The future of textbooks: online and free?

Traditional textbooks can be problematic: they often are costly, hefty, and have difficulty keeping up current research and trends. But a new biology textbook may be paving the way for a change in the textbook field:

Within 2 1/2 years, the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, named after the naturalist and founder, hopes to complete a 59-chapter digital textbook about biology called Life on Earth. As each chapter is finished, the foundation plans to put it into the hands of anyone who wants it. For free…

“No publisher is doing what we’re doing, which is developing, from scratch, a serious digital textbook,” Patterson said. He added that only $1 million of that funding — half of it from Life Technologies Foundation — is in place, and the remaining $9 million remains to be seen from private and public donors. “It’s expensive, but once you’re done you can keep it up to date across time, globally, essentially free of charge.”

The foundation plans to sell university-level editions for about 10 percent of the cost of the average print textbook, in part to fund that continuous updating. Kindergarten through 12th grade editions will be free.

Patterson said the idea is to provide any student in the world unprecedented learning tools, but acknowledged imminent backlash from profit-seeking publishers.

In some ways, this seems like a mash-up between traditional textbooks and Wikipedia: a constantly updated online text that is authoritative and offers video and other Web 2.0 features.

If the online version is to be used with classes, is there also an assumption that students will have the textbook open on their laptops? This would require all students to have some sort of viewing technology and there are other problems associated with laptops in the classroom.

It sounds like a major issue here might be funding: who is going to pay for all of this writing and computer work? What happens if the foundation can’t raise sufficient funds from donors?