Earlier this week I was at the COHERE conference in Regina, talking about open textbooks. Open textbooks seemed like a hot topic of informal conversation at the conference with one of the student participants, USask student society president and open textbook advocate Max FineDay, diving right into the topic on the first morning during the student panel.
While I was there I met Sheila Hancock, an English instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. As we talked, Sheila told me about the open textbook she has been working on, inspired by the BC Open Textbook Project. Sheila and her partner, James Panabaker have taken two existing open textbooks and created their own customized English 1100 open textbook to fit their needs. They set up a WordPress site and, like Rajiv Jiangiani did last year, created a customized textbook. And they did this primarily off the radar of us at the project.
I love this so much. These are the types of examples that really make my day when I come across them. Here are 2 faculty who saw a need, found some openly licensed resources, set up a site, and then used that site to remix their own textbook. And they never asked for help! They did it on their own, quite autonomous from the project. Really, so wonderful to see faculty take the initiative, hear the message that they can take these resources and work with them to customize and mold them to fit their needs, and just go and do it. Because you don’t have to wait for us. You don’t have to ask anyone for permission. You can just do it.
This is the kind of action I always hope to see with this project. Open textbooks living without us. Ok, we did have some part in this by starting the conversation in our province and trying to address the traditional barriers to adoption of OER that faculty often face (where do I go, what is the quality, etc). But, in the case, of Sheila and James, we didn’t have to do much more than that. We set up the conditions, the executed their plan. Beautiful.
When we “formally” work on a book as part of our project (be it an adaptation or a creation from scratch), there is an administrative process that I often worry burdens us. There are contracts, timelines, project managers, people, etc. Adapting and creating a book is an entire “process” for us. And I think, at this stage, we have to do this to provide some guidance, instruction, and support for faculty we are working with. Every time we do an open textbook adaptation or creation project, we are building capacity within the system for people to be able to understand the concept of adapt. To see the realities of what an adaptation project might look like. At the end of the day, by doing projects in an open and transparent way, we are starting to tackle what it actually takes to do adaptations and, once people have had some guidance and support the first time through, they may not need as much for the second…and third…and so on. Every project we fund is a way to build capacity in the system to undertake open textbook initiatives without our involvement in the future.
But sometimes it feels like we are recreating a publishing process with the work we are doing. I think this is a necessary step for us as we push towards our goals of making open textbooks a reality in the target areas we have, but I know what we are doing isn’t scalable or sustainable. We always need to keep in the back of our mind that, our bigger goal with this project, is to build capacity within the system to ensure that adaptations and adoptions continue without us. Which is why I am so happy when I see these kinds of examples like Sheila and Rajiv, of faculty who have felt the open textbook project has empowered them enough that they are willing to tackle something like remix and adaptation on their own.
I don’t expect we will see a lot of faculty take this route right now, at this point in the evolution of our project. We still need to do a lot of work building more localized support structures at institutions to build local capacity within the institutions to help them support their faculty if they wish to pursue an open textbook project on their own. A distributed, localized support system with librarians, instructional designers and educational technologists in place at the institutions to support the work of local faculty at each institution seems like it could be one model of sustainability for open textbooks that I have been thinking more about lately.
Seeing faculty like Shelia and James undertake an autonomous adaptation of open textbooks is a powerful example that digital technologies have had a democratizing effect on the way we produce content. The barriers are being lowered, and people are taking advantage that we live in a world where, with a little technical know how mixed with initiative and an understanding of the needs of their students, anyone can create their own learning resources using the work of others as the base. And for that, I am doing my happy dance once again. Thank you Sheila and James!