, and about technology’s role education are all changing. Teachers and students are people with regular lives outside of school, and they are seeing access to both create and consume information explode.

Are textbooks which are written every six years, even with online supplements, multimedia enhancements, and industry created iPod audio clips going to be enough to engage tomorrow’s students? Tomorrow’s teachers?

Next Rant: Textbooks in Reality – Is there Room for Web 2.0 in the Typcial Classroom?

20 Responses to “Is K-12 Ready for Open Content Textbooks?”

  1. Darla Grediagin Says:

    While I agree that this is the way to go. The question I have is how to we get better buy in for creating and using open source documents? I think that we have a large amount of teachers that would like to contribute information, but don’t know how. I am interested in how different programs help creators/users move past their phobias about technology and into creating content.

  2. The Education Bazaar » Blog Archive » Is There Room for Web 2.0 Content in the Typical Classroom? Says:

    [...] Most schools are still using traditional textbooks in traditional ways. I am wondering where those classrooms are going to find the flexibility or desire to use Web 2.0 tools, such as collaborative content creation and textbook tools that are starting to appear. As I outlined in “Is K-12 Ready for Open Content?“, the technological tools to support collaborative content development do now exist. There are systems that do serve that purpose on a limited scale now. [...]

  3. Tarmo Toikkanen Says:

    I’d like to point out as one attempt at creating the toolset for teachers to collaboratively produce and improve learning material, and also share their experiences in using and combining them.

  4. John Concilus Says:


    Thanks for the link to this…I had not seen it. I am downloading the engin, and have looked at the LeMill site. I will be posting a blog about it, and appreciate the tip.

    I also apologize for the delay in responding, but we launched a new Open Source project this fall that kept me from paying attention to this blog. That is about to change, as I’ve been storing up lots of blog fodder.


  5. The Education Bazaar » Blog Archive » The Need to Characterize Open Content Projects Says:

    [...] Last summer I wrote a blog post that looked at many of the Open Content projects aimed at K-12 consumers and participants, and at the larger question of how those resources might fit into K-12 classrooms and curriculum.I learned quite a bit in the process of writing that rather long entry, and although much has happened since then, the essential points I made at the time are quite relevant in light of recent developments. Is K-12 Ready for Open Content Textbooks? [...]

  6. Alaska Educator Makes the Case for Throwing Out Textbooks | MindShift Says:

    [...] In his post “Is K-12 Ready for Open Content Textbooks?” he maintains that eliminating textbooks is still a major hurdle to cross for most schools: “Research shows [...] that for most teachers in most schools, the textbook actually is the curriculum. [...] When we ask many teachers and school administrators to consider Open Content textbooks, we are asking them to essentially abandon their entire curriculum.” [...]

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