Saving Becta: a great new open source venture
Published 15:48, 08 March 10
This post follows swiftly on from last week's blog in which I touted BECTA's demise. Things in edu-world after this weekend are looking much worse if you believe Ed Balls the Labour Secretary of State for Education and Michael Gove the Shadow Secretary.
Mr Balls is looking for £300 million in school cuts, he has identified £100 million so far and £40 million will come directly out of BECTA (but not abolished, note). Mr Gove has announced a root and branch review of both the National Curriculum and the Examination Boards. Simply put he favours a return to a simpler more 'traditional' curriculum...circa 1980's by the look of it (pre-Microsoft?).
I have scoured their announcements both are mightily quiet about ICT...suspicious in itself.
Ok, I have bored you all enough with the approx £100 million that could be saved by moving to web-faced school computing (the famous G-Cloud) thereby losing those expensive MS Licences and school support techs at a stroke...even with this in the pot we are still short of a hundred million pounds.
Aha, I've found it...see if you agree.
Publish and be damned
In UK schools text books are a major expense. Many, many millions each year are spent on text books.
Over the years (One Gove: a unit of edu-time) they have morphed from small A6 books containing mostly text and some illustrations into giant A4 picture books.
But concurrent with text book publishing is examination publishing. Exams are outsourced by the Government to private companies, it is these bodies that Mr Gove has in his sights.
An un-edifying upgrade cycle means that for text books (which of course support examinations), an exam change means you need a new text book. Unsurprisingly over the last twenty years exams have proliferated in range and number and tend to get updated often!
I simply would not dare to print what secondary school teachers say about this 'arrangement'!
The ICT-esque text-book-exam lock-in and upgrade cycle is the next to be broken. There are two ways to tackle this:
1) Reduce the number of exams,
2) Move to electronic publishing.
And here is where the blog gets Open Source again.
Electronic Publications and Profit
The problem is how to keep a nice little earner going in the digital age. The issue cannot be ducked, one Sony E-Reader would easily house all of a students' text books and work sheets for their whole school career with ease...not to mention the podcasted lessons...or even Wikipedia in your pocket.
It follows that the major text book publishers are on a mission to replace existing text books with new digital versions, which will be better, funkier, feature rich and more easily up datable than their paper predecessors.
They will also be just as expensive, will attempt to lock in the schools to their chosen format and DRM and will derive their revenue stream from an infinity of updates...or maybe not...
Open Standards and E-Publishing
I love my Sony E-reader, I covet the latest Kindle but I hate buying books on-line.
Three things really annoy me.
1) The on-line buying experience is miserable. So much 'security' with OS specific (Microsoft wouldn't you know?) client software to keep control of the DRM stuff that so obsesses publishers.
2) The cost. You can often get much the same book for much the same price from your local store. Duh, where are the printing and distribution costs? You can't kid me that producing digital books is 'hard', it's not.
3) At the last time of counting there were 15 electronic publication formats* all supporting DRM (except of course .txt,.html,.ps) with approx half conforming to Open Standards but the two big players, Sony and Amazon are pushing their own non-open .pdb and .azw in a re-run of the beta-max wars (or for a younger audience read 'blue-ray' wars).
EPUB and MediaWiki
Printed school text books are written by experts in their field. These folk are often also practising teachers. Some text books are very accurate, others less so since there is no peer review system to match to that used in the academic world.
The number of text book authors is very small, very many experts could write a text book for their subject in schools but few do as there is a vanishingly small chance of being picked up by a publisher and displacing the incumbents.
Also it is fair to say that few would attempt to put themselves forward as experts on a whole syllabus but far more would be able to produce a first-class chapter or two.
What I am about to propose is an Open Source revolution for text books analogous to the one that produced Wikipedia.
The open source software Mediawiki made Wikipedia possible. Wikipedia is utterly astonishing in its breadth and depth and dare I say it accuracy. Forget the self-centred media type who notes that their birth date is wrong, my exposure to Wikipedia in areas that I know about is certainly more accurate than a lot of school text books...and that's without a professional editor to check it.
So how about WikiTextbooks?
Multiple contributions wiki-style from multiple authors. A quick edit, compilation and conversion to the Open Standard EPUB format. It's really easy I promise you, read the IBM tutorial.
Then give it away, free download...whoa!
You the author don't get any money, only your name as author or editor but that is little different to being a conventional text book author right now, as there is little money left for the author after the cut has been taken by marketing, printing, distribution and so on.
You however do get the kudos, the kids get the books, the mega rich publishers get the elbow. In a few years they will be as relevant as The Encyclopaedia Britannica...that near-defunct, august, colonial-centric organ of verisimilitude.
Now that really would be revolutionary.
So Messrs Balls and Gove, whoever of you is in charge come September there is your final £100 million. No Becta, no MS, no text book scammers...don't you just love a recession?
EPUB formats taken from Wikipedia (where else)