Free the Curriculum!

The second thing that will be free is a complete curriculum (in all languages) from Kindergarten through the University level. There are several projects underway to make this a reality, including our own Wikibooks project, but of course this is a much bigger job than the encyclopedia, and it will take much longer.

In the long run, it will be very difficult for proprietary textbook publishers to compete with freely licensed alternatives. An open project with dozens of professors adapting and refining a textbook on a particular subject will be a very difficult thing for a proprietary publisher to compete with. The point is: there are a huge number of people who are qualified to write these books, and the tools are being created to leave them to do that.

I just wanted to add one little note to today’s post, based on an excellent philosophical question Diana Hsieh asked yesterday about my views on free knowledge. While I do, in fact, think that it is wonderful that each of the ten things I will list will be free, the point of naming the list “will be free” rather than “should be free” or “must be free” is that I am making concrete predictions rather than listing a pie in the sky list of things I wish to see.

If there are things that I wish were free, but which I don’t see any way to make free, I won’t list them.

Now, for that concrete prediction: a complete curriculum in English and a number of major languages will exist by 2040, and translation to minor languages will likely follow soon after.

Unlike the encyclopedia prediction, which I was able to make by doing conservative extrapolations from the proven growth of Wikipedia, I make this prediction completely by the “seat of my pants.”

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35 Responses to Free the Curriculum!

  1. Dear Professor Lessig,

    This is an idea that we are starting to implement with the Java Education and Development Initiative (>, a project that provides courseware to improve the Computer Science and IT curriculum starting with universities and colleges in the Philippines.


    Rommel Feria, MSc, MIEEE, MACM
    Java Champion. 🙂

  2. Joe Buck says:

    MIT has been working on this for some time.


  3. Anonymous says:


    Prof. Lessig is on vacation at the moment. We’re currently hearing from Jimbo Wales, creator of the Wikipedia project.

  4. smacpher says:

    This is a very good idea but I’m not sure if the GNU FDL will take us there. The invariant title/cover requirement that the tile / cover be kept for each new version as well as other things wrong with the GNU FDL may make it hard for it to expand into real life text books.

    If you are looking a head to 2040 then I’d do some planning about fixing the GNU FDL right now. There are a number of remedies, including metalicensing which afaik is apart from multilicensing. Here is a story on it:

    and of course this link is also useful 🙂 :


  5. Bill Korner says:

    Hopefully there will be more than ONE free curriculum. I can’t see the appeal of having one free standard and wouldn’t think that a free and open process would yield just one. Unlike an encyclopedia, it seems to me that a curriculum is spoken of as a unified whole only metaphorically.

    (One could also ask whether having one Wikipedia is satisfactory. I think it is, because there are lots of previous entries to be found in the discussions and histories. But one problem that could arise is a proliferation of parallel entries as a means of addressing major disagreements about how to treat a topic. I’m curious, Jimbo, as to whether you have seen such developments.)

    As for curricula, the vision I would prefer is of various teaching resources made available, searchable, and subject to discussion and critique. Perhaps it would be good to have a central clearinghouse for this, but who knows.

  6. Joel says:

    I believe that the Kindersite Project may fit with the definition of Free Curriculum. – I would be interested in your opinions,

    I myself believe that only the future iteration (in construction) of the site that fits closer to the existing curricular will really fit the bill.

    Brief Description:
    The Kindersite Project is designed to help the Introduction of technology to very young children. It is also used for the Introduction to English.

    The site is used by about 6,500 schools in 123 countries.

  7. emily. says:

    When you say “curriculum” do you mean textbooks, lesson plans, and assessments, or just the textbook part? It seems to me that all are necessary for creating a good, free resource for teaching.

    Interestingly, parts of this (such as lesson plans) are already freely shared in many places online. What I imagine Wikimedia could contribute is a clearinghouse for these things with a consistent interface so art and science and primary and secondary educational resources are no longer at opposite corners of the web.

  8. Jon A says:

    As a school administrator and curriculum specialist (thought I’d get the bona fides in there righ away) I think this is a wonderful idea. Curriculum as it exists in many (if not most) works very much along the wiki model: it is constantly revised to be responsive to the needs of the audience; the revision is often collaborative in nature, either through direct collaboration or as a response to feedback from colleagues; less effective pieces wither and die while more effective pieces get more attention; and users take only what they need and contribute what they can–no one teaches the whole curriculum.

    What the process lacks is a formal and easy means of facilitating the process. Schools put a lot of time and effort into developing curricula, which is why so many are willing to spend great gobs of cash to buy them off the rack from textbook companies. Let the new rallying cry be, “Curricula Want to Be Free!”

  9. Matt says:

    2040? Yeah, that is a “seat of your pants” estimate! Of any group I know, teachers are the most willing to share their knowledge and work collaboratively. There are already thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of teachers who already share their curriculum online through their own web sites. What is lacking is a consistent, coherent way of finding this information. If you build the structure and get the word out, I’m sure you’ll find growth as fast, or even faster, than Wikipedia.

  10. I think this is both possible and likely, and even likely far before your 2040 date. But, one factor that must be included is licensure and certification. Though the curricula may be free, and excellent, the problem remains acceptance of the curricula by others. That is separate and apart from the content, and must be addressed sooner rather than later if it is to be successful. School boards, education boards, state and federal government in the U.S., and other governing agencies elsewhere must accept it to promote its usefulness. Otherwise it’s learning for learning’s sake as opposed to learning for job opportunities, and acceptance into further educational programs, or licensure for professions that require it. For instance though we could certainly have legal education in such a setting, the American Bar Association, and the various state bars, wouldn’t likely accept this as sufficient to be allowed to take a bar exam. That’s where effort should be concentrated – if the exam measures proficiency, then an accedited school shouldn’t be necessary, yet in almost all states you must attend an ABA accredited school before you may sit for a bar. Other professions are similar.

    Where should this line be drawn remains a question of course. Should doctors and surgeons who are self-educated be allowed to practice medicine? Unlikely, as some of the education is learning-by-doing, and you want doctors supervised in those settings. But, could you do organic chemistry through this instead of in an undergrad institution? Perhaps, but what about the availability of a lab?

    I agree also with Matt, an organizational principle must be established so that people may find the material relevant to their educational needs, and so that others may provide their curricula to a central repository, e.g. Wikicurriculm. Organize and promote it, it will build much faster.

  11. There are already hundreds of free textbooks and other educational resources online. Several of them, like Ben Crowell’s “Light and Matter” physics books (, are already in use in schools. The hard part is finding them all. I’ve started a website to catalog as many of these as I can. Hopefully this will make it easier for teachers and students to find and compare free textbooks, and end up in some of them getting used in actual classrooms. Consider this a small step towards the Free Curriculum that Jimbo is predicting.

    The site ( is undergoing a complete overhaul, with free professional webdesign and hosting provided by a civic-minded hosting company in Boston. Look for a launch of the new site in the next month. I’m not adding any new books to the existing site, but I am still actively seeking books to be added to the new site.

    A similar project has been started called the Free Textbook Project. This one is shooting to go more into lesson plans and teacher support. I predict that our two sites will merge in some form if they’re both successful, or get absorbed into wikimedia, or simply be part of a webring of sites that will help form a free curriculum in the not-too-distant future.


  12. Ian Brown says:

    I wrote about the idea of teachers and students collaborating to produce online courseware a few years ago here.

    I think it’s important to work on making a large selection of resources available, from which educators can produce their own individual courses, rather than producing complete curricula.

    Professional bodies can then certify widely-used resources as meeting particular requirements in their training certifications.

  13. Adam R says:

    I have a “will be free” prediction that is closely related to the “free ciriculum” explanation. I propose that foreign language instruction will be free.

    First, there will be abundant free training materials, both written and spoken, but the real power of this prediction comes from the increased ability to communicate with others who are native speakers of other languages. Students already have extensive access to original compositions in foreign languages (newspapers), but it gets even better.

    I predict that in the near future every student of a foreign language will be paired with a “pen pal” who is a native speaker of that language. The pen pals will be able to communicate by writing, phone, and even video, developing a much deeper understanding of each other’s language and culture than would be possible by just reading books.

  14. Bill Korner says:

    Another worry I have about a, may I say, wikiriculum is this:

    Unlike an encyclopedia, lots of parts of a curriculum should (a) incorporate current events/developments/new research and (b) take into account the needs/interests of the kids and their community.

    Maybe this is more about the limits of a curriculum for fostering effective teaching. Clearly this is a broader pedagogical debate, but the wikiriculum will undoubtedly change the debate.

  15. Frank says:

    Yes, once again the problem is not the technology or the willingness to use it, but gatekeepers who determine what can be used in a classroom. Legislatures and school boards, and textbook certification committees have their own agendas, and they do not include cost savings or innovation.

    There is no way these texts will make it through a process that even publishing companies spend millions trying to navigate. Knowing the material is quite secondary to political correctness (from both the left and right), uniformity, and conformity to mandated standards.

  16. Tom Hudson says:

    The US government is spending a fair amount of NSF research money on “Digital Libraries”, which are trying to solve the kinds of discovery problems people mentioned above – how do we track them? how do we find them?

    (For example, one coworker is involved with

  17. This is a marvelous idea, but 2040 is too long, unless you mean 100% complete. This could be functional for k-12 education and most of the Social Sciences by 2010 if it were made a priority. Don’t think small – things are happening much faster than we realize, and with the NeoCon attempts to take over what’s taught in school, there needs to be a common resource for non-partisan information.

  18. Steve Carson says:

    I believe this will be a reality much sooner; the development of open educational resources has the support of a wide range of educational institutions, NGOs, and foundations–all of whom are working in increasingly coordinated fashion to develop open educational tools, standards, and content. Open digital libraries, online learning tools, and open publications of classroom materials are all coming on line at a rapid pace. In addition to projects here in the US, projects in Japan, China, and Vietnam are all now sharing teaching materials openly. It’s truly a global movement.

  19. Paul Gowder says:

    I second Emily’s question. We already have a lot of “free” curriculum in the sense that we have public libraries, which have free books, which are readily accessible on all the subjects that make up a curriculum. If I want to go and teach myself university-level number theory, or quantum mechanics, or Russian, or Heideggerian ontology, I’m perfectly free to do so with those resources. However, there will be a HUGE expense in terms of effort (trust me on this, I’ve done similar projects), an expense that would be greatly reduced if things like (a) lectures and (b) interactive opportunities with instructors and fellow students were included. Is this included in your “curriculum?”

  20. Homeschooling families have been utilizing free curriulum materials for well over 20 years now. But I still like the concept as a something to work toward for the larger population. Hoarding and selling knowledge and information always was a nutty idea.

  21. kentsin says:

    I will certainly look up to this project.

    However, I am surely fear that one set of textbooks dominate the world.

    That would be the most terrible thought in this world! !!

    Be minded!

  22. Chris Tunnell says:

    Some people have already hinted at this, but teaching requires a lot of flexibility, which will be the hardest element to incorporate. There can be standards and resources to guide teachers along, but if turned out to be as linear as you predict, it could also be suffocating.

    What, in my opinion, would be best is a collection of resources (teaching outlines, lectures, homework assignments, labs, articles, etc.) to guide teachers along. That is the only way I can see to maintain flexibility, but it also brings up a huge management problem since there would be a lot of information.

  23. ACS says:

    And whose cirriculum will it be exactly.

    As I understand it the range of different cirriculums about breed as much knowledge in thier comparison as thier collection.

    Radically opposing schools of thought in the social sciences result in the great debates of our time. Where would biology be if Creationists could have just re-written Darwins idea before it was born.

    The small pockets of resistance against major ideas that breed students of a similar mind are essential to the progression of human knowledge.

    I do agree that a collection of works similar to textbooks available to all would increase the education of society as a whole but it may not forward the minds of our elite.

    We must remember that when new ideas are presented they are often scrutinised and although they may prove to be right a collection of works considered ‘the bible’ of human knowledge may discourage thier ideas before they can rise to the top.

    Wouldnt this essentially give more and more power to control knowledge to the upper classes of academia.

    Where would Einstein, Darwin, Pollack, Rutherford and the rest be then. Writing patents no doubt.

  24. Sam Halliday says:

    a project which i have been involved with for the past 4 years is known as the Free High School Science Textbooks (FHSST).

    you might want to have a look around… the physics book is our flagship and we hope to have it finished within a year.

  25. Rob Lucas says:

    I’ve been experimenting with this for about a year now at, a lesson-plan wiki that’s mostly been used so far around my local Teach for America region. I’m going to be getting a masters at Harvard Ed School next year, studying Technology in Education and Social Entrepreneurship. During the year or after it, I’m hoping to launch a free curriculum site along the lines discussed here, drawing on wiki ideas, but allowing for multiple curricula–maybe by using tagging rather than the encyclopedia metaphor? I’m sure there’s a way to make this work.

    If you’re interested in this topic, bookmark my page or subscribe to the RSS feed at, and I’ll post something when this gets off the ground. Or shoot me an email at [email protected]

    -Rob Lucas

  26. I like what ACS said: “The small pockets of resistance against major ideas that breed students of a similar mind are essential to the progression of human knowledge.”

    That’s how we’ve always perceived the homeschooling movement – as a small pocket of resistence against everything wrong with the school model. There’s plenty of good within the school model, of course, but as Ivan Illich, John Holt, John Taylor Gatto and many others have pointed out, there’s a lot wrong.

    This free curriculum idea – indeed the whole concept of “What Will Be Free” – is, by the very fact that it needed to be brought up and by the reactions of those reading, a pretty good indicator of how far we as a society have progressed down the “nutty idea” path of hoarding and selling basic human needs like information. I wonder what the world would be like today if this concept had taken root in, say, the forties…

  27. Paul Ebert says:

    I have just been to wikibooks – biology. This has been up for a while, but the results are still very spotty. I think that free artwork might be a huge barrier to actually making this useful as well as consistency from start to finish of a text.

    Three questions:
    Where can free artwork useful for a text be found?
    Is there an artwork generating program that can be recommended that will provide a consistent quality and portable format?
    Can a text be downloaded from wikipedia? (I realise that the point is to keep it online for all to edit, but when I ask 1,000 students to access a text, it would be much more convenient to distribute in on a CD)

  28. Rob Myers says:

    Wikimedia Commons may be good for images. I think you can put out a request for an image if one you need doesn’t exist.

    You will need to check the licensing on each article but almost all the articles on Wikipedia are licensed under the GNU FDL, so you can download, distribute and print them out under the terms of that license.

  29. Frank Hanlan says:

    While there may be thousands or tens of thousands that have the theoretical and/or technical knowledge to write textbooks how many can write them clearly and simply. It seems to me that just as environmentalists need to deal with people they will put out of work as a result of the policies and advocacy, advocates of free textbooks need to deal with all of the people they will put out of work. Think of the tens of thousands of people who make their living from writing, re-writing and editing of textbooks as well as all sorts of other types of books prepared for learning. Simplicity and clarity are hugely important in providing widespread access to learning are often provided not by the original thinkers, discoverers and inventors.

    As stated previously with proper controls and protections it is easy to manipulate content of wikis for any of a raft of reasons. Therefore, widespread participation in the process to protect it from manipulation or perversion is necessary. In the last election in the province of Alberta in Canada, the Conservatives won 62 of 83 seats with 21 per cent of population elligible to vote.

  30. Frank Hanlan says:

    There is a growing number of books being published talking about the fact that we are an energy based economy and that there is a coming crisis or series of crises resulting from a depletion of fossil fuels and other resources. There is a growing consensus that we have passed the point where we could make an easy or planned transition from a cheap energy or fossil fuel based economy to one or more alternatives.

    The following statement is from Thermodynamics, Availibility and Emergy by Thomas L. Wayburn but is only one example of many.

    “It is easy to see that fewer than 10% of the projected population of the earth in 2030 can spend energy at the current American rate, under the condition that the remaining 90+% subsist on 0.3kW. Moreover, for each person within the subsistence class who exceeds his allowance someone must die! If the current populations of the U.S., Europe and Japan survive and all else perish, the surviving population must still spend less than 90% of the current American energy budget.” see

    From this it is clear that to energy to participate in an electronic culture is going to become a critical problem for everyone.

  31. David Locke says:

    Curriculums are what you read to teach, not to learn. They contain objectives, goals, metrics, efficacy metrics and media integration.

    There is no one curriculum. And, if there were we would lose more than we gain. What would the people who now work on curriculums do if curriculums were free? What would happen to the ecology that generates improved appraoches?

    In business, we have silo busting, best practices, and offshoring. How has any of this actually made business better? It hasn’t.

    The variations in curriculums are tied to subject domain paradigms. Getting a new paradigm to birth in the bibliographc system takes years. It is a very slow process. But, with it comes the moment when the paradigm arrives in your corporate functional unit and demands a culture change. The notion that there is only one culture in corporate is false. A belief in this has lead to such things as requirement volitility, which is not inherently a charcteristic of the encoded domain, but rather of politicized IT practice. I suppose that a single curriculum is the perfect device to close minds just as No Child Left Behind is the perfect device for closing public schools and subjecting children to the brainwashing of the theocracy.

  32. Charles says:

    Here is a good article on a lot of the problems with the textbook industry. How free textbooks are going to get past the whole politically correct thing is going to be interesting to see–no one wants to produce the kind of absolute crap described in that article and present in our schools for no pay. I think it is safe to say that most people who make their books available free get a lot of motivation out of how terrible the current crop of textbooks is, and yet that terribleness is actually what is desired by the state governments, schoolboards, etc..

  33. Chris Creagh says:

    Hi Jimbo Wales
    I and my students use Wikipedia often. I am constantly surprised at its depth, breadth and accuracy particularly in my field of Physics. There are a few gaps and if I ever get time I will try and fill some.

    Your idea of a free curriculum is a really good idea. I have only been lecturing for a couple of years and find my lectures closely follow the chosen text book for a particular topic. This effect is encouraged by the textbook distributors and the need to put all lectures on-line for external students. The text book manufactures provide PowerPoint copies of the images in the textbook and the students have come to expect lectures will not stray too far from the text. The lecturer acts more as an interpreter, demonstrator and problem poser. So there is an interplay between what the unit co-ordinator wants in the unit and what textbooks provide. In this interplay I think things are being.

    Another aspect of the problem is that older members of staff are retiring and all their experience goes with them. Often I have been talking about what my students are doing and one of the older members of staff have piped up with “There’s a good demo for that” and goes on to explain. Often you would not be able to find this information on the net because the net is biased to what people want to put on it and the old stuff seems to get forgotten. Or perhaps the people who know about it are not computer savvy enough or too busy.

    So I guess I am asking that you put Physics and Chemistry on your free curriculum list so that there can be a repository for knowledge that otherwise may get lost if the adaptation of content for e-study continues.


  34. Chris Creagh says:

    lost got lost in the sentence

    So there is an interplay between what the unit co-ordinator wants in the unit and what textbooks provide. In this interplay I think things are being lost.

    Sorry, Chris

  35. Agus says:

    Already MIT has their own version of free curriculum, called MIT OpenCourseWare

    It contains freely available lecture notes (mostly in PDF) for all of their course. Some courses even provides the full textbooks for free.

    Many authors also post their works (notes, monograms, books, textbooks) for free/libre/gratis on the net. If you searched around for “free books”, you can find these free texts ranged from the very old to the very new.

    Some websites even try to collect and organize these scattered book into their own set of curriculum. One of such project is, mostly intended for computer science and mathematics books.

    I hope someday there will be a compromising point, where publishing companies can retain a profit while students can afford to purchase their textbooks. In the meantime, the current trend of free full text is relieving enough for college students.

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