Sunday, October 31, 2010

Opencourseware and Textbooks (revisited)

Stumbling across the internet today while taking a break from my Greek history reading, I found a phenomenon called "opencourseware." This is essentially the same idea as the Berkeley Webcasts, but it is up to the jurisdiction of the professor or the school what they post. From syllabi to opensource textbooks, classes post immense amounts of information online to allow students in other places-- or just anyone-- to access information for free. Some examples are certain classes from MIT, Quantum Mechanics from University of Utah, etc. There is even an entire Opencoursewear Consortium.

One of the problems that I have (and I think most people have) with textbooks is their incredible expensiveness. I worked in the bookstore at my alma mater and I remember students returning or deciding not to buy textbooks because they couldn't afford them (and borrowing them from a friend or the library). I know that I avoided buying any books I didn't think I would use again and instead made photocopies, checked the books out of the library, borrowed books from friends, found public domain versions of books, etc. I not know a whole lot about the textbook publishing industry and I do not entirely understand how to calculate a book price, but it seems that there has to be some way that authors can still get paid for their books and books of quality can still be published without forcing students (especially in the sciences) to pay between $100-500 (and sometimes even used copies are over $100). So, are freeware textbooks and online courses the answer? I think they are great, especially for students (both traditionally aged and adults who want to expand their minds) without the access to institutions (or who are too young for universities) but need a place to invest their intellectual curiosity. However, there is no way to replace the knowledge and experience of talking to a real expert in the field. Maybe, just maybe, this could help societies move toward more affordable books and institutions of learning, while still providing benefits and incentives for great teachers. I hope so.

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