The Generative Open Textbook


I am 3 chapters into Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet (and how to stop it) and have spent the past week viewing so many things around me through a “generative” lens.

Generativity is a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.

Generative systems are built on the notion that they are never fully complete, that they have many uses yet to be conceived of, and that the public can be trusted to invent and share good uses.

Zittrain uses the term “generative” specifically talking about technology. He is fundamentally speaking to the nature of the PC and the underlying technologies that power the internet, and the design decisions made by the early architects and engineers of both the PC and the internet to focus on flexibility over predetermined function.

Both PC’s and the internet are generative systems. In the case of the internet, the original architects and engineers didn’t much care about what the network was used for – they just wanted to create a system that would connect systems together with as much flexibility as possible. From that flexibility, purpose would be born; that flexibility would “generate” uses. And, indeed, this has been the case with the internet. The generative nature of the internet born out of its flexible design has made a whole whack of applications possible that the early developers did not necessarily envision; e-commerce, social networking, video streaming, email, all these applications arose from the same flexible, generative system – the internet.

The same is true of the PC. The PC did not have a single purpose when it was being developed in the garages of the early enthusiasts and hobbyists. It was designed as a generative system, flexible enough that the end-user could decide how to use it to fix whatever problem they were having. This gave rise to a myriad of uses for a PC, from gaming to word processing, accounting to photo editing. All made possible by the generative nature of the PC.

I love this term – generative, and since reading it in Zittrain’s book have been thinking of how perfectly it encapsulates the spirit of open textbooks (and, indeed all Open Educational Resources).  OER’s are generative in that their future use is not bound by their current use. They can be adapted and modified, recontextualized and used to solve problems that the original authors didn’t even know were problems, let alone something that needed to be solved.

Of course, this is the optimistic view of both OER’s and generativity. The generativity of the internet which gave rise to the convenience of online banking also has given rise to new ways for bad guys to access our money. And OER’s are only potentially generative. If they are never adapted, modified or reused, then their generative nature is squandered.

And there is evidence that the generative nature of open textbooks is not being used. In research conducted between the fall of 2009 and summer of 2011, John Hilton III and David Wiley examined how often the (then open) textbooks from Flat World Knowledge were actually being adapted and remixed to create custom textbooks. Of the 3,304 adoptions of FWK textbooks, they discovered 247 (or 7.5%) books that were different from the original FWK textbook. Of those 247 books, by far the most popular customization was faculty deleting chapters (60.32%).

I suppose I can look at the research and go, “Wow. Almost 250 faculty adapted an OER! That’s great!” But instead the pragmatist (who has a project that is relying on faculty adaptation for success) looks at the 92.5% of faculty who didn’t modify a lick. The overwhelming majority of faculty who adopt open textbooks are looking for fully finished solutions.

Which makes me question whether OER’s are really generative. After all, a generative technology based on Zittrains definition, is grounded in the assumption that:

…the public can be trusted to invent and share good uses

But the research shows that, in this case, not many are.

All this is rolling around inside my head as we move towards the second (and potentially most complicated and challenging) phase of the BCcampus open textbook project; remixing and adapting existing open textbooks (watch for a call for proposals later this fall). Phase 1 had BC post-secondary faculty reviewing a number of existing open textbooks, and it has given us some extremely useful information about the textbooks in the open textbook collection. There have been a few adoptions, but most of the reviews point the way towards revision work.

The prospect of building on existing OER’s is both exciting and terrifying for me. Terrifying because I know that so many have tried hard for years to encourage remix and reuse with little (7.5%) luck. But exciting because there have already been faculty who took part in the review phase approaching us with questions about adapting and modifying the textbooks, and (anecdotal at least) it feels like there are some positive vibes in the air around adaptation.

Are we final ready to fully realize the generative potential of OER’s? I don’t know. But I am feeling energized and enthused heading into phase 2, and am hopeful that we will come out the other end with something of value. And a few strong case studies that sees that 7.5% mark rise.

Photo credit: IMG_1826 by vlidi released under CC-BY-SA license


Clint Lalonde

Just a guy writing some stuff, mostly for me these days on this particular blog. For my EdTech/OpenEd stuff, check out


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