Gates Foundation, WA Colleges Roll Out Open-Source Texts

10/31/11Follow @curtwoodward

Tech entrepreneurs are pushing pretty hard these days to improve education, from the Khan Academy to Codecademy to Altius Education to education-focused Startup Weekend events. And, of course, there’s the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made education its primary domestic policy initiative—something Bill Gates discussed in his recent wide-ranging lecture and Q&A session at the University of Washington.

Washington state’s two-year colleges are putting some of those ideas into practice with the roll-out of a new digital system called the Open Course Library. The coursework was developed with instructors to give students a low-cost alternative to expensive textbooks for the most common introductory courses, and is available to other schools on a Creative Commons license. The state legislature kicked in $1.2 million for the project a few years ago, and that was supplemented with a $750,000 grant from the Gates Foundation.

Eventually, the project plans cover the course materials for 81 classes. The courses themselves are all put together slightly differently—here’s an example chapter from a free introduction to calculus text, for example. Others are offered as downloadable e-books and tools from traditional publishers or other providers, but the price per text is capped at $30. Other courses link to wiki-based data from other colleges, or even Khan Academy videos to supplement the coursework.

The websites for the open-source coursework aren’t exactly state of the art, but the heart of the idea is certainly there. State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat and wireless industry veteran who spurred the project along, says K-12 textbooks may be next on the target list for an open-source, lower-cost makeover.

With the amount of education spending that’s been chopped by the state legislature in recent years, finding an innovative way to save money is probably welcome all around. Well, except in the offices of textbook publishers.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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