A Model for Open Textbook Sustainability

I've been thinking a lot about David Porter's post, Nowhere Near Critical Mass, and OER sustainability. David makes a strong point,

. . . my belief was that it would take actual teachers, instructors and students who could demonstrate success in an OER context to bring consolidation and sustainability to the goals of the open movement. Further, it seemed that little real effort was occurring on the inclusion or promotion of teachers and teaching, and that OpenEd conferences continued to be conversations within an insular community of theorists and advocates – not the stuff of implementation, nor a demonstration of broad impact.

I don't want to try to speak about OER in general, but when it comes to open textbook production, I agree with David. For the open textbook movement to become successful, it needs to go outside the innovators who began it, the activists who are part of the community. Regular teachers will need to be involved, and open textbook adoption and publishing will have to become a common element of an academic and teaching life.

The problem is that the OER community so far only has a successful ideal, that freely available textbook resources would be a great thing, but not a successful publishing model that works well for most teachers who might want to be authors. I agree, and I would imagine a majority of teachers would agree as well with the ultimate goal of providing universally free educational materials. But that's not enough. Teachers have many other important initiatives competing for their attention, with more than enough regular work to keep them busy. If OER wants teachers to create open textbook materials, there must be more than intrinsic rewards. Other than paying teachers (I'm purposely avoiding commercial models that involve payment), the way to do it is to make open textbook production valued in tenure and promotion.

So far, most open textbook production is a form of vanity publishing. If tenure and promotion committees don't value that in scholarship, why would they for textbook writing that would be judged less valuable, even in a fair critique? Moreover, publishing to the web in an online repository or on a wiki creates further complications because of the genres. The field of composition has discussed extensively how difficult it is for scholars to get credit for the digital media work that they do (for an early discussion of this, see Krause's Where Do I List This on My CV? Considering the Values of Self-Published Web Sites). While technology and digital publishing specialists who are building careers around such innovation can may successfully argue for open textbook publishing of this type, the average teacher is likely ill-equipped and unwilling to take the risk that the work they do will count for nothing.

Now one model that solves these problems is what we are doing at Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing. WS is an edited collection of peer-reviewed essays written by teachers for students. Teachers submit a proposal, some are selected for full manuscript development and given some developmental feedback, those are reviewed by two members of our editorial board who offer extensive feedback, then once (if) accepted, a chapter goes into copy editing where editors and the author work together on producing the polished, finished product. The volume is published as a book, and PDF versions are available online for free download under CC licenses.

The advantage? An edited collection that is a peer-reviewed book is a recognizable genre to tenure and promotion committees. Teachers know how to argue for this and only need to make the case that writing for student audiences is of value. In many non-research one institutions, it could count as a publication credit. Plus, I would also note that peer review in process of development improves the quality of the finished text. These post-publication reviews of open textbook materials on the web that some projects are doing are great "book reviews" to help teachers in adoption, but they don't influence the quality of the final project. Peer review as part of production is an important part of open source, and it should be part of open textbook publication, too. This is why of the many open textbook projects on the web, I believe that Wikibooks and similar wiki commons-based-peer-production projects are likely to result in better quality textbook materials. Only the problem with them is getting recognizable credit for an author's contribution that a tenure and review committee can see, not to mention the negative ethos of the wiki genre in academia.

I don't believe that WS's model is the only one, but I do believe the OER community has to take a serious look at how to create production models that teachers can participate in and easily receive credit for at their institutions. I will also follow up this post at a later date with some more of the benefits of the WS publication model.