Wednesday, May 30, 2012

University of Minnesota's Open-Source Textbook Catalogue

By Sean Scarpiello

In an attempt to lower education costs, the University of Minnesota has started a new program where students have access to textbooks at low costs. With this program, students will be able to use a catalogue of online, open-source books. These books are much cheaper and easier to use than traditional textbooks. In addition, many educators feel that open-source books are currently being underutilized in schools. But what exactly are open-source books and why are they cheaper and sometimes easier to use?

Believe it or not, we use open-sources of information every day, sometimes without even knowing it. In fact, Wikipedia is an open-source. These sources have different licenses and copyrights which allow people to access these materials at low or no cost. Open-source books also have special licenses which lower the costs of publishing companies to print the books, so these books can be sold at cheaper prices. These books can also be copied without crediting the author. Since these books can be copied so easily, they are available in mediums other than print. Therefore, students with access to the University of Minnesota’s catalogue would have a wide variety of online textbooks available to them at the tips of their fingers for a very low cost. So far, the catalogue has more than 90 textbooks available and continues to grow.

Up until now, this idea sounds great – a wide variety of textbooks available online for little or no cost. However, if we look at other open-sources of data, we may find that this new catalogue may have some flaws. One of the most famous open-sources everyone on the internet uses is Wikipedia. Many people do not realize that Wikipedia is an open-source encyclopedia updated by everyday people like you or me. Because of this, some college professor love open-sources like Wikipedia, while others absolutely despise them. Open-source textbooks are often licensed in similar ways as Wikipedia, where readers can update any obsolete data within a textbook, which can be both good and bad.

Open-sources are good in that textbooks are dynamic. For example, as different scientific studies discover new breakthroughs and discredit old material, textbooks can be updated accordingly. This makes the information we learn about in books just as engaging in material as professionals on the cutting edge of the field. On the contrary, open-sources can be bad when those updating the material are not reliable or experts in the material. There is a reason textbooks are expensive -- credibility. You wouldn’t want your lawyer or doctor to study from books written by just anyone. Therefore, the University of Minnesota needed to find a low cost method of only allowing credible sources into its catalogue.

The University of Minnesota found the solution to this problem by employing its professors to review open-source books. By utilizing its professors, the school is able to expand the catalogue with only the books deemed reliable by experts in the field. In some of these open-source books, any material that is outdated can be fixed by the professor as they review it. This is a great idea because the catalogue is composed of credible information cleared by experts in the subject.

Overall, this online open-source catalogue is a fantastic idea and has a lot of potential. It finds the perfect medium between sources like Wikipedia, which is free but not necessarily reliable, and traditional textbooks which are expensive but credible. The program is improved in that it takes advantage of a cheap and underutilized resource and will be able to lower the costs for students exponentially. Last, it incorporates technology, so people all over the world can easily navigate through this entire database of textbooks.


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