By Andrés Delgado Darnalt
A group of Latin American designers, engineers and pedagogues has come up with a revolutionary open source publishing workflow for production and distribution of digital textbooks. The LATin Project, set up by university researchers from over nine Latin American universities and funded by the European Union, seeks to tackle the decrease in textbook use among university students in the region (who favor photocopies) by developing open source textbooks written by Latin American teachers.
According to Xavier Ochoa, coordinator of the LATin Project and Director of the Research Program on Teaching and Learning Technologies at the Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the project emerged from the LACLO Community (Latin American Community on Learning Objects) on which Ochoa serves also as Coordinator.
“RedCLARA challenged us to come up with a project for the international community,” Ochoa states. RedCLARA –or the Clara Network– is the only Latin-American advanced Internet network for interregional and international academic connection.
“We found out that the key issue was access to books in the region. Basically two factors played out in deterring students from having access to printed textbooks: price and content relevance. First of all, many families can’t afford to spend much money on textbooks so students resort to photocopies.”
“Whether bought or photocopied, textbooks do not necessarily reflect what the teachers say in class so students switch to more shallow content such as PowerPoint slides or their friends’ notes to study instead of reaching for the sources of knowledge. Also, imported textbooks are not tailored to the Latin American context”, Ochoa argues.
According to the project’s website, the average yearly cost of textbooks to study a university program in Brazil’s largest public university reaches €1,900, or 67% of the Brazilian minimum wage, which dents heavily into low-income families’ budgets and prevents students from gaining the full benefits of university education. Budget cuts at university libraries have also significantly impacted students.
This challenge had already been identified in a 2011 article in The Economist which pointed out that literacy levels in Latin American countries were worrisome and books were viewed as luxury goods. The relation between the number of bookshops and the number of people, according to the article, is alarming. Publishers argued that the high price of textbooks was a result of short print runs and the high cost of imported paper.
And its no secret that the the rising prices of textbooks is driving consumers away. An analysis on media and entertainment by PricewaterhouseCoopers states that the global market for consumer and educational books was worth US$101.6 billion in 2012, down from revenue of US$101.7 billion in 2008. Also, the flat or declining figures of revenue from printed books in most markets is being offset by a rise in e-book revenue, which will account for 22% of all books sold around the world in 2017, up from 9% in 2012.
The LATin Project was presented to ALFA, a collaborative program between the European Union and Latin America on higher education, that has invested over €100 million in Latin American higher education since its inception in 1994. The project comprised four major phases: research, software development, set-up and distribution.
With backing from ALFA, Ochoa and his group started by carrying out a literature review on writing methodologies using similar open publishing projects as key references (mainly in the United States and Brazil). The challenge was to come up with a methodology that fit the project’s collaborative nature, the digital environment and the Latin American context. The concept evolved into that of a “living book,” a book that allows constant updates without regard to authors or technologies, and became their guide in devising their approach to open publishing.
“The methodologies we found had been devised for closed books. Luckily, during our research we came across the concept of digital ecology, which refers to how elements interact between themselves and their environment in a digital context, mirroring what happens in nature where actors interact with the environment in order to survive and to produce both personal and communal benefits. That was exactly what we wanted: a living book that can grow and update itself as authors contribute with content so long as the end results return to their environment.”
In this digital ecosystem, living organisms — what LATin defines as book producing groups and content producing groups — take part in the creation of a book, giving life to what the project defines as a book driven group that has a life of its own. Once the book is finished, organisms disperse and can form new groups. The research and publishing methodology has been condensed into a series of journal articles and constitutes a valuable source of knowledge for publishing studies, as they seek to disentangle the publishing workflow into key variables such as processes, roles, timing, control, content granularity and writing groups.
Next came the software development phase. LATin created a social network to bring together the teachers from the nine universities, set up working groups, discuss contents and write the textbooks. These are written with an embedded collaborative writing tool based on code from two open-source writing tools: Booktype and Etherpad. These tools allow teachers to write, divide content in chapters and include new material simultaneously, just like in Google Docs. For content storage LATin devised a special online content repository with Rhaptos, an open source software commonly used for content repositories. The same software is used in Connexions, a popular online repository of educational content.
Customized and Open Source Textbooks
The deadline for book proposals was August 31, 2013. To LATIN’s surprise, more than 40 book proposals were received, though only 25 were accepted due to budget restraints. As of today, the textbooks, focus relevant topics for today’s labor market, including International Economics, Database Implementation, Renewable Energies, Linguistics and Public Policy; most are still in the writing phase but “practically ready”. “The project’s reception was massive and it spread rapidly among teachers in Latin American universities. And not because they would receive money: they simply wanted to write textbooks,” says Ochoa.
The project’s open source nature means that its output is not likely to stop at the initial 25 textbooks. “Our initial call for submissions stated that the output would be 144 textbooks (9 teachers x 16 books). Why? Because the idea is that each teacher should create his or her own textbook version with our writing tool. We are not producing traditional books and that is what teachers need to get used to. For example, we believe that the psychology textbook used in Chile should not be the same as the one used in México. That’s the idea of the project: to see how each teacher customizes a textbook to his own national context.”
LATin’s final step is to allow customization of the textbooks for free. The team is currently working on an online commerce site where teachers will be able to create their own versions from the available textbooks — remove paragraphs, add concepts, change the content’s order — and create a single URL address for students to download. The textbooks will be readable in both desktop, laptop and tablet computers.
All this will be based on Creative Commons licenses. “This legal technology solved many of the problems that we foresaw at the project’s research phase. Without this kind of license it wouldn’t be possible to have this ecosystem. Instead of having a book written by one or two people, our books will have lists of contributors, just like in the movies— someone provided a graphic, another wrote a single chapter, other served as copyeditor, etc.”
The Challenges Ahead
Ochoa and his team are already thinking about LATin 2, but Ochoa is clear to point out that the existing challenges for LATin before its ends its three-year funding period remain: book adoption and sustainability. But he has a plan to spur massive, widespread adoption; it starts with the issuance of quality seals by universities and authors.
“The first quality seal is given by teachers when adopting the textbooks for their classes. The second is the one we are working on with university presses so they may become partners in this process. It isn’t mandatory, of course: teachers don’t need to have their books approved by universities presses, but it could certainly help in giving them some extra weight.”
On the other hand, the need to find a sustainable business model is also essential. LATin’s future strategy is to set up a business model that uses various sources of funding, be it through sales of printed copies, joint projects with university presses or offering publishing services for authors.
In this regard, the project is fully committed to the concept of open-source. “If we get to write our articles of association these will clearly state that all content must remain open and return to us for new usages and modifications. We prefer our publishing house to die before killing the open ecosystem.”
Ochoa thinks that both closed and open textbooks will easily co-exist in the market, and that gradually textbook publishers will come to terms with this shift. “I believe closed textbooks will not cease to exist, those that require high levels of specialization and investment. However, we will start seeing more open textbooks in areas where knowledge is so widespread — algebra, for example — that investing in a new textbook makes no sense.”