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Computer Science, OER Authors, and O’Reilly Media

Most of the subject pages on the OER site feature several textbooks that have been self-published by their authors. It is also not uncommon to find OER in the collection that was once published and whose copyrights have since been returned to their author for self-publication. The Computer Science page of the OER site is a bit different from the rest.  So far, it features texts all written by Allen Downey a few of which are published by O’Reilly Media and the rest of which are self-published by Downey.  It is worth pointing out here that all of Downey’s books are published under a Creative Commons license.  Even those which are published by O’Reilly Media are CC licensed.  I found the Downey books when I was searching for Statistics OER. That was when I found his Think Stats book. I followed the Think Stats lead to Green Tea Press which appears to be a personal publishing platform that Downey uses to self-publish his books. There I found a number of Computer Science books on topics involving operating systems, Python Programming, Java Programming and a number of other texts.

Many of the books in the Think series by Downey were inspired by his artful approach to pedagogy. The preface of each book outlines his approach to the subject and reasons that he felt that a textbook needed to be written on that topic.  Often these reasons were that a text did not exist for a new class that he was developing or that current books did not approach the subject in a way that he felt met the needs of his students. Several themes emerge when reading the prefaces of Downeys texts; that is, that he is dedicated to teaching and the philosophy of openness.  More than one of his texts were written in a period of two weeks or so, usually right before the start of a semester.  In order for his texts to be effective teaching tools, Downey tries to keeps his texts short as “it is better for students to read 10 pages than not read 50 pages.”  He is mindful of vocabulary and defines terms at their first use while splitting the most difficult topics into a series of small steps.  These qualities allow Downey to ask his students to read the text at a rate about 7 times slower than which he wrote it.  By making his textbooks accessible and the material within them understandable, Downey claims that he got his students to read his textbooks and caused them to perform better in his classes.

Authors of OER seem to have few reservations about discussing their passion for a subject or their convictions about openness in education. Allen Downey’s textbook manifesto is simple, “Students should read and understand textbooks.”  It is so simple that it sounds stupid, he says, but it is something that textbook authors typically overlook.  Downey proclaims that the solution to preventing textbooks from becoming 1000-page doorstops is setting realistic expectations of students, including 10 pages per week or 140 pages per semester of a textbook that was “written for actual students, not the imaginary ones from 50 years ago who were ‘well prepared’.”  In his short manifesto, Downey makes one pointed remark each to publishers, professors, and students.  Those remarks and the entire manifesto can be found at GreenTeaPress.com.

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When I stumbled upon the Think Stats book and consequently the entire Downey collection, I was inspired by his passion.  This is the primary reason that the Computer Science page of the OER site features nothing but Allen Downey books right now.  I think it is very powerful that this one professor has written a multitude of textbooks. Since beginning my hunt for OER, I have yet to come across an author who has written a collection of texts as expansive as Downey’s.  This, and his outspokenness about pedagogy and openness, I thought, made him a good example of the potential that OER and its authors possess.

A quote from the preface of Think Java that speaks of Downey’s motivations as well as that of many other OER authors:

“As we enjoy great Advantages from the Inventions of others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by an Invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.”

-Benjamin Franklin

Besides that all of the textbooks on the Computer Science page are written by a single author, there is something else important to note.  A few of them are published by O’Reilly Media.  O’Reilly Media publishes books on technology and computer-related topics, typically programming languages and the like.  In 1998 O’Reilly hosted a conference that became known as the Open Source Summit where the term “open-source” was adopted by communities such as Linux, Apache, Perl, Python, and Mozilla.  Not only is O’Reilly a supporter of the open source software community, it also supports authors who want to publish their work under Creative Commons licenses.  In its blog, O’Reilly Radar, O’Reilly Media featured a link to an article titled Advice to Authors on How to Negotiate a Creative Commons License.  I’m not endorsing O’Reilly Media or any of its products; however, it is important to point out that publishers do exist who are willing to negotiate with authors on license terms and that it is not impossible to have your book sold by a publisher as well as freely downloadable on your personal website.

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