As one of the co-founders of the open textbook publishing start-up Eleven Learning, I often interact with people who are interested in learning more about our business model. In a nutshell, we publish free and low-cost print and electronic textbooks, all of which are professionally edited, peer-reviewed, and typeset, under a Creative Commons BY-SA-NC license. My colleague Andrew Bender succinctly calls us the “Red Hat of textbooks.” Like Red Hat, we flourish by freely distributing our core content and charging reasonable fees for value-added versions of our books. Most people respond favorably and tell us that what we are doing is exciting and necessary. Even if they do not understand OER or the publishing business, everyone reacts the same way to the ‘Textbook Problem’.
Sometimes though, people look at me funny, tilt their heads to the side, and say something like “Wait, what? You let anybody adapt, share, and distribute your books?” They have a hard time grasping what it means to be an open-source, CC-license publisher. They have a hard time seeing beyond “Open means it cannot be any good.”
Recently, for example, I had a very animated discussion with someone who insisted that it was not possible to be simultaneously open and innovative; that the process of innovation could not possibly take place in an organization that allowed anyone to reuse and reissue its content without getting paid for that use.
It is a good thing no one told us that!
At the risk of sounding like an infomercial, I would like to use an example from our publishing program to demonstrate that it is possible to be open and innovative at the same time, and that whether it is being done by Flat World Knowledge or by consortia or by individual authors or by us, it is creating better textbooks.
We are about to publish Developmental Linear Algebra: The Path to Mathematical Maturity by Jim Hefferon of St. Michael’s College, Vermont. This manuscript has been available on the web as an open-source book almost continuously for the past 11 years. We did two things with it: ran it through our peersourcing review process and rendered all of the math so that the complete book could be viewed in any web browser, without using .gifs, scripts, or plug-ins. It was a non-trivial exercise, and as far as we know, the first application of its kind for this type of complex mathematics. It is an innovation that we’re especially proud of.
The beauty of that innovation? Under our licensing terms, not only is a version of the book available for free, but the source code is also available, enabling anyone to host a web-based version. Beyond that, the math itself is open: each individual equation can be clicked and copied out of the browser and dropped into a computer algebra system like Maple, Mathematica, or MATLAB.
We are open, we are innovative, and we are proud of it.