Free Textbooks

In the world of open and free resources, it can be pretty intimidating as you start to look around at the wealth of what all is available.  For me, in the beginning, Open resources often meant disjointed learning objects or animations that I would bring into my classes for a specific task.  It was a different way of doing things, often were highly engaging, and students typically could access them from at home.  It was, in fact, the impetus for me to start to get serious about wikis.  Generally, you would link to a learning object or the more flexible ones would allow you to embed themselves into your wiki page so that students didn’t leave the environment to use them.  It worked nicely.

If you’re following the change in the way that Open Resources are evolving, contributors are thinking bigger picture now.  Instead of a simple little interactive object to teach a bubble sort, we’re now seeing entire modules devoted to teaching the concepts of sorting.  Once you identify the object, evaluate it, and test it, finding it to be appropriate, it becomes part of your teaching.  It really is a great concept and you see more and more developed and repositories opening on a regular basis.

While there are people that write and develop these things just for the love of it, they have to be hosted somewhere.  In repositories, you’ll often see good collections but the realities of hosting the resources is evident.  You may see a walled garden around your “free” resources with admittance restricting access based upon a set of rules written by the host.  In a completely free and open system, you’ll find it sponsored by some entity who is paying the bills or it’s supported by advertising.  It’s the advertising that can be particularly annoying and frustrating with errant clicks taking the student away from the task at hand.

With the growth of these resources, the ultimate would be the textbook.  It’s an infamous concept because of some jurisdictions claiming that they’ll go paperless as we’re now starting to see textbooks for free.  A friend asked me what I thought about Bookboon, a free textbook dispensing site claiming to have 1000 books available for download.  There is indeed a wide selection of books by subject area in addition to business books and travel guides.  The textbooks claim to be written for university / college level but, at least in the area of computer science, that division can blur with secondary schools.  And, it never hurts as an instructor to have your bookshelves full of books with differing ways to explain concepts or problems to be solved.


The list is quite impressive.  Not an advertisement in sight.  I decided to grab a book on Java to take a look around.

Hmmm.  There’s a first area of concern.  In exchange for a textbook, the site wants to have you subscribe to a mailing list.  That’s fair enough for me but I can already start to hear the naysayers now.

The book is in PDF format so nothing terribly innovative there.  I started to flip through the textbook and got to Page 3 with the Table of Contents where I saw my first advertisement embedded in the PDF file.  Uh oh.  Well, it’s in the TOC – nobody reads those anyway.  But, as I got into the books, the advertising continued.  I found it very intrusive.  It wasn’t just a little banner on the side of a page; it was literally half a page when it was there.  To make matters worse, mousing over it reveals that it’s a link – and while I don’t like clicking links in PDF files for security reasons, I decided to find one from a company that I knew and try it.  My Acrobat did its job popping up a window asking if I knew what I was doing.  Grudgingly, I said yes and watched what happened.

First, we made a quick visit to Bookboon where I’m sure a counter reflected the fact that someone clicked on an advertisement.  Then, it sailed through to the company that had inserted the ad.  I can hear those voices a little louder now.

But, to me as the end user, there was no cost.  I download it and used it.  If I can restrain myself from the advertising, I could use it mostly like a textbook (actually if you have full-blown Acrobat or equivalent, you can even write in the margins, post stickies, etc.) but specifically I could use it as a PDF file limited only by the functionality of my PDF reader.

The interesting value add to the Bookboon service is a Facebook application so that the books are available through the popular social networking service.

It’s not a slam against the host.  It costs money to host a server, pay for bandwidth, pay authors, etc.  It’s the business model that has been selected for operation.

So, in the realm of “free”, is this the price to be paid?  Are there other options?  Would you use a textbook with embedded, interactive advertising?  Is this the future?  The irony that the advertising issue goes away if we just print the PDF is not lost on this author…

OTR Links 12/29/2011

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.