The UnTextbook

Having some time to reflect on my second OpenEd conference in as many years has me stuck on something that I very occasionally heard mentioned at this year’s conference amid what some felt was dominated by talk about open textbooks…

Adam Croom lays out some data on the use of the word “textbook” in OpenEd conference abstracts since 2012. I don’t think anyone would argue textbooks are an incredibly hot topic across the spectrum of educational environments and will likely continue to be for some time. Seeing  the balance of power start to shift from publishers to educators is impressive. Momentum is growing. I opened an OpenStax email this morning and found this:

11-24-2015 10-47-44 AM

Open textbooks are great. OpenStax is great. Post conference, Amanda Coolidge posted about the importance of reducing textbook costs for students. Robin DeRosa talked about access to information and the importance of learners contributing to, and sharing of information. More angles can be found at #opened15. Lots of brilliant thoughts helping continue the conversations and asking new questions.

There seems to be a lot of effort and focus put on this throttling concept that open textbooks = publisher textbooks (in appearance, “quality“, rigor, etc.). I know the vast majority of people familiar with OER know the 5Rs of open resources and the advantages they provide over publisher content. They know open textbooks can “be” so much more than publisher textbooks. I just didn’t see much evidence of people doing or even thinking of doing something more than what publishers have to offer. Are we inadvertently limiting what open textbooks could become simply by continuing to call them textbooks?

Publisher textbooks have worked for generations of teachers and learners; and they still work. Textbooks are steeped in a mixture of deep tradition, prestige, and privileged access to information. Stacked on book shelves, they may be weighty trophies for courses endured, or nearly sacred containers of quotations, data, or instructions. But perhaps most of all, they are complete. That is, whether we agree with the author or not, there is a finite amount contained within. There is a beginning and an end; encounters with either often provide great satisfaction to writer and reader alike. With static content between the beginning and the end, there is comfort in the possibility of knowing or learning every word, phrase, or concept it contains. When we shift our thinking to open textbooks, it is hard to let go of some of the most comfortable qualities of the traditional textbook.

The majority of open textbooks we hear about are “finished” products that also have beginnings and endings. Just as my email from OpenStax said, they are asking me to adopt one of their textbooks.  That means replace. And I’m all for it, for the reasons above and the many more eloquent arguments out there.

But I want to be mindful of what “open” and the 5 Rs make possible beyond adoption. If the advantages of OER are taken to the extreme:

  • Contribution of “content” need not be limited to an expert(s). People with expertise continually update, improve, and enhance the content and features of the resource. Revise. Remix.
  • The resources can be Reused and Retained by instructors and students, and is also made available for Redistribution.
  • Open texbooks are never “finished” so they are not a product. They are always an ongoing, evolving process.

This last point is the real kicker here. The beauty of open + process is that it literally opens the door to conversations, collaborations, and community. It shifts the focus from static content (product) to active and engaged communities of practice that extend beyond classroom walls (process). As Gill Green said in his OpenEd15 session, “OER isn’t about the ring, it’s about the relationship.” I’m all for saving students money and increasing equity of access to course resources. But I really don’t want to let the traditional concept of a publisher’s textbook be the standard by which Open resources  are measured. The people that engage with OER can have a much bigger impact on teaching and learning than textbooks ever could.

I recognize we don’t quite yet have the tools, workflows, and infrastructure in place to efficiently leverage all that OER permit us to do. OER repositories are great, but in some ways, they are silos. But people are thinking about how to connect bits of information in new and exciting ways. Michael Caulfield’s Federated WordPress and Hugh McGuire’s networked PressBooks projects are providing insight and potential frameworks for re-imagining static, silo-ed digital content as more transferable and transformable, evolving works in progress. Stay tuned.



2 thoughts on “The UnTextbook

  1. No disagreement with anything you’ve said. A few additional thoughts: OpenStax offers texts that resemble commercial textbooks, in part I think, to make faculty who don’t have experience with OER more comfortable adopting OpenStax. Resources like Lumen’s Waymaker platform are designed to replace textbooks, but I wouldn’t call them textbooks per se. They are so much more. imho!


    • Thanks for the comments Steve. I agree that making open textbooks look and feel like commercial textbooks may make for easier adoption by OER newbies. And if all we are interested in is saving money, then some would say mission accomplished. But in the process, are we essentially telling faculty that is the end of the OER discussion? Or would we be better off leading with open pedagogy and how that practice includes, but is much broader than static content delivery? Would those faculty new to OER know or be inclined to adapt/remix OpenStax books? Would they know how to or see the value in inviting their students to participate in the process? As you said, there is much more beyond what we call textbooks and I’m concerned we might be limiting our educational experiences by simply duplicating what we’re familiar with.


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