Originally posted on Facebook on July 18, 2012.
First, thanks to the Facebook nerds for all the kind comments today concerning a press release that I apparently earned for editing two chapters of some new physics textbook over spring break. It WAS an intense spring break, not gonna lie, and in my employer’s infinite wisdom it’s something to be praised, so I will take it and work it up in the professional development materials that I need to submit at the end of the month. There’s no need to complain about this.
But it’s incredibly important to me that I emphasize the larger point. I didn’t edit a textbook in order to get the brownie points at work or so people can pat me on the back and tell me I’m smart. The cost of textbooks is a MASSIVE problem across education right now, one that the major publishers have not handled responsibly, one that those of us in higher education have helped create by not paying attention to how little quality we were getting for the rapidly rising prices.
I still remember being in the bookstore at Middle Georgia College when a group of young black women were purchasing their texts – one of them for my class – and were getting soaked for upwards of $200 or $300 – not for rigorous science and engineering texts, but for one general science text and English grammar guides and history readers. This was in 2001. I had a sense of how much money that was to at least one of those students, and I was horrified.
It’s not gotten any better in the past eleven years, to say the least.
There have been other efforts to bring free textbooks in front of the populace. I have been a long-time supporter of Benjamin Crowell’s Light and Matter project, which I’m pretty sure was the first Physics text to be published under the Creative Commons ShareAlike license. I am actively following the progress of efforts from FlatWorld Knowledge and the CK12 Foundation, and I am contemplating how I might use material from both projects.
But I am most excited about OpenStax by far, for a host of reasons. The backing that OpenStax has received is oustanding; it’s a project of Rice University, using an open education platform that is already well-established (that would be Connexions), and has already won the trust of some big wheels in higher ed funding (you may have heard of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – but I hadn’t heard of either the Twenty Million Minds Foundation or the Maxfield Foundation, and now I want to know more). The textbook I wound up working on was previously College Physics by Paul Peter Urone, published by Brooks-Cole – not a lightweight text, and – given that I teach for biology majors, and Urone was a text laden with health applications – one that I’ve had on my bookshelf for a decade. And the editing staff was small, but top-notch professionals. Jesse LaBuff was wonderful about bringing a newbie editor on board and bringing him up to speed, and I can’t say enough about how accessible the project’s editor-in-chief, David Harris, has been – from my first contact with him all the way to now.
The text that has been produced – OpenStax College Physics – is first-rate in every way, a text that is genuinely competitive with the best algebra/trig-based textbooks on the market. I will use it next year in my physics sequence at Virginia Intermont. And the text is free. If you really want to, you can actually purchase a hard copy of the text for the cost of printing – but if you wanted to get a .pdf file or an e-reader ready file, or if you just wanted to read the text on the web, you can do that right now.
The physics and sociology texts that OpenStax released at the beginning of the month are only the start. Three new texts – spanning biology (for majors and nonmajors) and anatomy and physiology – are due before this year’s end. There will be more to come. (I hope for the chance to work on an OpenStax College Chemistry text.)
Ultimately, those of us who say so much about the importance of the free exchange of knowledge have a responsibility to maintain the free exchange of knowledge, and to not contribute to a system that keeps knowledge out of the hands of those who can’t afford it. We need to help break this vicious cycle that drives the cost of books up. It’s not broken yet (and those of you taking Organic from me this semester, God bless you) but there are cracks. To have played this tiny little role in getting us to this point, to have edited the first text published by OpenStax, to be one of the first adopters of this text…it’s an honor, but it’s also a responsibility, and one I don’t take lightly.
And now you know why I don’t write press releases.
But you also know why this is such a big deal to me.