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Open Education: Take Back The Curriculum

Textbooks and course materials distributed like open source software are becoming a serious force in both primary and higher education.
Net Texts Inc. is trying to do something similar at the K-12 level, promoting a catalog of educational content through an app it has created for the iPad and Android tablets. The directory is also accessible from a Web browser, and a version for Google's Chromebook is in the works. Net Texts has culled through resources available from CK12, Khan Academy, MIT, the Smithsonian and other resources to find materials that would be useful for K-12 instruction. "This resource, if organized properly, is already superior to flat textbooks in my opinion," co-founder Michael Messner said.

The iPad app also mashes up resources -- for example, combining dramatic readings of classic literature from LibriVox synchronized with display of the text taken from Project Gutenberg, a digital library of public domain books.

Net Text's app and access to its directory are free, but it does charge for consulting services. One early customer is the school district in Amarillo, Texas. District director of digital learning Chuck Higley said one reason he has been able to explore new options is a change in the state funding formula for textbooks and technology that "puts textbooks and technology in competition for the same pot of money."

Through a pilot program at two high schools, Amarillo is exploring whether it makes sense to invest in buying students iPads if most of the educational materials they will need to access can be free or low-cost. That doesn't mean everyone is convinced, Higley said. "Some people are in favor of spending the money on traditional textbooks. Some people, like myself, think we should never buy another hard copy textbook again."

One sidelight to this story is the extent to which Texas, which has been known for politically charged debates over the choice of state-wide textbook standards, is allowing school districts greater flexibility, partly to open up digital options. Although the state continues to set educational standards, superintendents can make an exception by signing off on alternate materials as meeting the same educational goals.

Messner said he ran into more political obstacles when investigating the potential of his product in higher education. One university he talked to told him "yes, but we get a kickback for our business with Barnes & Noble, and we're not sure we want to get rid of that kickback."

Harris said OpenStax is looking for avenues to work with college bookstores, rather than undercutting them, by enlisting them to sell print-on-demand editions. "The bookstores we've worked with to date are pleased by the 100% sell-through they're getting," he said. "But it is something we need to address."

Erik Christensen, the physics chair at South Florida State College, said he was initially told to keep his introduction of OER resources "under the radar" to avoid upsetting the college bookstore's management. However, after winning an award from the OER community, "I'm now upheld as a model," he said. "My whole institution has changed and I was the change agent."

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.