February 5, 2014

Online Textbooks: An opportunity for open standards

 

I recently finished my first school year that I used online textbooks exclusively. In short I hated every moment of it; this experience was by far the most frustrating experience that I have ever had. Either the bookswouldn't display properly on my Linux box or my browser of choice (Firefox) or they would operate at a crawling pace. I even had one textbook that wouldn't let me log in to it for most of the school year (calculus textbooks are optional anyways).

 

There is a desperate need for a good platform to publish online textbooks and I believe the open source community can provide just the answer we need. Not only would its freedom from corporate (publishers) influence be beneficial but it would free students from proprietary software later in life. Richard Stallman was correct on this topic:

What schools should refuse to do is teach dependence. Those corporations offer free samples to schools for the same reason tobacco companies distribute free cigarettes to minors: to get children addicted. They will not give discounts to these students once they've grown up and graduated.

Teaching independence from a particular piece of software, kind of software or software company enables students to form and to take their place in a competitive market.

 

That being said, this textbook platform must be of the highest quality to dominate the market. Here are a few guidelines I would like to suggest.

 

Completely opensource and implement open standards

This is obvious but nevertheless extremely important. Opensource frees students for their future but the use of open standards also frees students in the present. When a textbook uses open standards it allows the student to use the environment he or she deems best for his or her academic experience. Some examples of open standards include: HTML, an decent video encoder (perhaps one could finally be made!), and JavaScript.

 

All forms of DRM must also be absent from this platform. DRM further limits the students' choice of computing environment. DRM also gives complete control of the user experience to the textbook publisher rather than the user.

 

Completely free of Flash:

This falls in the same category as open standards but I want to emphasize it. Flash makes using non-Apple and non-Microsoft systems, difficult, to say the least. Flash is also very insecure and slow. I've waiting as long as two minutes to flip a page and often times the page would fail to load forcing me to start all over. I can't say this any more creatively: Flash is not a good idea. Period.

 

Allow copy and paste:

This also goes along with open standards, especially HTML. Why would a company want to stop me from doing this? My school already payed for the book. Am I really going to copy and past it and send it to a class mate? Additionally, if the book is delivered using a high end platform, paying for the book will be worth it. Furthermore copying and pasting are very useful for the student. Few things are more irritating than having to type a selection from my Literature book into a paper or report I am writing. It's rather ridiculous when the student is using an online textbook and still has the limitations of a paper textbook.

 

 

 

Influenced more by an operation systemthan a paper book:

It's time to ditch the page by page model. This isn't a paper book why do we think that model will still work? I believe an operating system is a more apt model for an online textbook. This would allow the textbook to be more than just text on a page; it would allow it to be interactive. Math lessons could be taught through interactive examples not just written examples which are hard to understand for the more math challenged among us. Video can be integrated into the text. Open third party APIs would allow apps to be made to organize and complete homework (both on the student and the teacher side). This would provide an all inclusive academic experience for a class.

 

Free from a single corporate influence:

A singular corporate influence will try to push DRM instead of a high quality platform because it is cheaper. Moreover, a single corporate influence will seek to lock the platform down for just that corporations' (most likely a publisher) books. This also disrupts the user experience. Not all teachers will want to use books from the same publisher. Different publishers have different strengths. The Math teacher may want to use one publisher while the Computer Science professor may want to use a different publisher. A better model would be for many publishers to publish on this single platform and sell their books inside that platform. This would allow freedom for the teachers and provide a succinct experience for students.

 

This may seem like some kind of unattainable utopia but I believe with the collective power of the opensource community along with power of the education community it can be done. It is time we take this opportunity to provide better educational solutions for both teachers and students and set the example for education in the digital age.

 

Sources:

Stallman, Richard M. "Why Schools Should Exclusively Use Free Software." . N.p., 1 Apr. 2013. Web. 5 Feb. 2014. <https://www.gnu.org/education/edu-schools.html>.