Academics and Research

Free textbooks are DU professor’s aim with e-book project

For U.S. students, spending $150 on a textbook is an annoyance. But for many students in Uganda, purchasing a single textbook is simply impossible. There, the average price of a textbook is $51; a family’s annual income averages only $250.

DU Professor Don McCubbrey is working to solve the problem. Along with a team, he is working on theGlobal Text Project, which aims to provide up to 1,000 free, up-to-date electronic texts for students worldwide. Content contributors and advisory board members from approximately 50 universities and companies from around the world are helping.

“Textbook costs are a problem everywhere, but it’s much more of a problem in the developing world,” says McCubbrey, a clinical professor in the Department of Information Technology and Electronic Commerce at DU’s Daniels College of Business.

“Even when texts are donated, there are shipping costs, and the texts are usually outdated. The quality of the education suffers,” he says.

McCubbrey founded the Global Text Project in 2006 along with Richard Watson of the University of Georgia.

When Watson was unable to find a suitable textbook for his undergraduate class on XML, he enlisted the help of his class of graduate students to write a text. He was pleased with the result and used it in future classes, each time asking his students to improve the content.

McCubbrey, who had been doing his own research on open content, learned of Watson’s project and the pair decided to collaborate.

“We knew there had to be a way that we could engage the collective intelligence of the worldwide academic and practitioner communities to make textbooks available for free over the Internet, all while keeping it under editorial control,” says McCubbrey.

The pair’s first work is an introductory information systems text. Next will be a book on business fundamentals. Professors from around the world contributed chapters to the books, which were standardized and formatted by a volunteer editor.

Several Daniels College of Business professors contributed to the first two books, including Buie Seawell, Cynthia Fukami, John Burnett, Doug Allen and Paul Bauer.

In addition to compiling original books, the Global Text Project has received donations of textbooks from professors after the publisher’s copyright has reverted to the author. The donated books are digitized and updated by volunteer students and professors.

Five books are available now and another 30 are in various stages of production. The collection will eventually encompass titles in disciplines typically encountered in freshman and sophomore level university undergraduate programs.

The resulting electronic books are published online under a Creative Commons license. Users can access the texts through the Global Text Project Web site and then download, print or burn a CD or DVD of the text. Books will be translated into Arabic, Chinese and Spanish.

Using modified open source content management software, professors worldwide can modify the text to fit their cultural and educational needs.

“A professor can tailor the text for the local circumstances,” says McCubbrey. “Information that is relevant in the United States — like financial accounting rules — may not be relevant in Uganda.”

The editors also solicit feedback from the students who use the book and work to make improvements based on suggestions.

The Global Text Project has received funding from the Jacobs Foundation in Zurich, and McCubbrey and Watson are soliciting support from corporate and individual partners. Sponsorship of a textbook costs approximately $50,000 for creation of the initial version and approximately $25,000 per year to sustain it thereafter.

Mariano Delle Donne (BS biochemistry ’99, MS information technology ’00) supports the Global Text Project. He is a native of Argentina, where he says it is common for students to photocopy chapters out of a single textbook.

“I love reading, and education for me is a great equalizer,” says Delle Donne, CEO of Adventos, a Denver-based technical consulting firm. “I couldn’t have gotten to where I am if not for the reading I did and the learning that I experienced.

“I felt that the Global Text Project was a very worthwhile effort to allow people to enjoy books fully from the table of contents all the way to the end, as opposed to photocopied chapters,” Delle Donne says.

McCubbrey sees potential for Global Text in developed countries as well as the developing world. As more attention is paid to the cost of textbooks, McCubbrey notes that the traditional educational publishing industry is changing and that open-source content and electronic delivery are the wave of the future.

He is working with Sony to test the use of the company’s new $300 e-book reader in one of his classes at Daniels in the fall. He notes that since up to 160 books can be loaded on the e-reader, the potential savings if textbooks are free is enormous for students.

“The future of education is in personalization, and we can use the computer to do that,” says McCubbrey.

“This is part of a larger movement towards openness that is hitting in a lot of areas — it’s a tsunami changing the way we are educating, both in the developing and the developed world.”

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