A new project aims to develop low-cost, open-source textbooks for use in the developing world
In the United States, escalating textbook prices are a growing concern for students. But as harsh as the problems of a $100-plus text may seem on local campuses, they pale in comparison with the relative cost of books in developing countries, where a single text can represent a sizable fraction of a family's annual income.
As one way of dealing with the problem, a group of academics from various universities around the world are creating an online resource network of free wiki-style textbooks aimed primarily at universities in developing nations. Set to launch its first book in January, the Global Text Project—which was thought up by a professor, Richard Watson, at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business—will allow academics, company executives, students, and anyone else in the world to contribute their thoughts and insight to its collection of online textbooks. The first two books in the series will be about information systems and business fundamentals.
Writing 1,000 Books
The leaders of the project have set their sights on providing as many as a thousand online books for use in countries such as Uganda, where the average per capita income is $280.
"Publishers will sell books in Africa for about $50 each, which is quite reasonable. But compared to the per capita income and even with the best will in mind, their business model just doesn't work for the developing countries," says Watson, the project's co-leader and Rex Fuqua Distinguished Chair for Internet Strategy in the Department of MIS at the University of Georgia.
Each of the proposed open-source books has an editor-in-chief responsible for putting together a chapter outline and rough description, and ensuring that the text comes together in a cohesive manner. Professors from universities around the world are being recruited to contribute. "There are eight million professors around the world. If we want to create 1,000 books with 20 chapters, that's a quarter of one percent of all the professors in the world [who would have to participate]," Watson says. "Lots of people want to help others." To ensure that professors stay engaged, the profs will only write a chapter each, not an entire book (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/2/05, "Wikimania and Free Culture Movement").
Watson already has experience creating an open-source book. In a 2004 graduate class on XML-based programming for data exchange, he had each student write a chapter for a textbook. The online text is being used by subsequent classes at the University of Georgia, with each class expected to contribute improvements.
The Global Texts will expand on that concept, allowing students, businesspeople, and others with expert knowledge to contribute. However, there will be editorial oversight, says Don McCubbrey, project co-leader and Clinical Professor in the Department of Information Technology and Electronic Commerce at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business. Anyone can share his or her thoughts, but the writing of that person will show up with a light blue background until a chapter editor has reviewed it. "You need quality control in a textbook," McCubbrey says.
The open-source model should work well in developing nations. First, there will be no copyright issues with the books anywhere. Plus, the materials are being developed to be viewed in a variety of formats. In countries where not everyone owns a computer, those factors are extremely important (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/05/06, "Rich Nations May Sponsor $100 Laptops"). Professors would be able to print out selections for students or they can be burned onto a CD or DVD or viewed on a screen.
The texts can also be localized, which is another plus. "Most textbooks are written by U.S. authors so they tend to be U.S.-centric," says McCubbrey. Indeed, the project is looking beyond the United States for authors and contributors.
Though Global Text is focusing its efforts overseas, McCubbrey says students at U.S. colleges might be interested in Global Text as a way of cutting costs (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/12/06, "Textbook Costs Stir Concern").
Free-book Web sites are already appearing in the U.S. Connexions, founded in 1999 at Rice University, is an online center for free texts, most of which are written by faculty members at universities in the United States and abroad. Professors at various schools—including Rice, Ohio State, and the University of Illinois—have used these books in their classrooms. Some are used as supplemental materials and some are as required reading, says Connexions founder Richard Baraniuk, the Victor E. Cameron Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice. Materials can either be read on screen for free, printed out from the Web site, or ordered in hard copy for about $25.
Mining Mind Power
While free is good, for undergraduates, the question of quality control is their main concern when it comes to open-source and free, online textbooks.
Brian Ritchie, a junior at the University of Michigan and president of the Business Organization of Strategic Skills, says he strongly supports open-source texts, especially when multiple professors are contributing a variety of viewpoints. "If this project launches, it's something I would really look up to," he says. "A lot of minds are contributing to this one project."