The Growing Adoption of Creative Commons Textbooks

Ten years after its creation, governments are turning to the Creative Commons license to reform their education programs.

College students in the aisles of the Georgetown University bookstore.
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How much money is saved depends on how each individual science department currently utilizes its textbooks. If the textbook costs, say, $80, and is expected to be replaced every five to seven years, then the school is spending roughly $14 per student. If the district can use a Creative Commons textbook and print it for less than $5, then it saves up to 65 percent.

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But what about the textbook authors themselves? How do they feel about the shift away from the traditional, royalty-based publishing system?

David Poole, a professor of computer science at the University of British Columbia, thinks that many academics will be perfectly fine with the reduced revenue that results from the open model. "We already get paid by the government," he says. "We want maximum adoption. We're not doing it for the money, we're doing it because we think we have something to say, we want to do it to basically get our book out to as many people as possible. Any money we get is just an added bonus."

Two years ago, Poole, along with another colleague, published a textbook on artificial intelligence. They specifically sought out a publisher that would allow them to simultaneously post a free version online in addition to the for-sale print version. "We shopped around for lots of publishers, and most people wouldn't touch us," he recalls. "They just said no." The one exception was Cambridge University Press, which agreed to their terms. "Cambridge claims it doesn't affect sales, but I'm not sure I believe them." Either way, adoption has been widespread: The book's website receives about 15,000 hits per month, and of those about 10,000 will access the book itself.

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Steven Roman, a mathematician who has written dozens of textbooks over the past several decades, says the relationship between textbook authors and publishers has not always been harmonious. "Authors have from the very beginning been really screwed by publishers," he says. "Contracts are very one-sided; they basically tie the author to the publisher but don't commit the publisher to publishing the book. I've talked to professors who spent two or three years writing a book and at the very end of the process the publishers said, 'We changed our mind, we're not going to publish it,' leaving them high and dry."

Nevertheless, he thinks the reduced barriers to entry that the Internet affords may reduce the quality of textbook materials. "When the publisher doesn't have to make a major commitment, they're not going to care as much about the quality of the material, because they say fine, if nobody wants this textbook we'll just print another one." This comes, he says, just as the Internet has expanded the used book market, "which has been devastating" to textbook authors.

While most supporters of the open textbook movement recognize its benefits, there are a number of considerations involved in its implementation. First and foremost is deciding whether to use already-published textbooks or to fund their creation from scratch. Because of the very open nature of such textbooks, as more are produced it lessens the need to replicate others' efforts -- a basic physics book in New York can be used by virtually any other state's schools.

In Utah, the schools are, for the most part, using open textbooks from nonprofits like the CK12 Foundation. Other states have approved funding to launch their own RFPs, which technically anyone can bid on, including traditional textbook companies. "I don't prefer one over the other," says Wiley on whether the government or nonprofits should take more active stakes in the movement. "I think there's an important role for both. And this is where philanthropy and government are working together and getting it right, in my opinion."

Aside from choosing the books, however, there is the issue of achieving widespread adoption. A curriculum's textbooks aren't chosen at the state level, but rather by the individual schools. This becomes an even more daunting task at the university level where a class textbook is chosen by the professor who teaches it, one who may have been using the same syllabus and reading materials for years.