Open, Textbooks

The (open) future is here, it's just not evenly distributed

This is post 1 of a 2 part #opened15 brain dump about open textbooks (part 2 here).

I’m post-conference OpenEd15 metaphorically hungover, so forgive me if this goes astray or meanders.

Textbooks. Ugh. Who needs them.

The one hazard of organizing a conference is that you don’t actually get to attend a number of sessions, so my context here is from the backchannels, the post conference wrap up blog posts and hallway conversations.

The one overarching narrative strand I have come away with is that open has grown to the point where pathways diverge as the nuance and details of actual on the ground projects begin to reach a certain state of maturity.  No longer are we talking of “the promise” or “the potential” of open. There is much “doing” of open in many wonderful ways.  The multitude and variety of projects flying open banners is impressive to see as the field matures.

But there is tension in the community around open textbooks. This tension that there is too much emphasis placed on both the “textbook” as pedagogical tool, and the financial savings to students.

Additionally, there is a divide as to whether open textbooks mark an entry point into open education for new people (and there was a massive number of people at OpenEd for the first time), or whether open textbooks are the beginning, middle and end of the open journey for some.

From my own perspective after working on an open textbook project for close to 3 years, all of the above are tensions I negotiate with myself constantly.

My experience with this project has shown that, for some, open textbooks represent a starting point into open. None of us who are working on this project want the open textbook to be the be all and end all of open. But for many  faculty it will be. For some, they will simply swap closed for open and that will be  innovation enough. And frankly, I’m ok with that. If, at worst, open textbooks saves students money and lowers the cost for access to higher education, that is a fine and worthy application of open that is a very student-centric solution to a problem, as Amanda nicely points out. Cost, in many jurisdictions (especially in the US and Canada) is a major problem that we can solve with OER, and as a community we need to recognize that open textbooks are one pragmatic and practical application of open being used to solve a real problem. There is no “potential to” or “promise of”. This is real and it is happening, and that is a wonderful thing.

However, for some, their switch to an open textbook will mark a deeper journey into open. I look at faculty like Rajiv Jhangiani, who started with an open textbook and found a like minded community at people. Open textbooks were an entry point for Rajiv, as they were for Gill Green, the UBC Geography Faculty that participated with us in the textbook sprint, who came away with the moment that really synthesized what we hoped would happen with that sprint project.

One of the most powerful lessons for me was that I should not simply be focusing on using open textbooks in my courses; I should be encouraging students to build open textbooks as course activities. By doing this, we teach not only discipline specific content, but also increase students’ ability to engage in the democratization of knowledge.

Sure, we created a textbook. But more importantly, an open textbook helped to create space for that moment to occur. For me, this moment was what the booksprint was all about.

Problematically, textbooks are so deeply ingrained in our education systems that trying to find others ways of doing education for many is very difficult, especially in an education world where we continually remove capacity for those faculty who DO want to change and experiment and try different things. Rarely will you ever find a faculty member who says they have enough time to do their job, let alone undertake a radical overhaul of their pedagogy. Often faculty are p/t, or only brought in at the last minute to teach a course and grab at that teacher-proofed course-in-a-box (which I’ve written about before).

But there are faculty out there who do want open who don’t even know that we, the open education community, exist. Or that what they are doing, or want to do, has a name and support and community. Open textbooks have created the space to allow others into the community who may not have even known this community existed. And we shouldn’t undervalue the importance of this.

Part 2.

CC BY 4.0 The (open) future is here, it's just not evenly distributed by Clint Lalonde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


  1. __My sense is Jim tweeted his thoughts as he was listening to Kim Thanos presentation “The Economics of Open” __ “Jim Groom @jimgroom The unfortunate equation of open education w/ free text books has made the movement seem more and more myopic and less and less compelling. 1:11 PM – 19 Nov 2015” _

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