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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Editorial: ‘Free’ textbooks?

    Imagine a world where textbooks, class notes and study guides are available for free. Miss a lecture or forget the details of a homework assignment? No need to worry – the materials are posted online. It might sound too good to be true now, but the future isn’t too far away.

    As annual legislation to lower the price of textbooks works its way through the Arizona Legislature (this year it’s SB 1175 and HB 2230, which would force textbook publishers to give more pricing information to university faculty), it’s time for the university – and UA students – to give some thought to the role of textbooks and course materials in the modern world of higher education. The fundamental model of college textbooks is quickly growing outdated, and as an acclaimed research institution, the UA needs to stay ahead of the trend.

    Driving down the cost of books, whether by law or by agreement, has benefits for students. But the annual argument over heavy, hardbound books is a shortsighted one. The UA is still using Encyclopaedia Britannica as its model for textbooks and course materials – epensive, closed and proprietary. Instead, it should emulate Wikipedia – free, open and collaborative. The future of textbooks is online and open-source, not gathering dust on a bookstore shelf.

    Higher education’s technological leaders have already recognized the coming trend, and schools like the Massachussets Institute of Technology are leading the oncoming textbook revolution. Over the past five years, its “”Open CourseWare”” project has posted the content of 1,800 MIT classes to the Web.

    The online course materials, available at a central Web site, are widely used by faculty and students, but they’ve also been adopted outside MIT. About 49 percent of users are “”self learners”” taking advantage of MIT’s previously closed knowledge, and 59 percent of users come from outside of North America. In fact, the impact of the project has extended well beyond Cambridge University, with faculty and students across the developing world basing their own courses on MIT’s online material.

    The available content varies widely – from courses with recorded lectures, online demonstrations and full textbooks to those that offer only a reading list or a set of study guides. Individual professors are allowed to decide how much or how little information to make available to all online. But even a document as sparse as a syllabus takes on extra value when it’s digitized and open to everyone.

    Projects like Open CourseWare are a technological culmination of the mission of academia: to make the world’s knowledge available to all. The UA ought to get involved – not only because it could benefit students by preventing textbook troubles, but also because open information has huge benefits for mankind.

    The UA has already taken the first steps. A few courses and lectures are available through the iTunesU service the university adopted last year. That’s a good start, but we ought to work on making more course material – like textbooks and problem sets – easily available over the Internet. Fortunately, there’s a project already underway to help universities upload and open-source: the OpenCourseWare Consortium, a current partnership among hundreds of universities across the world. The UA should join.

    Textbooks and other classroom materials ought to be free in every sense of the word – available at no cost online, to users all over the world. It’s time to quit arguing over physical books and embrace a
    digital future.

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