Goliath takes on Goliath

Open-source technology has been slow to break into education. It’s not hard to see why: The purveyors of the tools and content that technology would revolutionize—textbook publishers, in particular—are keen to guard their distribution channels and their profits. Virtual charter schools have been the primary users so far; since their instruction is conducted online, making/using online content that is editable and free is the obvious next step. So what happens when a tech exec declares war on the publishers? Watch Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems, as his new venture, Oracle, takes online, open-source textbooks to the nation’s school systems. Those systems, he points out, spend $8-15 billion every year on textbooks. What if we could lower that cost to…zero? The biggest roadblock is in Sacramento and Austin, where legislators of the two biggest textbook markets choose and approve texts for use in their states’ public schools. But California, at least, seems to be coming around. It’s no simple matter, though. What happens to quality control? Accuracy? Do we really want students learning from the, ostensibly, “collective” knowledge of the internet (think: Wikipedia)? Then again, done right, breaking down the textbook monopoly would likely improve the quality, lessen the bias, and lower the exorbitant cost of K-12 materials. That would be a win for everyone except, of course, the publishers.

$200 Textbook vs Free. You Do the Math,” by Ashlee Vance, New York Times, July 31, 2010

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