Wednesday, August 31, 2016

OpenStax: Doing OER effectively and sustainably.

I recently discovered OpenStax and their collection of open source textbooks for classes at the high school and collegiate levels.  Their texts hit the major courses in math, science, and the social sciences—from calculus to physics to economics.  For readers of this blog, largely interested in mathematics, the three-semester calculus text, derived from Gil Strang's Calculus, is a high quality text rendered in both pdf and html (and soon in print).  Having taught calculus off and on for the better part of 25 years, this free text is at or near the quality of Stewart's.

Having also contributed a bit to Guichard's Calculus book, another good open source calculus text, I was particularly impressed by the high-level of production apparent in the OpenStax calculus book. I know it's pretty difficult for a volunteer corps to create such a high-quality text.  Curious about how such a high-quality open source text came to be, I reached out to Anthony Palmiotto, Editorial Director at OpenStax, to learn a bit more about how they do things there.

The OpenStax organization is a non-profit hosted at Rice University.  Its first open source text was released in 2012.  Since then their library has grown to around two dozen texts.  The consistency of presentation and quality across all of the texts reflects a high quality editorial process.  Their editorial philosophy is characterized by a focus on larger market classes like calculus, intro physics, intro biology, economics etc.  These are the areas where accessible, high-quality texts can have the most impact.  They focus on a single offering in each of the course areas. They want their textbooks to match closely the offerings in the traditional commercial markets for these course texts. Doing so makes it easier for textbook adopters to consider open source texts right next to their commercially offered competitors.

To begin, each text has primary authors and contributing authors.  The authors and editors are paid for their work (unlike in many open-source publishing efforts).  There is a development phase and a maintenance phase.  During the maintenance phase, errata are collected from readers, authors and editors continuously.  Corrections are made incrementally to the on-line version and full updates to the texts (pdf) occur between the traditional academic terms (semesters) of most colleges and universities.

Baseline funding comes from Rice University.  Additional funding for specific book projects is sought on a case-by-case basis through grants and donations.  OpenStax has received funding from a number of philanthropic organizations including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  They also receive funding from companies in the educational technology sector.  For example, WebAssign bundles OpenStax texts with its commercial offerings and supports OpenStax in exchange. OpenStax does not make money on the print book sales.  For the sake of accessibility, print books are sold at or near cost.

Though it is notoriously difficult to assess uptake and adoption of open-source texts, the data that OpenStax receives, from its commercial partners, as well as from self-identified users, shows significant year over year usage growth according to Palmiotto.

It should be noted too, that in the case of OpenStax, I do not use the term open source lightly.  In the true spirit of borrowing, sharing, modifying and redistributing, the source for the texts is hosted on the OpenStax CNX platform.  Users are free to fork an existing text and to modify it to suit their needs.  While OpenStax will conveniently host your forked text on their site, you are also free to download, modify, and redistribute the text on your platform of choice.

In the end, though it was hard to get an accurate figure, the total cost of development for the OpenStax calculus text was between $500,000 and $1,000,000.  This goes a long way towards satisfying my curiosity about the high quality of the text.  In other words, it wasn't a volunteer effort, but rather a paid group of authors and developers.  It remains an open question whether a purely volunteer corps can produce a text of the same quality.  However, unlike a typical commercial text, the OpenStax calculus text could represent the foundation of a purely volunteer effort at maintenance and continued development moving forward. Regardless, all of the texts are significant contributions to the OER effort and help to lower costs and increase accessibility for students taking these courses.

The OpenStax approach to open-source academic publishing is effective and sustainable.  It is a model for how open-source publishing can generate high-quality texts that can compete with commercial offerings.  In a subsequent posting, I'll discuss OpenStax's partner program for educational institutions that wish to make open educational resources a priority.

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