Authored by Ramamoorthy G, co-founder & CEO
Who holds the patents or copyrights for the following equations or statements?
2 + 3 = 5
Gravity is the force by which a planet or other body draws objects toward its centre.
Sodium and chlorine react to form sodium chloride.
The answer is obvious. No one.
Now imagine, the above is expanded to form paragraphs, topics, chapters and, finally, a complete textbook on Science or Maths. We pay much more than what we should for knowledge that is so common and has existed for many centuries.
A few reasons why textbooks cost what they do today:
Authors have to be paid royalties
Editors are needed to proof-read and modify text as needed
Images have to be created by graphic designers
Text material must be laid out in a format (for printing) that editors choose and decide
Manufacturing cost (including paper and printing)
Maintaining logistics, warehouses and distributor network
All of the above add to the final price of books and easily make them unaffordable to the majority.
A few pertinent questions in this context:
Why should students or parents pay huge amounts of money for learning facts that have not changed in the last 25, 50, 100, 500 or even 2,000 years?
Of course, presenting these topics in an easy-to-understand manner takes a lot of effort and resources. But can those resources be pooled from so many available sources to make it completely free? (free at least for the digital version)
Can digital copies be charged minimally for upkeep and maintenance of technology platforms and keeping content up-to-date?
Can we charge parents/students only for printed copies at cost + any logistical and manufacturing expenses?
Can we avoid paying royalties for such common knowledge and pass that benefit of reduced cost to the end users (students and parents)?
Solutions for the problems
Parents pay for the creation of materials, printing, paper and logistics (such as transport, warehousing, etc). Right now, they have no other option with which to teach their children (other than buying the textbooks prescribed by the schools). Schools subscribe to such textbooks because they do not have resources to create it themselves.
Does all of the above mean that no one can produce such materials which can be open source and almost free? With a lot of planning and a fraction of resources currently spent on such activities, we can produce high quality textbooks and related material as part of an open source movement and make it available almost for free. I say ‘almost for free‘ because there is a cost to manufacture paper textbooks. Those costs are difficult to write off unless some government or charity organisations agree to bear it. There is also the cost to maintain technology platforms and keep the books updated. But text book material (content) itself in digital format should not cost a lot of money to anybody. That is the open source movement that is needed today.
Now, problems to the solution!
I do know and understand that a specific text book if written with an audience in mind, may not fit another type of audience. For example, a book written for ICSE students may not fit a state board student. But this is not an insurmountable problem. We can create graded material that can be packaged in various combinations and that it can be made perfectly suitable for all audiences by picking and choosing different material from a pool of available material. With technology, we can easily do packaging and repackaging as needed. Of course, writing textbook cannot be done only by technology, but other things around it can be solved with it, including reuse of material across multiple audiences and so on.
I do not say all of the above is easy to do, but all that I say is it is not impossible. In the US, South Africa and a few other countries, this experiment has started many years ago. (I will write about that in a future post)
And it is going on well. There is a large textbook publishing industry that will be affected if such an open source movement gains momentum. I am sure there are going to obstacles, but those can be overcome if there is quality and ease of use taking this route. There is a large technology component here that would be needed to ensure material once written can be sliced into different types depending on the type of audience. But all that is definitely worth the effort if we can get good quality teaching and learning material in the hands of about 25 crore students, 75 lakh teachers and 15 lakh schools. Imagine the great impact that it can produce if high quality, graded textbooks in Science, Maths, etc. are put to use by those many millions of people who are otherwise unable to afford it. This will be a mammoth effort to begin with, but the fruits will be very sweet.
Thanks for reading. Your comments, ideas and suggestions are most welcome.