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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Dean Florez, a former California Senate majority leader who is now the CEO of the 20 Million Minds Foundation, has played an active role in the passage of legislation in his state that will allocate $5 million toward developing these textbooks for college students. "The issue simply has always been how do we get faculty members to adopt," he says. "Adoption has always been the barrier, and with adoption comes all these kinds of myths that faculty members only use the Pearson book that comes with a salesperson who's always in your ear."

But professors, he argues, are well aware of the rising costs for students (and are likely annoyed when they don't purchase the required books). More important to them is that the open textbooks carry the same interactive features and quality as the books they're used to. "They have to see all the learning objectives, all the right kinds of graphs, the diagrams that are in the [traditional] books."

While many of the open education experiments have thus far occurred in states and at individual universities, national governments from South Africa to Poland have also joined the fray. Perhaps the movement's greatest victory came this year when the Obama administration announced $500 million in grants through the Department of Labor to be distributed to community colleges and professional training programs across the country. Any institution applying for one of these grants is required to license the training materials it produces under the Creative Commons Attribution licence. No doubt many of Creative Commons' longtime advocates felt vindicated when Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis mentioned the license in her speech announcing the grant.

Ten years and nearly half a billion licenses later, the Creative Commons license is about to be tested on the national stage, perhaps at a scale never before seen. Many will be watching to see if this leads to mainstream adoption, no doubt including the very textbook industry that such an adoption would disrupt. Though no major textbook publishers responded to requests for comment for this article, there's little doubt that open textbooks threaten their business model.

This is not to say the publishers are running away from the issue. In November, Pearson announced a website called Project Blue Sky, which indexes and allows you to search OER materials. "There's such a large amount of OER being produced, we cannot ignore it," Don Kilburn, vice chairman of Pearson's higher education division, told Inside Higher Ed about the launch. Or, as the trade publication put it less delicately, "If you can't beat them, join them."