Scott McNealy's Curriki and free textbooks

3 Aug 2010

Scott McNealy has an interesting idea.  His non-profit company, Curriki, aggregates and develops online educational resources from a community of contributors:

Curriki is an online environment created to support the development and free distribution of world-class educational materials to anyone who needs them. Our name is a play on the combination of 'curriculum' and 'wiki' which is the technology we're using to make education universally accessible.

As anyone who's been to college knows, textbooks have been a scam for a long time.  In universities, new editions of books come out every couple of years with the primary goal of thwarting the used textbook market: just enough changes to move the paging, for example, making previous editions obsolete even though the information hasn't changed substantially if at all.  I have a number of friends in academics, and I know that they're not in it for the money.  But the publishers are and they'll do whatever they can to sell more new books.

But at least in college the knowledge in many fields is specialized enough that textbook sales volumes will be low prices will have to be high just to cover the entry costs of publication.  That's the generous view.  But, as McNealy says, "Ten plus 10 has been 20 for a long time" (aside: that sentence bugs the shit out of me because of the "ten" and "10" being mixed; I understand why, they don't want to start a sentence with a digit, but I think the consistency concern should overrule that).  Especially at the primary level, there's little need for constant churn and changes to basic textbooks and reference guides.

Here's a suggestion to leverage and extend this idea: what if all primary school students got Kindles or Kindle-like tablets?  Not laptops, but function-specific reading devices, books on a tablet, so there are no concerns about playing games, IM'ing, browsing the Web, etc. (it would also reduce the risk of theft, since no tough kids want to steal your books, just your Nintendo DS).

Right now the basic Kindle is $139 and you can bet your bottom dollar that California or Texas or New York school districts buying them in bulk would get them much more cheaply.  Load them up with open-source textbooks and voila, savings.  Even with repairs and replacements, it would end up being cheaper over the course of a kid's school career.

It would also:

  • Eliminate the massive administrative burden of managing the textbook resources of each school district
  • Reduce and even eliminate the cost of textbook updates, since errata, minor additions, and the other miscellany of "new editions" would be easily accommodated with an online update instead of requiring a whole new dead-tree copy of the book
  • Completely do away with the problem of not having enough textbooks, since you don't have to have 30 math books, 30 English books, 30 history books, etc., for a class of 30, but just 30 readers

Something like this has the potential to revolutionize the financials of school districts, as well as the ability of kids across the income spectrum to access high quality educational materials.