Textbooks are expensive. They could be almost free, especially in subjects like trigonometry or calculus, which don’t change very fast.

I’m a radical when it comes to the dissemination of knowledge: I want to give as much away for free as I can! So if I weren’t doing Azimuth, I’d probably be working to push for open-source textbooks.

Luckily, someone much better at this sort of thing is already doing that. David Roberts — a mathematician you may have seen at the n-Category Café — recently pointed out this good news:

• Ashley Vance, $200 Textbook vs. Free — You Do the Math, New York Times, July 31, 2010.

Scott McNealy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, recently said goodbye to that company and started spearheading a push towards open-source textbooks:

Early this year, Oracle, the database software maker, acquired Sun for $7.4 billion, leaving Mr. McNealy without a job. He has since decided to aim his energy and some money at Curriki, an online hub for free textbooks and other course material that he spearheaded six years ago.

“We are spending $8 billion to $15 billion per year on textbooks” in the United States, Mr. McNealy says. “It seems to me we could put that all online for free.”

The nonprofit Curriki fits into an ever-expanding list of organizations that seek to bring the blunt force of Internet economics to bear on the education market. Even the traditional textbook publishers agree that the days of tweaking a few pages in a book just to sell a new edition are coming to an end.

Whenever it happens, it’ll be none too soon for me!

Let us hope that someday the Azimuth Project becomes part of this trend…

15 Responses to Curriki

  1. Tom Leinster says:

    A couple of months ago I had lunch with Sasha Borovik, who enthused memorably about open source textbooks—as opposed to textbooks that are merely cost-free and downloadable.

    I’d never really thought about the difference, but I came away from that lunch with a clear sense of the importance of textbooks being open source. I quickly made the decision that if I ever write a textbook, that’s how I’ll do it.

    The point of open source is that anyone can edit it. Suppose, for example, that you’re teaching a class and want to use a certain book, but you don’t like every aspect of it. Maybe you want to remove parts that will be over your students’ heads; maybe you want to rewrite parts; maybe you want to reorder it. Maybe you want to add material. Maybe you want to change the notation—a common wish. Maybe you want to change the formatting—e.g. Sasha told me that his students like the two-column format because that’s better for reading on iPhones. You can do all this and more!

    Anyone who wants to write such a book simply needs to place it on the arXiv and choose an appropriate licence. (I haven’t looked into what licence would be appropriate, but I’m sure such licences already exist, so that you don’t have to draw one up yourself.) I hope the day comes when this is the default behaviour for textbook writers.

    I thought this was a really inspiring idea. It almost made me want to write a textbook, just so I could make it open source.

  2. streamfortyseven says: is a free online physics textbook with a downloadable PDF version and a version available for online reading which is well worth checking out.

  3. Nullius in Verba says:

    I love the idea, but have you looked at their content?

    Reminds me of Feynman’s essay on judging books by their covers. I feel the same way.

    • Eugene says:

      I agree. I looked for the content on Curriki and couldn’t find much. I was looking for basic geometry, chemistry and physics textbooks. I started with geometry for elementary and middle schools and all I found were lesson plans. Don’t get me wrong, a collection of lesson plans is better than a hole in the head. But I couldn’t find any textbooks.

      • John Baez says:

        Ask not what Curriki can do for you. Ask what you can do for Curriki!

        The New York Times article says:

        Curriki has made only modest strides, but Mr. McNealy has pledged to inject new life. He wants to borrow from Sun’s software development systems to create an organized framework for collecting educational information.

        In addition, he wants the organization to help build systems that can evaluate educational material and monitor student performance. “I want to assess everything,” he says.

        MR. McNealy, however, has found that raising money for Curriki is tougher than he imagined, even though so many people want to lower the cost of education.

        “We are growing nicely,” he says, “but there is a whole bunch of stuff on simmer.”

        I’m hoping that McNealy has enough money and energy and connections to bring Curriki to a boil. But it will only happen if some people decide to jump in and write textbooks.

        When you say ‘wiki’, everyone thinks ‘Wikipedia’, but writing decent textbooks is a lot harder than writing decent encyclopedia articles. There’s more of an overall structure involved — typically provided by a single author who has already looked at lots of textbooks and taught from them. And while an encyclopedia that’s missing an article on an important topic can still be useful if you’re lucky enough not to be looking for that topic, a textbook that leaves out an important topic is useless — unless you’re energetic enough to write that section yourself, or find it somewhere else.

        So, we shouldn’t be surprised that Wiki textbooks are taking a while to get started.

        But once a textbook reaches a certain critical threshold, it should be somewhat easier for people to contribute exercises to it — and at least in US math courses, the main thing students do with a textbook is use it as a source of exercises.

  4. Bruce McNeill says:

    Hi John
    It can’t come soon enough for me either, that’s why I’d like to see all academic journals open-sourced as well.
    I also support arXiv which is a great system for Math and Physics.

  5. Zoran Škoda says:

    One of the good things in which the sciences textbook system in USSR was better than the western system is, was the separation of a textbook and a problem book. Most publishers in US earn money on new editions of the massive textbooks, as after minor tweaks new edition would have different enumeration. For study it really does not matter. You want to learn Maxwell Equations you read the chapter where you can find them. It is not really crucial if it does not quite match by the number the chapter mentioned in the class. But if you get a homework, and you are solving a problem with Maxwell Equations then 5.6 and 5.7 are really much different. (Plus not every author of a textbook is equally talented in presenting a theory (with examples) as in making out a new list of problems.)
    In such a system with separate problem books, it is easy to use old edition of a textbook. Problem books on the other hand, are short and cheap, you know to list problems and solutions takes much less space than a thick textbooks with photographs and all the rest. So even if a publishers forces you to buy a new edition of a problem book, it would not be comparable to the constraints in bundled editions. Bundling is always a way to create monopolies, as we know with journal subscriptions, sales in shops and so on (I think that the volume-bargaining in regular grocery shops should be forbidden by law. Unless a consumer buying half a pound of meat instead of 5 pounds is using more ambalage per unit product what can be measured separately if it is he should pay 5 times less; otherwise people buy more than they need by psychology and later throw too-old spoiled food from refrigerator — this brings to higher polution and destruction of resources, and lower quality of food consumption — eat fresh — and finally to oppression of family people and obese as opposed to singles and those who eat less. Using resources should be counted proportionally; with the system in which everybody obeys the comsuption tactics the punishment to take smaller quantities is sometimes extreme, so only the law or painful education could help).

  6. Uncle Al says:

    The high cost/page of a classic textbook in math, engineering, or the sciences was not unjustified. A small number of copies bore the cost of typesetting complex mathematics, figures, diagrams, chemical formulae, spectra… Printing plate compositing was nasty.

    In 2010 original digital sources in specialist software are swift and exact. Digital to paper direct, or photolithographic plates composited by digital laser. Amortized production costs, even for small runs, might be $(US)0.03/page. A 1500-page chemistry text should run around $70 with 55% profit for publisher and vendor levels, and the author.

    Or carry the bytes on a shiny platter costing some $1.00 the whole. Now it is a $45 textbook with the same profits for all. On-line, a $20 textbook to download. Somebody must pay for the server (should be tax-deductible as *meaningful* charity). Don’t bind the mouths of the kine who tread the grain.

    Journals whose content originated in taxpayer pockets should be open source (perhaps in a public or donated private cloud) starting one year after publication. How much money do year-old articles bring in?

  7. Thomas says:

    The relevance of many cheap textbooks for science and economy was investigated recently for the first time. Such data are IMO a needed background for discussions on copyright laws etc.

  8. mathlight says:

    About what Bill Gates said few days ago:

    “On the other, he believes text books in the West are far too intimidating for many students. He also points out that students in Asia are outperforming the West, and their books are a third of the size of ours.”

  9. Nigel Cook says:

    When I was a student, we photocopied the relevant chapters (one a week) of the physics textbooks we needed from the “not for loan” reference copies on the shelf in the library. It was far easier to study technical stuff that way, with just the relevant chapter for the week on separate sheets of paper, than to lug around a bag full of heavy textbooks. Also, you don’t feel intimidated by the thickness of a complete textbook when you have to knuckle down to do some reading, and you have no issue against underlining key points in the text on a photocopy, so you study it better and annotate the text, it becomes more meaningful, and you actually learn faster. Another thing about the photocopier is that, at a small cost, you can enlarge to 140% from the small pages of mathematics textbooks to make the photocopies less tiring on the eyes to read than the original pages. (There is no copyright violation involved if the copies are within the “fair use” clause of the copyright law for private study and you are not selling them for profit at the author’s expense.)

  10. I agree with the concept of open-source textbooks whole-heartedly. I even used a couple of linear algebra ones in a course last year.

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