There has been no shortage of critiques of the open textbook focus at The Open Education Conference #OpenEd15 - I wasn’t at the conference but I followed the Twitter stream and participated in three virtually connecting sessions in which I met both pairs of keynote speakers. I have to say that the conference organizers’ really welcoming attitude towards the involvement of Virtually Connecting showed true commitment to expanding access and openness (thank you Clint Lalonde and David Wiley).

Like I said, I wasn’t there, but the textbook critique was all over my Twitter stream.Robin DeRosa captures a perspective some of us share:

I don’t actually care about textbook costs. I care about access, broadly conceived: access to ideas, access to pathways to contribute to knowledge, access to research so that we can collaborate and build. Fundamentally, I don’t want to be part of a movement that is focused on replacing static, over-priced textbooks with static, free textbooks.

flickr photo Robin Opens Todays Virtual Connecting Session shared by cogdogblog under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

Jim Groom’s tweet kept getting mentioned on virtually connecting:


I realize I only have a biased slice of the conference based mainly around tweeters I know who (I realize now) mostly have similar stances as mine on openness (Phil Hill and Mike Feldstein in their keynote made a good point about how utterly useless this kind of social circle is for advocacy).

But the extended Virtually Connecting conversations with both pairs of keynote speakers and others expanded the topics in more detail: “why textbooks?”. And I don’t think they are wrong that this conversation still needs to happen. That open textbooks have value even if they do not lead to more openness.

Open textbooks provide sub-optimal “openness”, but do several important things:

  • It is a conversation-opener most faculty can understand as most of them use textbooks. I don’t, nor, I assume, do people like Robin and Jim. But we are not most faculty. And we know it.
  • Access is an issue. I wrote last week about a global South view of copyright and open access. Free as in zero cost is a huge thing for people in the developing world. The chasm between zero and 1 is humongous if you don’t have a credit card or bank account. It’s bigger than the difference between 1 and 100. So if free textbooks or OER offer learners free access to good quality knowledge (even if it’s static), it can make a difference. Of course OERs are imperfect and may not transfer well across borders because of language and context, but maybe OER material on organic chemistry with images and equations transfers OK. Not so much political science and sociology.
  • It offers people choice. Learners and faculty alike. One of the biggest problems with the textbook as a source of information is that it is one authoritative source of information and its hidden curriculum is dangerous: there is one correct way and it’s mine. Having so many open access textbooks available helps lead the way for students to choose and compare authorities on controversial issues, if they have the digital literacy to see that these open textbooks have more credibility than, say, Wikipedia.
  • Even this beginning step is still difficult for some academic’s ingrained cultures that are frankly more closed from years of believing that it was better to protect one’s intellectual efforts than to share them.

But in case you are wondering what people are doing beyond textbooks, the more open options include (but are not limited to):

  • Encouraging students to curate their own content and create their own textbooks as part of the course (see Kris Shaffer and Laura Gibbs on this). The presence of OERs helps make this kind of thing possible but is not necessary given the richness of what is already on the Internet on most subjects in English. If you teach an obscure subject it may be more difficult. If you teach in non-English, and there is a lack of goof quality material online, then open textbooks in your language would help, right?
  • Open Syllabus. Someone mentioned open syllabus and it apparently meant allowing students to see the syllabus before they register. I much prefer understanding it as “open” as in students can modify it. Not only modify the content they learn, but how they can learn it. It may not work for all contexts, but I have used it with my graduate students with some success.
  • Federated Wiki (now evolving into Federated WordPress). This is the opposite of a textbook. Where a textbook is written by some authority figure(s) and made static, federated wiki is all about users forking their own versions, modifying them, allowing others to fork back or fork differently. The end result is that on any given topic, instead of one definitive dominant perspective (like even Wikipedia), you have choices where to go. I don’t think #FedWiki is perfect, though.

The real problem with textbooks, though, is that focusing on them is focusing on content. When learning, and open education, should focus more on process (a conversation on this from a year ago across my blog, Jim Groom’s, Mike Caulfield’s and David Wiley’s). However, the conversation has evolved. People at OpenEd15 talked to us about open textbook adoption that doesn’t only focus on content, but also the process of creation and sharing. Questions of flexibility are being raised readily, even if solutions are not always apparent to everyone. Questions of colonialism and inequality are occasionally raised, as the institutions with more funding are more able to produce OERs than poorer ones (Laura Czerniewicz discusses this well in different contexts).

Do you use open textbooks? What are your thoughts? Please share in the comments.

Header Flickr photo Not yetness Virtually Connecting Session by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license