Content hackathons: the future of textbooks?

Plenty of startup communities and companies host hackathons to generate new web tools and apps. But as the amount and awareness of free or low-cost open educational resources increases, more open-content publishers and educators are experimenting with a similar approach to hack textbooks.

For the past couple of years, Siyavula, a Cape Town, South Africa-based company, has been organizing content hackathons, collaboratively creating math and science textbooks in about three weekends. Earlier this year, open content textbook publisher Flat World Knowledge hosted a hackathon to crowdsource a computer science textbook.  Last month, a group of Finnish math teachers spent the weekend creating a high school math book.  And last weekend, Boundless, a Boston-based startup offering a free, open alternative to textbooks, organized a weekend-long hackathon to produce an intro-level college physics textbook.

Content hackathons are a way to bring educators and subject-matter experts together to curate and organize the content into a structure that helps students learn as effectively as possible, said Boundless co-founder and CEO Ariel Diaz.

“Our focus is not just to have the information but to have it in a format that’s helpful for users,” he said.

Physics academics and Ph.D. students collaboratively create an introductory-level physics textbook at a content hackathon organized by Boston-based Boundless.

Over the course of the weekend, he said, nearly two dozen physics academics and Ph.D. students from Harvard, MIT and other local universities and colleges lent their expertise to the project. Boundless created a list of about 500 learning objectives they believe a physics 101 textbook should cover and pointed the participants to online open educational resources. The content “hackers” broke off individually and in teams to author the content appropriate for each objective and later peer-reviewed each others’ work. The group didn’t finish the textbook over the weekend, but Diaz said they plan to ready the textbook for the new school semester in January and intend to host more subject-specific and general content hackathons in the future.

For Boundless and other open-content publishing platforms, the hackathons are way to accelerate the creation of content. And, they provide students and teachers with free (or low-cost) instructional material that reflects a potentially broader range of voices from top subject-matter experts. For now, the draw for volunteers is to be a part of a new open education movement, Diaz said, but going forward, they could be given advisory roles and other kinds of credits for their participation.

Momentum behind open educational content in general is increasing. In September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that funds free, digital open textbooks created by California’s universities for college students and establishes an online library to host the books.  Last month, British Columbia announced its support of a similar initiative.

But the rise of free alternatives to traditional textbooks isn’t without hurdles. Earlier this year, three major publishers sued Boundless, claiming that its textbook alternatives violated their intellectual property rights.  And last week, Flat World Knowledge, announced the end of free access to its open textbooks. Since launching in 2007, the venture-backed company has offered free Web-based versions of its content while charging for print and digital (PDF) versions. But, saying that its freemium model threatened its long-term growth, the company abandoned the free plan (though it does sell books at a cheaper-than-traditional $19.99).

Still, setbacks notwithstanding, open content — just like the larger open education movement advocated by online course startups Coursera, Udacity, Khan Academy and others — is increasingly going to be part of our future. It’s early days for the companies and communities organizing around it, and business models and best practices for bringing curated content and textbook alternatives to students still need to be figured out. But interest in more content collaboration, through offline hackathons, online forums and other platforms, is clearly growing.

Image by Spectral-Design via Shutterstock.