Rip, mix and burn this book

Virginia pilots development of an open-source, up-to-date, downloadable science textbook

After a recent examination of Virginia’s science education standards, a team of scientists and engineers concluded that the curriculum was inadequate to prepare students for the 21st-century workforce.

The textbooks — and the standards on which they are based — talk about cathode ray tubes with no mention of LEDs, LCDs or plasma screens. There is no organic chemistry or nanoscience, and the discussion of gravity stops well short of current understanding.

“There was a reasonable consensus in the group,” said Jim Batterson, who led the independent review team, that updates were necessary and that government scientists and Web technology could help.

Batterson, a retired NASA research engineer, got involved in the review while still working at NASA through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, which allows federal workers to be temporarily assigned to help state and local governments. A NASA official at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., asked the state’s secretary of education what the agency could do to help ensure the availability of the type of workers NASA needs. State officials suggested an independent evaluation of the state’s Standards of Learning for science. Batterson, who is a former high school physics teacher, was chosen to direct the program.

The problem of inadequate textbooks was complicated by the fact that the state isn’t scheduled to conduct its next formal review of the science standards until next year. It will take another two or three years after that to get recommended changes into published textbooks and a few more years to get the new textbooks into the classrooms.

“Some kids have the old books forever,” Batterson said.

The team recommended giving teachers access to an open-source platform that would let them develop and share course material in a cooperative environment, such as a wiki. When Virginia Technology Secretary Aneesh Chopra learned of the recommendation, he suggested that Batterson take a look at the FlexBook platform that the CK-12 Foundation, based in Palo Alto, Calif., was developing.

“They were looking for a tool to enable them to prepare students in the 21st century,” said Murugan Pal, the foundation’s co-founder and president. “Our platform and environment happened to be the right solution.”

The result is a pilot program in which a group of educators and scientists in Virginia are collaboratively writing a new online physics textbook that will be available for any teacher to use, share and adapt for free.

Pal and education advocate Neeru Khosla founded CK-12 in 2007 with the goal of using technology to make information more readily available to the education community.

“I’m a technologist and a big fan of open source and open knowledge,” said Pal, a mechanical engineer with a master’s degree in computer science who has started two high-tech companies. “Education needs some sort of change in paradigm.”

Conventionally published textbooks are expensive and time-consuming to produce, Pal said. The country’s schools spend $4 billion on textbooks a year; Virginia spends about $100 million. Advances in knowledge far outpace the three-year production cycle for school textbooks, and a new edition of a printed book can cost $1 million for a publisher to produce. So CK-12 started looking for alternatives.

“We had to have an architecture and a concept” that would define what the new textbook would be, Pal said. Once those guidelines were established, developers designed the architecture using a variety of tools, including Java, Django, Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language, and the Google Web Toolkit.

“We built our own value-added layer” to display content, Pal added.

The result is a beta version of the FlexBook platform that the Virginia team will use to publish its physics textbook. The authors of the chapters will retain ownership of their material, and CK-12 will make it available online under a Creative Commons license, which allows anyone to copy, use, adapt and distribute the material with proper attribution as long as any adaptations are made available under similar conditions.

If successful, the Web model could undermine traditional textbook publishers. Pal said the foundation has not heard much from publishers so far -- and at least one publisher sees the new model as the wave of the future because it would allow the industry to focus on service delivery rather than content development and ownership. Some publishers are already moving in that direction by making content available online in print-on-demand schemes.

Initially, CK-12 is producing its own content, Pal said. “We are developing 18 books for high school and middle school. But our preferred model is to make the consumer the producer of books.” Virginia’s request to partner with the foundation to produce its own physics textbook was a welcome addition to the program.

In the partnership between Virginia and CK-12, the foundation provides its FlexBook platform for free and helps authors develop graphics and illustrations for the text.

When Batterson sought authors for the new textbook, he envisioned a model in which each team member produces a chapter, which would undergo a technical and peer review by three other members.

“I was looking for maybe six to 10 chapters to test the idea,” Batterson said. “Something small enough to be manageable but big enough to be useful.”

He posted the request on an e-mail list for teachers and ended up with 11 authors: six K-12 teachers, three university professors, a community college professor and a retired scientist. The team also includes Batterson as the leader, a university professor and a high school student who will give feedback on the quality of the finished product.

Batterson referred to the student as the “ground truth” expert. “He will provide us his thoughts and insight as to whether what we are doing would be interesting to his peers.”

The project was announced in October 2008, and the aggressive schedule calls for the first version of Virginia’s open-source physics FlexBook to be available Feb. 27.

“We wanted to move at the speed of business, not the speed of education,” Batterson said.

As of mid-January, the project was mostly on schedule, with three of the projected 10 chapters ready for technical review.

Batterson said people will be free to download and use the textbook's content, which will help create a community of learners that can take advantage of the work of a handful of educators with the expertise and initiative to write their own textbook material. Eventually, he and the CK-12 Foundation would like the effort to move to a more interactive format supported by a wiki, which would enable a broader community to continuously develop educational material. FlexBook chapters could be locked for classroom use while educators nationwide are allowed to make revisions or additions through the wiki. The locked version could then be updated as revisions are reviewed and approved.

However, some basic questions about the new format remain.

“Will there be money savings? I don’t know about that,” Batterson said. “That’s one of the reasons for the experiment. When you go to software, what are the issues? What does it cost to do this?” He said he hopes the project will at least break even.

Another issue is whether local school district policies will complicate the development and use of the new books. For instance, the Virginia school district in which one of the authors works has a policy that allows it to retain the copyright to all material that its teachers develop. However, officials waived that provision for the FlexBook project, Batterson said.

Some school districts also might have restrictions on the types of textbooks that teachers can use. Budget processes are geared toward printed books, and strict rules on approved texts might make it difficult for some teachers to take advantage of new formats. Pal said a Los Angeles school district has agreed to use some of the text being developed by the foundation on a trial basis so teachers can see how well it fits into the classroom environment.

Whatever the results of the program, Batterson said it is a no-lose proposition.

“There is no failure,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll at least know why.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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