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April 2014
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Emerging Battles Over Textbooks: Options from Apple to Open Initiatives

Andy Oram, editor at O'Reilly Media

by Andy Oram

The worlds of both education and publishing will be tugged from opposing directions, perhaps to the breaking point, by two recent trends.  One is Apple’s well-publicized entry into the textbook market with its iBooks Author app, tied by license to its iBooks store. The other is the movement for open textbooks, on which the state of California recently placed its bets (for the second time).

But let’s slow down for a minute. The iPad, as an entertainment platform, will not morph easily into an educational tool, whereas developing open textbooks raises difficulties beyond the ones that open source software have encountered and surmounted. I recently discussed these topics with Open Doors Group’s Jacky Hood. She is part of a team trying to respond to the California open textbook challenge.

Empowerment versus entertainment

To evaluate Apple’s textbook strategy, compare it to the goals of the “One Laptop Per Child” initiative. The biggest problem with the Apple initiative–missed by most commentators—is that the iPad is an entertainment device, and has many interesting ways to interact with content but not to create it. In contrast, OLPC’s XO system was planned from the start to let children create and share text, video, and other content. It is an empowerment device. (Google claims that its Chromebooks are similarly empowering.)

The same reasoning drove the OLPC decision to distribute all free software on the XO. The use of free software promotes learning and exploration. Numerous other considerations (lower cost, rugged design, and orientation to underdeveloped regions with limited capabilities) also separate the XO from the iPad.

Now the iPad is obviously a beautiful product, so we can assume that its qualities will be put to good use by textbook authors. But authors will need help creating an effective user interface for their own textbooks.

If school districts respond positively to Apple’s textbook initiative, I hope they relinquish some of their zeal for aesthetically superior, expensive hardware and license some cheap device (several options are available) for student use.

The Limits of Open

Do open textbooks present as robust an alternative to the Apple model as open source presents to the Microsoft’s of the software industry? Not in practice. The development model used by Open Doors isn’t as radical as you’d expect when you hear of open textbooks.

Textbooks are extraordinarily detailed and have high standards for correctness in all those details. Good writing values–pacing, selection, the introduction of topics–all have to be top-notch too. Textbooks may be criticized as bland or timid, but they make their points without the nuanced ambiguity that authors can get away with in other settings.

Numerous open source activities exist in education, but they tend to deal not with textbooks but a broader set of material known as “open courseware.” (A survey of available courseware can be found in the appendix of UNESCO’s A Basic Guide to Open Educational Resources). It may turn out that, in a collaborative and action-oriented classroom, textbooks will turn out to be an obsolete concept and the pastiche of other courseware will be all that is needed. But this article starts with the premise that a textbook is still useful.

Of all the weapons that free software can wield in its battle for world domination, the heaviest guns are the ease of making and distributing derivative works. But textbooks are not used in a community the same way software is. Textbooks are designed for courses, and are chosen by instructors. Most instructors would need strong assurance that any derivative work was superior to the original before using it.

When I look at the demands made by students and instructors, and the constraints placed on textbook production–whether the Apple model or the open model–I sense there is a place for both and a place for expert authors and publishers to create the experiences that modern educational environments require.

To read more about my viewpoint on these initiatives, look at my in-depth article on O”Reilly Radar.


He is an editor at O’Reilly Media. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source technologies and software engineering. His work for O’Reilly includes the first books ever released by a U.S. publisher on Linux, the 2001 title Peer-to-Peer, and the 2007 best-seller Beautiful Code. He can be reached at andyo@oreilly.com.