Textbooks have long been the cash cow of publishing. Though they're hardly fortune-makers, textbooks could always be counted on to pull in steady revenue that would supplement a publishing house's more artistic and prestigious projects. However, textbooks are also the most consumable of books. They rarely have the same shelf-life in a library or home as other types of books, including that other great consumable, the reference book. You need only look to any campus bookstore at the end of a semester and witness the crush of students trying to sell back their course materials to know just how consumable textbooks are.
Consumables are the products most vulnerable to technological change. Newspapers have yet to figure out how to balance both a paper and Web presence. And it looks like reference books will never recover from the blow Wikipedia and online dictionaries have dealt them. Strangely, however, textbooks remained somewhat immune, despite rapidly increasing prices and an increasingly demanding audience of school districts wanting customization.
As Brady Forrest reports over at O'Reilly Radar, CK-12, a non-profit launched in 2006, is looking to drop costs, open content, and offer content flexibility to educators. In CK-12's own words:
Today, textbooks that are used in K-12 system are limiting, expensive and are difficult to update. Because of this, K-12 teachers find it hard to introduce new concepts and cater to different needs. What we need is a more flexible and less expensive system to create and distribute books and online content. FlexBooks, by their very nature, satisfies this need. They contain high quality online content, and are easy to create, update and print. They provide a new system that will follow an open source philosophy to place content on-line that can be "mixed, modified and printed".Their system, known as FlexBooks, would seem to be a well-designed playground for mash-ups, allowing educators to contribute, manipulate, and share content. It would also seem to deliver what it promises: flexibility, customizability, and cost savings, while reducing the strain placed on students' backs by the ten-pound tomes most publishers put out these days. Therefore, it very well could be to textbooks what Wikipedia was to Britannica.
However, CK-12 also faces some serious obstacles. They've provided the context but, alas, they do need content. They also need a fairly large educational community to rally around it to make it work. Furthermore, how much flexibility and customizability can be achieved in the face of standardized curricula and No Child Left Behind? And even if they do help to overcome widespread institutional standardization, won't doing so create a climate of tribalization in which children will be taught only according to regional and local bias, rather than some more universal version of "truth"?