“That can’t be any good” the teacher said to me.
“Why not?” I asked back, interested in the answer that I knew was coming.
“It’s free. It can’t be any good if it is free.” she stated flatly. Her mind was pretty much made up. We were looking at a Chemistry book from an organization called CK12.org, a philanthropic educational organization that, among other things, creates free of charge textbooks for Math and Science.
These free books are part of a larger education trend called Open Education Resources, or OER.
“So what’s wrong with it?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I just feel that it can’t be good if it is free.”
The teacher’s response was not surprising. Education is famous for spending millions of dollars year after year on student textbooks, and if a textbook is free then there must be something wrong with it or there is some kind of hidden fee that we aren’t aware of.
Traditional ideas are hard to break, especially in education. We have been buying textbooks for well over a century. Why stop now? However, the CK12.org books are truly free of charge, written by experts in the field, vetted, and are part of a growing movement of writers all over the world that are willing to share their work free of charge.
(Author’s note: Go ahead, check out what CK12 has to offer for free. No cost to anyone, anywhere.)
OER promises to upend the business model of school districts blindly purchasing textbooks simply because they came from well known publishers like Pearson or Harcourt.
The question I like to ask teachers that are hesitant to move towards more free resources is “Who owns the Periodic Table of Elements?” Of course, no one “owns” it, and more than anyone owns the Constitution, the Magna Carta, the rules for chess, multiplication tables or number lines.
General information is free to use in a free society. What districts pay for in textbooks is not the Periodic Table per se, but rather how the Periodic Table is presented.
We pay for the pretty pictures of elements, the color pictures and other “add ons” designed to make the book more interesting.
However, with the rise of the internet use in classrooms across the globe, that information which used to cost a pretty penny is now readily available for free in microseconds with a Bing or Google search. OER takes advantage of that freely available information to create textbooks and other educational materials that rival that of the traditional textbook publishers.
Indeed, with the CK12 textbooks, not only can a teacher “adopt” a free textbook and share with their students, they can also modify the text to suit their needs. Don’t like the order of the chapters? No problem. Just rearrange the chapters. Don’t like the video that is embedded in the section on mitosis? Don’t worry, put an alternate video that you do like in it’s place.
Not only has the textbook itself become a freely available item, it also has become 100% editable, something traditional textbook publishers would shudder to think was happening to their highly copyrighted material. Teachers can adapt to the needs of their students, instead of the students having to adapt to the needs of the textbook.
The OER movement is not simply limited to CK12.org offerings. Several states have adopted OER materials as alternatives to traditional textbook adoptions, and community colleges and universities across the world are saving their students millions of dollars by adopting OER textbooks.
Rice University in Texas has created 44 (so far) OpenStax textbooks that can be used by anyone, anywhere. These texts also are being used for Advanced Placement (AP) classes across the state with the blessing of the Texas Education Agency, which has an entire office now dedicated to Open Education Resources.
The US Department of Education even has a large nationwide initiative called #GoOpen that encourages school districts across the country to use free resources to save themselves some precious dwindling financial resources.
The trick of course for any paradigm shift like moving to free textbooks to take hold in a classroom is to show the benefit to students. Besides the obvious benefit of saving huge amounts of money, the other benefit to students is that most of these texts are digital, can be shared and saved over years, not just a school year.
So a student in 12th grade can easily go back to his or her freshman Biology OER textbook for reference without having to worry about checking it out from the book room or the library. They never wear out and they are free. “Free forever.” That is the motto of OER.
Did that teacher ever make the switch to the CK12 Chemistry textbook? Not the first year. By the second year however, her students were insisting that she make the switch because the classroom set of chemistry textbooks were nearing 12 years of age and had seen a lot of wear and frankly, the information was as worn as the covers.
And the children shall lead.
Funny or Die had a pretty biting satire about how textbook publishers do what they do:
Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback. Feel free to leave a comment. Read his previous columns here.