Sunday, January 14, 2007

California Open Source Textbook Project: Brilliant!

Someone in California deserves a huge shoutout. The California Open Source Textbook Project (COSTP) is a brilliant idea. From the project‘s homepage:

The California Open Source Textbook Project (COSTP) is a collaborative, public/private undertaking. It has been created to address the high cost, content range, and consistent shortages of K-12 textbooks in California.
California currently spends more than $400M annually — and rising — for K-12 textbooks. With K-12 enrollments projected to rise in the coming years, revenue demands for textbooks and other curriculum materials in California will increase proportionately.
COSTP will employ the advantages of open sourced content and innovative licensing tools to significantly reduce California's K-12 textbook costs — eventually turning K-12 curriculum and textbook construction from a cost into a revenue generator for the State of California.
COSTP benefits will be 1) the complete elimination of the current $400M+ line item for California's K-12 textbooks; 2) a significant increase in the range of content afforded to California's K-12 textbooks; 3) a permanent end to California's textbook shortages; and 4) creation of fully portable content holdings database that scales with classroom technologies as they are introduced.

I‘ve become such a cynic, and I truly do need to work on this, but I came to their site expecting to find a walled-garden, an authenticated private wiki for content “experts“, a scheme to pay “qualified“ experts for their contributions, a total lack of transparency, and a licensing policy that would do Hollywood proud. I didn‘t expect a huge bureaucracy the likes of the California State Department of Education to truly “let go“ and get it right. Well, I was wrong! What they are doing is great stuff.

First, they didn‘t create their own private wiki for the “experts” to work in seclusion. Nope, they put it right out there in the open where everyone can watch it develop, and most importantly everyone can contribute- citizens, parents, and even the students themselves. Imagine that!

They didn‘t waste money on technical systems where those capabilities were already freely available. Nope they used services provided by the WikiMedia Foundation's Wikibooks for just this purpose. (You can contribute here: WikiMedia Foundation.)

Finally, they didn‘t write their own restrictive licensing scheme with some insane last decade business model for cost recovery. Nope, right there on the COSTP: World History Project is the GNU Free Documentation License. On their Web site is a great big Creative Commons logo with all the right words declaring their intentions.

The leadership for this project is restoring my faith in the ability of public servants to act in the people‘s best interest. Oh how I would love to see this sort of thinking spread through all our educational institutions. Imagine what a project like this could do to lower the costs of higher education where the costs of textbooks are borne by the students themselves? Sounds to me like a perfect mission for our land-grant universities with their their democratic mandate for openness, accessibility, and service to people...


Drew said...

Yes, it all sounds "brilliant" -- but I don't see any progress. They talk about replacing all their textbooks in 5 years. Come on. Someone is going to write all the books a state needs for K-12, and give them away? Sounds like this has pretty much stalled.

Kevin Gamble said...


Thanks for the comment, and a reminder that I should go take a look.

There are a lot of reasons why wiki projects fail. We know this model works-- all you have to do is look at Wikipedia. That it isn't working in this situation needs to be examined. I'm guessing someone borked the conditions required for success?

Thinking back as well, why does this project need to be separate? Why not just pledge to support wiki books?

More later...

Kevin Gamble said...

You're right. The progress is horrid. It's hard to tell they are doing _anything_.

I suspect the problem comes from the requirement to conform to the bureaucratic rules of the California Curriculum Framework:

There is a thriving World History group on Wikipedia. Maybe they need some legislation to disintermediate the control freaks and allow the use of other books. The people have spoken by their support of the other project within Wikibooks.

hesslei said...

The cost of K-12 textbooks has risen steadily over the years. Whatever the reasons for increasing costs, it seems likely that today's high K-12 textbook prices are not inevitable. The past history of textbook prices, and the existence, even today, of textbooks that occasionally cost significantly less than average, indicates that textbooks could be produced and sold for 33-50+% less than currently charged by textbook publishing companies.


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