My thoughts on the importance of open-use resources in education are pretty well-known. To my way of thinking, given the breathtaking markup that most paid educational resources are offered under, combined with the budgetary crises that face public education, schools have an ethical obligation to pursue free alternatives for paid products wherever possible. I'd extend this thinking to all facets of the educational experience, but this post is going to focus specifically on free-use textbooks. Long a goal of open education proponents, over the past few years, free-use texts have finally reached the point where they are now viable alternatives to paid texts in major fields of study. These resources are now so well-developed that I will never again advocate adoption of a paid text over a free one for any subject I teach (Biology and Chemistry). Offered below are two of the major free-use textbook consortiums, and a description of just what they are offering the educational community.
OpenStax: A project out of Rice University, OpenStax currently offers college-level, free-use texts in Biology, Physics, Sociology, Anatomy & Physiology, and Statistics, with books in several other math, science, and social science subjects to be delivered during the next calendar year. The books are all developed by a group of professors, and are accompanied by a variety of supplemental materials. In Biology (my major subject of interest), there are two texts for non-major and major-level introductory survey courses. The texts are available on the web, as .pdf and .epub downloads, and as interactive iBook textbooks (though this last offering will cost a student $5). Instructors are offered free evaluation copies of all texts in all formats, along with supplemental interactive resources, and accompanying powerpoint presentations. Through partnership with learningpod, free practice review questions are also provided to students. All materials are available under the terms of a CreativeCommons Attribution license, which enables reuse and modification for any purposes, even commercial ones, as long as attribution remains intact. The next time we adopt a text for AP Biology, it will be the OpenStax Biology text and resources.
CK12: The CK12 project looks to do for the primary and secondary level, what the OpenStax project is doing for college. Texts are available for all major "core" courses, along with many electives. A suite of supplementary materials is made available as well, including practice questions (through partnership with BrainGenie), and really great study guides. CK12 materials are made available under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which enables reuse and modification for any non-commercial purposes, as long as attribution remains intact. The CK12 Chemistry textbook and resources will become the course text in my Honors Chemistry course in our next adoption.
It is great to see that the free-use community has finally come to the point where viable replacements for paid products are now reality. It will be interesting to see how the for-profit market responds as these types of free-use resources become more and more common. In the meantime, the best thing that educators who are interested in fostering an open, free-use ethic in their own classes can do is to adopt resources like the ones described above, and support their continuing growth and development.