Breaking the book barrier

Expensive textbooks put the brakes on higher education for many students in developing nations. But a project aiming to make such books available for free via the internet could change all that, writes Jon Marcus

May 28, 2009

The number of public universities in Uganda is doubling from two to four. Ten private universities have sprung up. The Centre for International Higher Education reports that enrolment is increasing at a rate of 12 per cent a year.

But, as in other developing countries, Uganda is seeing the momentum in its higher education sector screech to a halt in front of a formidable obstacle: the cost of a single textbook can be more than a fifth of a family's annual income.

Now a project being spearheaded by two US professors is making electronic versions of expensive textbooks available for free to students in developing nations, with content donated by academics from 50 universities around the world.

The Global Text Project has as its goal the provision of electronic editions of 1,000 textbooks whose chapters are written free of charge by contributing scholars and then compiled into texts by student volunteers. So far, five such books are available and being used in countries including Uganda, and 30 more are in production.

The project is a not-so-subtle swipe at the cost of academic books in general, and its texts are also being used in developed countries, including the US, where textbook prices have increased at double the rate of inflation in the past two decades and where they now account for 26 per cent of the cost of attending a four-year public university. Organisers say it could make conventional text-books obsolete in the way that the spread of digital files has affected sales of compact discs.

Combined with open-source software, open access to academic journals and other open-content initiatives such as Wikipedia, MIT's OpenCourseWare program and the United Nations' just-announced World Digital Library, there is what project co-founder Don McCubbrey calls a growing open-educational resources ecosphere.

"Publishers see this as a tsunami, much like iTunes was to the music industry. They can see it coming and they don't know what to do about it," says McCubbrey, a professor of information technology and electronic commerce at the University of Denver, who, together with Rich Watson, an Australian-born University of Georgia management information systems professor, runs the project.

It's no fluke that information-systems professors spearheaded this idea, McCubbrey says. "I think we were more able to see the potential for this than, say, an anthropologist."

The project solicits academics to serve as editors for each of its titles charged with finding volunteers to write each chapter. The editors review the text for duplication or omissions and consistency of voice and arrange for it to be read by independent experts in the field in a process that McCubbrey likens to the peer review of academic papers.

"Fundamentally it's altruistic," he says. "It's a way for academics to give back."

McCubbrey concedes that it can be difficult to get busy scholars to meet deadlines - even as he spoke he was awaiting long-overdue chapters - as altruism tends not to be taken into account in decisions relating to promotion or tenure. "These things tend to go at the bottom of some people's piles," he says.

This has led to another approach: having students write the books for class credit.

The project's very first book was written by Watson's graduate class at the University of Georgia when he couldn't find a suitable textbook about XML, a software language. It has since been updated by subsequent classes.

"In each case, the class has been required to leave the book in better shape than they received it at the beginning of the term," he says.

Users are also encouraged to modify the books to suit local circumstances in a feedback loop similar to Wikipedia's. "The using community is continuing to 'polish the stone' and keep the content current," says McCubbrey, including the replacement of US-centric examples with case studies more appropriate to wherever the book is being used. Students in developed countries can also learn from this, he explains.

"If you're going to establish a medical database in Uganda, the infrastructure may have different parameters than it would in the US or the UK," McCubbrey says. "Having a case study in a US textbook showing the difficulty of doing this in a developing economy opens American students' eyes."

When Tim Moon, a graduate student at the University of Washington, first learned that his class assignment would be to write a book, he says he laughed.

"It was kind of crazy," Moon says. "We wondered whether we were qualified to do that."

But Moon's professor, Kevin Desouza, who is also part of Global Text, brought in professional consultants to serve as mentors and the class together wrote a book called Change Management: An Introduction, which will be available for free in September.

"It was an incredible experience working with colleagues to put together a book that really is change management itself," Moon says. "Typically you submit something as a class assignment and it disappears. This is something that will actually be used." Plus, he says, he likes the idea of making textbooks free after having spent $200 to $300 (£135 to £200) a semester throughout his university career on books he'll never use again.

When he was growing up in Qatar, Desouza says, "the thing that determined whether you got a good education was whether you could afford textbooks. When I came to the US for my studies, the cost of textbooks was just plain insane. I had always made a promise to try to give back to academia, especially since I have been extremely privileged to gain from it."

Watson says he doubts conventional textbooks will completely disappear, "because they're full of photos and other features that are difficult for an open system to add at this stage". But he says that Global Text "can eventually create books that are more international in their outlook and content than the traditional publisher".

The Association of American Publishers did not respond to a request for comment, but the group has said previously that textbook prices are fuelled in part by the cost of the scholarship required of authors, who are often academics.

McCubbrey, who has written conventional textbooks himself, scoffs at this. "If that's true, I'm taking money out of my own pocket," he says.

He points out that, as soon as he submitted the first textbook he co-authored, the publisher told him to start working on a second edition to prevent students from being able to resell the first.

"It's disgusting," he says. "The model is obsolete. In the era of the internet, why have paper books? We have a model where the books are of higher quality and they're better and they're free. And you can't beat that."

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