Cable Green doesn't have to look very far to find an example of an education system weighed down by what he considers a bloated and inefficient textbook industry. The director of global learning for Creative Commons simply points to his home state of Washington. "My state spends $130 million per year buying textbooks," he says. "We only have a million public school kids in the state, so we're spending $130 per kid per year." Because each book is expected to last half a decade, the kids aren't permitted to keep them or write in them. The books are only available in one format, paper, and are sometimes seven to 10 years out of date. If one of Green's kids loses a textbook, as a parent Green is expected to fork over the money to replace it.
A superior alternative, he believes, would be easy to execute. "Instead of spending $130 million a year getting those outcomes, what if the state put up $100 million in one time money," he suggests. "We have 12 grades and eight textbooks per grade, so what if we put up a $1 million [request for proposal] for each book, and anyone can reply. The professors from the best universities can reply. McGraw Hill can reply. It's an open RFP, but the conditions are that the books are licensed under Creative Commons because they're paid for with taxpayer money."
Under this model, the intellectual property that results from these purchases would be owned by the public. In addition to being free to download online, the schools can print up paper versions for less than $5 per copy. Perhaps more importantly, the kids, once they complete the grade, would be permitted to keep the books, using them in the future if they need to. From there, the state would only have to spend approximately $10 million a year to ensure all the textbooks are updated with timely information. "It would save the state $120 million a year, and we'd actually have resources that our kids can use," Green says. "This isn't difficult."
The Creative Commons license celebrated its 10-year anniversary in December. And though the state of Washington has yet to adopt such a reform, several governments, both in the U.S. and across the globe, have passed and implemented similar policies as they've struggled to address the rising costs plaguing both lower and higher education systems. This movement, often referred to as open education resources (OER), threatens to upend what many reformers consider an anachronistic textbook industry, one that's ripe for disruption and change.
Though governments have increasingly warmed to Creative Commons, it has spent much of its existence largely as a decentralized, grassroots movement. The nonprofit organization that created and updates the licenses released its first versions in December 2002. Founded by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig and other academics, Creative Commons sought to provide a less rigid alternative to the standard copyright system, allowing artists and other content creators to be more permissive in how they let others use and distribute their work. Employing the phrase "some rights reserved," Creative Commons licenses, of which there are several iterations, create a menu of options for the dissemination of intellectual property. One version, the Attribution Non-Commercial, permits one to republish a piece of content as long as the original creator is credited and the work is not sold for commercial gain. Other variants are more permissive, granting the rights for artists to create derivative works and remixes that incorporate CC-licensed material.
Upon its launch a decade ago, Creative Commons was embraced by the artist and literary community, and its iconic logo began appearing on the sidebars of thousands of blogs, web pages, and Flickr photos. By 2005, the nonprofit estimated there were 20 million works that utilized the license, and by 2009 that number had climbed to 350 million. But while the organization has always embraced its grassroots enthusiasm, it continually sought recognition and adoption from larger, more traditional institutions.
The philosophy behind this goal is simple. "The public should have access to what it paid for," says Green."Free access and legal access to what it bought. The tagline is 'buy one get one.' If you buy something, you should get access to it." And it shouldn't come as a surprise that Creative Commons activists have identified education materials as a prime target for their view. Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York announced that student loan debt had surpassed auto loans and credit debt, coming in at an estimated $1 trillion. And a not-insignificant contribution to this burden has been the rising cost of textbooks.
A 2008 California State Auditor report found that the average annual cost of college textbooks was up to $905, and the costs are increasing at four times the rate of inflation. According to the report, textbooks can comprise 60 percent of total student costs at community colleges, and one survey revealed that seven out of 10 college students will avoid purchasing a required textbook because of price. The Twenty Million Minds Foundation, a California nonprofit that advocates for and creates its own Creative Commons textbooks, estimates that California college students alone spend $186 million a year on textbooks, and it predicts that adoption of open textbooks could save them up to $162 million.
Government officials and legislators, many dealing with cash-strapped budgets, have not been blind to these numbers. Over the past few years both local and national bodies, in an effort to reduce costs, have adopted open education resources, and the results so far have been encouraging.
David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham University in Utah, has been immersed in the OER community predating the creation of the Creative Commons license. He was inspired by a group of technologists who met in 1998 to rebrand the free software movement as "open source," and he later worked to develop an "open content" license that would allow content creators to share and distribute their content easily. "The only difference was that all of us who were initially involved weren't lawyers," he recalls. "We were just making stuff up. It was scary, because there were hundreds of thousands of people who were using these licenses, and if any of them actually went to court, who knows what would have happened?" Imagine his relief then when the Creative Commons license was formed. "I put a big notice on our website saying, 'please everyone, run away from our licenses as fast as you can. Here are real lawyers that have done something similar but way better.'"
For the past several years, Wiley has been involved in a number of projects that have slowly introduced open education resources to his home state of Utah. He is a founder of the Open High School of Utah, a charter school that is taught entirely online and only uses open education resources in its curriculum. Currently, its students score, on average, among the top 25 percent of schools in the state on standardized tests. Since 2010, he's worked with a number of public schools in the state to introduce a pilot program of open textbooks for middle and high school science classes. Those science faculties who participate in the program meet once a year to review current open textbook options and pare them down to fit their needs. "We have them start from this 1,200-page biology book," he explains. "It's like any high school biology book you would see, but because it's open source, teachers can go in and adapt and change it so it meets their needs." From there, the districts simply use a print-on-demand service, like Amazon's CreateSpace, to distribute the books to students.
So far, the pilot program has reached about 6,000 students, but starting this Fall that number will expand to as many as 75,000. And while the primary focus has so far been on the sciences, there have been recent pushes for similar programs in language arts and math.
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.
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.
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.
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."