Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Open Source Textbook

Preston McAfee is a not a stranger to textbook writing. His Competitive Solutions is a nice but low-tech textbook designed to give MBA students a feel for the economics of strategy.

Now he has done something far less marketable: an introductory economics text that is far from shy on the technical. While written assuming no prior economics knowledge, it has the technical (that is, mathematical) sophistication of an intermediate economics textbook. Here is what McAfee writes about it:

The way principles is taught embodies an inefficiency -- generally we motivate the analysis in principles but don't complete it, then perform the analysis in intermediate micro. Why not combine these two in one more thorough course? In this regard, managerial economics in business schools does a much better job (and the books are better, too, but are focused on business applications and not general economics).

"I should also mention that at Chicago, they did not offer what is known as a "principles" course, the watered-down, mind-numbing survey course that most universities offer as a first course in economics. At Chicago, they started right off at the intermediate microeconomics level. So I had the enormous advantage of starting off with challenging, intellectually coherent material and first-rate teachers. I was very fortunate." --From an interview with Paul Romer, Conversations with Economists: Interpreting Macroeconomics, edited by Brian Snowdon and Howard Vane, Edward Elgar, 1999.

Publishers normally hate these types of books. They are hard to format, hard to proof read and let's face it, there are not many introductory economics courses that teach this type of material.

The publishers are right of course, this is unlikely to be commercially strong. But that is not McAfee's goal. He was more interested in dissemination than profits and so he has provided his textbook as a free download. [Click here for it]. In effect, it is an open source project. All McAfee wants is attribution. After that, the rest is up to lecturers and students.

The advantages to this are numerous. First, it is free and so there is a saving right there. It is simply costless to ask students to read all or some of it. Second, it is electronic. That means that an errors or updates are easy to do. There is always a latest version and so lecturers can assign that. Finally, this truely open source. Lecturers will be able to adjust and create their own versions of the book.

But there are costs. It lacks the glitz and attractive formatting of commercial texts although that can be overrated. It also lacks the additional materials but even that is being dealt with by others. There are powerpoint slides available and even a podcast! You can also order, at what appears to be marginal cost, a printed version.

Don't tell my publisher but there is a good part of me that admires this project and wishes I had thought to do something like it for my own MBA textbook (now published by Thomson). Indeed, I did so for almost a decade with my own students but I wanted more dissemination. I don't have the stature of McAfee [his site currently has 80000! hits] so convincing a publisher to get on board was the way to go. Fortunately, it is alot cheaper than other MBA texts (maybe half the price) and so there is some benefit there.

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