Elementary, Watson: Open source textbooks to educate developing nations

A project based on the open source software model aims to create free online textbooks for developing nations. Under careful academic oversight, the Global Text Project will produce 1000 textbooks for undergraduate studies in a range of subjects including business, science and arts.

The project was initiated by South Australian-born Professor Rick Watson of the University of Georgia Business, who found that discounts currently offered by textbook publishers to developing countries simply cannot bring prices low enough for education to be affordable.

Even at half the usual cost, he said, a textbook that costs $100 in the US would still chew up a large percentage the average Ugandan's $US250 annual income.

"Textbooks are just not affordable for people in the developing world," he said. "The Western model just doesn't work, because the for-profit model just can't get costs down to zero."

The Global Text Project will provide free, Wiki-based textbooks that can be accessed via a number of methods. Text can be viewed online, downloaded as pdfs and printed locally, or saved on CD-roms. The project also has developers in China who are currently working on a PDA-sized eBook reader, similar to the Sony Reader, that are estimated to cost between $US40 and $50.

Content will initially be provided by volunteer writers or taken from open texts. Watson is also negotiating intellectual donations from authors and publishers of textbooks that have been taken out of print.

While the project is similar in concept to the popular open source encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Watson aims to give it more authority and credibility by having an academic responsible for editing each chapter's content. Only the editors will be allowed to accept changes that any reader might suggest.

"The problem with Wikipedia is that anybody can go in and change an entry," he said. On the other hand, he said, "one of the great beauties of the open text model is that the text is freely available for people to edit and localize it."

Watson hopes that textbooks written by international volunteers will eventually be localized by their users in developing nations. This will be especially useful in business texts, in which case studies about small local enterprises would be far more relevant than studies about multimillion-dollar international corporations.

The project's first textbook currently involves a team of 17 professors from five countries, each writing one chapter. The book is expected to be completed in January.

Going in to the future, Watson hopes for the continued support of academics and their students. He cited a course he taught in 2004, in which students were told to write a textbook for their assignments, as an example of how students might contribute to the project.

"I talk to my students about the massive intellectual waste in me throwing away their assignments after every term," he said. "There are 12 million students in the world and that's a massive intellectual resource, if only we can get these students and their professors involved, and use their assignments instead of throwing them away."

The project has already received donations of time and money from several individuals in the business and academic worlds, and Watson said the first text will serve as a proof-of-concept that he will use to solicit support from corporate sponsors. Ideally, Watson said, each of the 1000 texts will have a corporate sponsor.

"The goal of the Global Text Project is improving education in the developing world," he concluded. "And this is an area where you can get really good return for your money - the World Bank has a report that found that education produces 12 times the yield of material investments."

Global Text Project is in a similar vein to The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, previously dubbed the "$100 laptop" initiative, that is lead by Nicholas Negroponte, the former head of the MIT Media Laboratory However, OLPC is targeted at K-12 education, and at providing hardware, whereas the software-based Global Text Project targets university students.

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