Stories from SXSWi 2008 – Textbooks of the Future: Free & Collaborative

I have been talking to SJ Klein regularly via email and phone for my work on the wiki pages and kid’s user manual for the XO laptop for One Laptop Per Child, so I was excited to hear him speak and meet him in person. Also, directly afterwards I planned to go to lunch with SJ and with Robert Nagle, the technical writer (and self-named idiot programmer) in Houston who originated the idea of XO user groups across the states after the Give 1 Get 1 program completed.

I had tried my best to promote an XO meetup as a lunch after the Textbooks talk, even getting it listed on the entirely awesome, but when the four of us arrived at Las Manitas at about 10 after 1, we were the only ones with the “little computers,” as my son calls them. So we just waited our turn for seating, and got to know SJ and Melissa Hagemann, a program manager with the Open Society Initiative who was moderator for the panel. As it turned out, she and Robert had been in some of the same cities in south eastern Europe in the 90s. While speaking of books, Robert described hand-carrying two fifty-pound bags of books along dirt roads as a Peace Corp volunteer and for me it really brought home the fact that books – they are heavy. Much heavier than the two 3-pound XO laptops I had been “lugging” around the Austin Convention Center all day. The 3-pound OLPC library on the XO laptop probably contains hundreds of pounds of books, and you could add several hundred more pounds of books by putting in a small USB stick or SD card. Quite a revelation for me.

Here are my rough notes from the Textbooks of the Future: Free & Collaborative talk at SXSW Interactive 2008. I’ll link to the podcast of it when it’s available. (Updated to add the link, since now it is.)

For open source textbooks, take a look at

Yes, wikibooks are now possible. Pedia press had been doing high quality book output for a while, now partnering with Wikimedia Foundation.

OLPC’s interest in open education materials is that it gives students and teachers ability to share and collaborate on materials. They’re in a unique position in some ways, though, because they’d like to target 15 languages for their materials.

Why are open textbooks possible now?

  • Convergence of technology and community
  • Also XML – lets you build lego blogs of reconfigurable, recombinable objects (sounds like DITA topics, doesn’t it?)
  • Online lets you go past books
  • Intellectual property now has new licensing – creative commons license
  • Development of quality control mechanisms, repository of content
  • Lens – gives you a filter, lets you see things through a lens, filtering which items which you think are valuable
  • National Instruments, Texas Instruments, checking the books, offering lenses

Print on demand options – if you can’t produce shiny books, you aren’t taken seriously in many parts of the world, and in some age groups, print is important. With just-in-time printing, books are assembled automatically, index generated automatically, print on demand only costs students $20 instead of $120.

The same thing will happen everywhere that knowledge is valuable.

Is there a role for publishers in the new learning environment? There can be conflicts even in branches of publishing. All major publishers he’s talked to know that a change has to happen. They’re investing/investigating.

What strategies are useful? “The Budapest Open Access Initiative: an international effort to make research articles in all academic fields freely available on the internet.” from

Three dimensions –
people (blurring the lines of roles, in today’s society we have rigid lines of roles of teacher, or author)
networking, transmitters, guides

Q: Robert’s question as a representative from – people searching for tutorials or text books want “the best” – what’s the finished state?
A: People looking for most efficient and effective way to learn things. Those sites will rise to the top.

Q: Can you use a lens that is another company’s lens?
A: Next version, yes you can.

Q: What about “controversial” areas or areas that evolve year over year?
A: For, they decided not to develop with a wiki model, allowing for a multiple entry model, such as causes for the civil war has multiple articles with author attribution. Lenses can then point towards most used, or most heavily peer reviewed, your choice.

Q: From instructional designer in corp. environment – she sees missing things such as visual representations or animations, what’s happening or needs to happen to bring in those valuable designers.
A: Inkscape – open source vector drawing application, access to others’ illustrations (svg, vector graphics standards) Also mentioned the payment for illustration contribution based on Phillip Greenspun’s donation to Wikimedia Foundation.


  • kindlesforkids
    March 24, 2008 - 8:19 am | Permalink

    I believe the OLPC initiative, despite a few recent setbacks, is a program that can move the needle on third world educational advancement. In the US however, we have many rural areas that exist with near third-world conditions. The XO is not likely to be available to them in adaquate numbers to have a significant impact. Amazon’s wireless reading device, the Kindle, may be able to fill that gap. It holds hundreds of books, and weighs just over 1/2 a pound.
    Also, for more developments on open source textbooks, check out, and Both of these efforts promise to overcome the limitations of the 19th century publishing industry.
    Gordon Rogers

  • January 13, 2010 - 11:17 am | Permalink

    I think going digital media is a very hot issue now a days. Just like serving a hot coffee in the shop. Its as easy as 1 2 3. In this way, files, books, images and some other stuffs that can be converted into digital copies could be more accessible by anybody anytime anywhere. This is the main purpose of building emedia center, digital library and other automated systems.

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