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Brock Hardwood

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Department of Education hires experts to produce and maintain public domain textbooks - potentially saving billions in education per year

The textbook industry is a $30 billion a year industry.

If the department of education simply hired subject matter experts, over the course of a year, their combined efforts should easily be able to produce quality textbooks. They could also act as managing editors and receive contributions from educators all around the world as a means of updating and improving content quality.

The books would be free to use, download, copy, print, or even edit and modify as each state and school district sees fit. As just one idea of how it could work, They could use low cost tablets that are loaned to students. Another way might be to have the Dept of Education print them up and distribute them at cost to the schools. The possibilities are endless.

If they produced 100 of the most common textbooks used, with 3 subject matter experts per book each earning $100K a year, the cost to produce and maintain up to date, free text books would be only $30 million a year. If we include a pool of graphic artists, photographers, writers, editors and management, we are looking at maybe $40 million per year. Almost 1000 times less than buying commercially produced textbooks..

Any thoughts? Ideas for improvement? Potential pitfalls?

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    Jan 11 2013: Great Idea, my only concern is the ability of a state or district to modify and attenuate the material. Not everything needs to be consigned to a profit margin.
    • Jan 11 2013: I agree that profit isn't necessarily the motive of government...but It can still save them money...Can well written text books in the public domain give local government a good starting point from a free perspective, and meet there needs in a cost saving way?? Your thoughts?
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        Jan 11 2013: So long as the material in the text books remains relevant and current, which seems to be the intent of your proposal, then certainly, not to mention the side effect of saving some trees….wink
  • Jan 10 2013: The review process seems to be pretty intense, from some of the things I've read. I'm not an expert on it, nor do I know if my idea would work, but I think it has some potential.

    One thought that I have is to think of it in terms of the Wikibooks project with a few changes. Wikibooks is a side project from Wikipedia for creating open text books. It functions in basically the same way as Wikipedia, but it doesn't have a very large following and work doesn't get done in a timely manner. The plus side of it is that it is open to anyone, the downside is the exact same reason.

    The changes to the Wikibooks idea that I think would work are to hire salaried subject matter experts who's sole job, 40 hours a week, is to produce and maintain a textbook. They could, and should, take contributions from educators around the world in a way, possibly similar to Wikibooks, but with the hired experts serving as moderators and managing directors.

    Would allowing input right from the beginning help make it more acceptable and useable for these school districts? It seems to me, that a math book should be pretty straight forward, and free should be motivating.
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    Jan 11 2013: As you have no bio or location ... this would really help ... I must assume that you could not be from the USA. Arne Duncan wants your suggestion and has expressed it often. What makes you think that putting the feds in charge of anything would reduce costs .... history has proven that to be totally false. As education is heavly populated by liberals and dominated by unions the texts would discount all other views ... Keynesian economics would be the only theory available and big government its main objective ... Revisionist views would become "fact" and indoctrination would incur. The last reason is that it would be Constitutionally illegal. The mission statement for the US Department of Education is to provide policy guidelines for education to the states.

    In the United States, state and local governments decide most education policy. The role of the federal government is restricted by the Tenth Amendment to that of guarding the right of its citizens to equal access to public institutions and equal opportunity within them.

    As is happening in our government .. a means of by passing law has occured. The Dept of Ed has a staff of 5,000 and a budget of 80 billion. It cannot "force" the states to "obey" the demands set forth by the feds ... so it states that if the states do not comply that federal funding will be withheld.

    Singapore has taught us that we should embrace "engaged learning" the basis being meaningful, relevant, and useful. We continue to believe that the correct answer is the goal ... true learning would be application of that knowledge. We have mandated, codified, and restricted teachers to the point that they are simply teaching the test.
    To envoke a national text and test system would, in my opinion, validate teaching the test for national pride .. but would do little in educating the students.

    I have thoughts on doing away with textbook publishers .. but that is another conversation. Out of space.

    • Jan 12 2013: "As you have no bio or location ... this would really help .."

      We aren't talking about me, we are talking about an idea. My bio, or who I am is irrelevant.

      This isn't significantly different from other 'open textbook' projects, other than it has a paid staff to produce the products. You are right that states don't have to use them, but they would be provided for free and can be modified like anything else in the public domain, which by any understanding of economics, is a powerful incentive.

      As for why I think it would reduce cost...I already outlined that in the question header. 40 million compared to 30 billion.. I don't think that is too hard to understand.

      The Department of Education is an obvious choice. I am well aware that tea baggers everywhere hate the Federal government, but so what? That isn't the topic of conversation. Besides, they hate the Dept. of education because they still want to teach creationism in school.

      "As is happening in our government .. a means of by passing law has occured....so it states that if the states do not comply that federal funding will be withheld."

      Congress has the power of the purse....get over it. States do not have to take the money...

      What alternative would you propose? You seem to be suggesting that we do nothing.
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        Jan 13 2013: Bio s and locations provide a basis to talk apples to apples. The idea that this will all be free as you indicate in para 3 is rather naive ... there is no free lunch as most adults realize. The only thing left to discuss is could the Feds print, sell, and distribute for less than the private company.

        Para 5, 6, and 8 are political garbage or assumptions ... Is there a conversation somewhere that Congress does not have the power of the purse???? Or are you making reference to the blackmale that the Dept of Ed uses in withholding funds to get their way which has nothing to do with Congress. I do not get over either Blackmale or violations of the Constitution. Again only a person from another country would endorse that.

        I do not .. as you suggest .. "that we do nothing" ... I do suggest that we do the right thing.

        I normally do not reply to conversations that do not have posted bios but thought I would give it a try .... I will not do it again ... That is my choice.
        • Jan 17 2013: "Bio s and locations provide a basis to talk apples to apples"

          Wrong. They have nothing to do with the topic. ANYONE could have come up with the idea, from anywhere and from all walks of life, and it would still be the IDEA that needs to be debated.. The only value a bio has in any debate of substance, is to morons who like to make personal attacks rather than debate the ideas.

          Given that you appear to be one of those people that hate the federal government in any capacity, I can honestly say, I don't really care what you think. You are unlikely to contribute anything to the discussion, other than to muddy the waters with mindless drivel over congressional authority that has long since been settled in the supreme court. You are obviously one of those people who claim to understand the constitution, but simply haven't read it in years. I don't need everyone to like my ideas - politics doesn't work that way anyway.
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        Jan 17 2013: No bio ... no comment
        • Jan 19 2013: Good. You clearly have nothing to contribute anyway.
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        Jan 19 2013: No bio ... no comment
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    Feb 4 2013: Just wrote one for high school physics. It comes on a $5 thumbdrive When you buy a new car you get a manual with it, it beats me why the guys that write the syllabus don't provide the manual to make it work.
  • Jan 19 2013: I agree. We have two boys in college and their textbook costs are insane; $100+ for a paperback used book! I'm so angry at the textbook industry that I'd like to see the equivalent of napster for downloading textbooks, but your idea at least would be legal. Good thinking!
    • Jan 19 2013: I know exactly what you mean. I am in college myself. From professors producing their own overpriced textbooks and forcing students to buy them to publishers producing school specific editions of common textbooks to thwart competition and textbook availability in the online used book market, there are a lot of shady things going on. They produce followup editions with trivial changes to force students to buy new books, not to improve content, but to protect their revenue streams.

      We just don't need the textbook industry.
  • Jan 15 2013: Interesting debate. The transition from standard/expensive paper texts is already underway and a not-so-quick search of the USDOE site (as well as the 50 State DoE sites) will yield much in the way of the conversation: how to save money, how to ensure updated content, how to provide more engaging lessons, how to reach/teach 21st century students, etc. Textbook publishers will learn to adapt to the newer technology environment or they will go out of business (think about how many Blockbuster Video Stores are still in your neighborhoods). MIT has content online for free. AcademicEarth has free content. iTunesUniversity has content. Using a tablet students can access hundreds of periodicals and newspapers for free. SAT and ACT test prep is available as a free app. State-run and privately run virtual classes and virtual schools exist offering all subjects/grade level with access to onjline books. The list is endless. It is not the same as 20 or even 10 yrs ago. And in 10 yrs it will be exponentially more of a change.

    I do believe that the USDOE has issued various publications about identifying and incorporating high quality technology tools and virtual content, several States have followed suit, but I would stop short of suggesting that the USDOE create and distribute the primary resources to the local school districts
    • Jan 16 2013: Transitioning away from paper publications and moving towards e-publications is not what is being discussed here, although, that is one, very good way to implement it.

      Please re-read the original ted-conversation description. This is about producing and maintaining textbooks for the public domain such that local school districts (and anybody, for that matter) can use them, free of charge. The textbook industry can choke on it's past price gouging and dirty practices for all I care, all the while fading into the abyss.
      • Jan 17 2013: I read your main points as reducing (eliminating?) the cost of purchasing texts from private publishers; providing a distribution method for texts that can be edited/updated locally; and use of tablets for students.

        Reducing cost is admirable and right now a necessity for schools and school districts. All I was saying - leaping forward a bit - was that much of what you suggest is already happening. Material is available to download, edit, etc. Some of this is coming from traditional companies, some from new companies, and some from schools/districts/State DOEs. Students do have increasing access to laptops and tablets, and the result will be a less burdensome drain on finances.
        • Jan 19 2013: There are open textbook projects, but they lack continuous funding and standards to ever be used in earnest. Funding and standards is what I propose. The Dept. of Education is the logical place for this to happen. They have the most to gain from the savings, and as such have the most incentive to do the project right.

          Private industry typically has a profit motive, even when they release 'free' materials. There is nothing wrong with private industry, but that doesn't mean we must buy their products.
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    Jan 15 2013: I like the idea, but isn't there a fear of putting people out of work if the government steps in and does this? what happens to the publishing companies if it happens all at once? How does that affect the larger economy? I am a college professor and I haven't used a textbook in about 3 years, everything I teach can be found freely online, and I believe their is value added in teaching students to find it on their own. I am also currently working on a creative commons licensed developmental reader for community college developmental reading and writing students using TED Talks as a curiosity spark and then having colleagues from across the disciplines write passages related to the content in their fields. Textbook costs can be the make or break for many community college students
    • Jan 16 2013: Your project sounds very similar in nature to what I am looking to do on a much larger scale. Perhaps you could even be one of the subject matter experts or contributors...Who knows? There are several open textbook projects, and I have great admiration for them. I just don't see them as being self-sustaining without serious long term funding. I also don't see them as being very useful (implemented) without rigorous over-site that values what school districts and educators are looking for. I believe the Dept of Education can fill both roles very well.

      In all walks of life, unemployment is a natural consequence of increased efficiency. However, that's not a very good reason to fear an increase in efficiency. Saving $30 billion a year gives us a choice - we can either save that money, spend it in other areas as we choose, or even a combination of the two. Choice is the key. Without increased efficiency, there are no savings, and as such, there would be no alternatives to choose from.

      Unemployment is outside of the scope of this discussion, but it is a reasonable question none the less. The answer is simple. We can always choose to spend that money in ways that create the same number of jobs...The beauty of that is, not only do we now have textbooks, we also have some other new service - all for the same price and employment level.
  • Jan 12 2013: The idea holds merit. There quickly becomes the issue of "who writes the textbook" and "what political slant" does it come from. Sorry, politics is always involved in these issues. The other question would then be, is this the precursor to national testing? A legitimate follow - up question to the issue.

    Advantages would obviously be cost and distribution.

    Disadvantages would be getting the tablets into kids hands and holding them accountable for their use.

    The greatest challenge, getting the authors to agree on what should be in the textbooks.
    • Jan 12 2013: I tend to think the answer to the "who writes the textbook" question, is to simply realize that somebody already writes the textbook. It just costs us an arm and a leg to buy it.

      Politics is certainly an issue, but not every subject is going to be fought over. In the end, we already deal with those issues under the current model anyway.
      • Jan 12 2013: We don't exactly fight over the textbooks and subjects now. They are simply written by someone for a publisher then printed. In this model, the "experts" would need to agree to the content before the book was written. Then the content becomes the "official" text of the US. That creates a different level of conflict.

        At present, anyone can write a textbook and try to get it published. They may or may not be successful, but no one asks about background, slant, etc. In the new model, it becomes the mantra of our country and the accepted education. That creates a different level of text and conflict and selection of "experts".
        • Jan 12 2013: We fight over textbooks now, more than you realize. Just Google "approving textbooks" and start reading...lol

          I agree that their will be fights, However, not every educator is looking to intentionally slant material. In fact, most aren't interested in that. Some people will definitely fear the "official" text of the US. They will accuse it of all sorts of things, and just because they do, it doesn't make it true.

          Disagreements happen in any team project, but teams figure out how to work with each other. The political science textbook I had last semester had 3 authors. I'm sure they had disagreements, but they still managed to produce an excellent textbook.
        • Jan 12 2013: Of course, the real reason this will never happen....

          The 30 billion a year textbook lobby will kill it be for it starts!! lol
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    Jan 12 2013: We don't need books. We already have technology, and can train children with skill they will need in the real world.


    This district spends $7,500 to education their children. They have arrangement with Apple to lease the computers and the parents pay $50 for the service contract. With tablets and apps available we will not even need laptops.
    • Jan 12 2013: We spend 30 billion a year on text books. SOMEBODY obviously disagrees with you about needing books. Of course, It makes perfect sense for those books to be in an electronic format. That is exactly what I propose.
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        Feb 4 2013: Dan Meyer, who gave a TED Talk, explain the problem with text books this way:

        "In all seriousness. Here's an example from a physics textbook. It applies equally to math. Notice, first of all here, that you have exactly three pieces of information there, each of which will figure into a formula somewhere, eventually, which the student will then compute. I believe in real life. And ask yourself, what problem have you solved, ever, that was worth solving where you knew all of the given information in advance; where you didn't have a surplus of information and you had to filter it out, or you didn't have sufficient information and had to go find some. I'm sure we all agree that no problem worth solving is like that. And the textbook, I think, knows how it's hamstringing students because, watch this, this is the practice problem set. When it comes time to do the actual problem set, we have problems like this right here where we're just swapping out numbers and tweaking the context a little bit. And if the student still doesn't recognize the stamp this was molded from, it helpfully explains to you what sample problem you can return to to find the formula. You could literally, I mean this, pass this particular unit without knowing any physics, just knowing how to decode a textbook. That's a shame."
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    Jan 10 2013: I think the question to first ask is if the schools themselves are generating an income by the current method.
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      Jan 10 2013: Schools do not generate income through their textbook selections.

      The way this typically works, I believe, is that a district announces it is looking to adopt , say, new math textbooks for grades 6-12. They announce this along with the timetable for review.

      Publishers submit examination copies by a deadline, including the supporting materials that are available to go with the book.
      Nowadays, online access to the whole book in addition to however many copies the district buys is the norm.
      A committee of lots of people (likely depending on the size of the district), dominated by teachers of the subject, reviews the books and publishers may make presentations about the texts, also providing research evidence of the effectiveness of those curricula. There are also independent sources of review.

      The committee takes months to review the materials and rate the texts in reference to the criteria they have decided are important.

      The committee then makes a recommendation to the school board, which makes/approves the final selection.
    • Jan 10 2013: The schools are spending money, not earning it. 30 billion a year is spent on textbooks. Some college professors do write textbooks that they force their students to buy, but they are the exception to the rule, and in the end, it is probably chump-change in comparison to the entire industry.

      The industry is marginally corrupt, in my opinion. They release new additions, with trivial changes, to thwart the use of used books, encourage teachers to assign homework from their websites to force students to pay for access, and are not forthcoming on the prices they will charge prior to approval, etc...