Creating a Single Open Textbook Reading

Drupal education guru Bill Fitzgerald is building a system for sharing and building open textbook resources. I can't wait to see the site because (a) I'd like to see what someone can imagine with Drupal for this and (b) of course, every new application of Drupal is an opportunity to "borrow" Drupal site architecture ideas from.

At the core of Bill's project is the principle common to OER projects, that of "sharing" resources. This is the main message of the OER grassroots movement. That if teachers share resources they have, they can be used and built upon by others. I agree that the ultimate vision of teachers sharing resources online is a great one. However, as of late, I'm wondering whether promoting "sharing" is the correct focus for building momentum with open textbook publishing. When it comes to syllabi, lesson plans, assignment sheets, tests, and other handouts, there is a wealth of content created already by teachers to be shared. Assuming that teachers

  • can be shown how to Creative Commons license their content;
  • can prepare materials in a shareable format;
  • are comfortable sharing their content (it can be scary opening up one's teaching in this way);
  • understand fair use rights regarding using other's content (such as visuals);
  • have the rights to share their content (some institutions own the intellectual propertly rights to teaching content teachers produce);

then I could imagine teachers would be able to find ways to share what they have already made.

However, just the other day I was talking with a group of teachers about all the textbook materials they had for their classrooms and how to go about sharing it.

NOT!

That couldn't have happened. Teachers generally don't create textbook materials for their classes. I don't know if I've ever heard another teacher say to another, "I wrote this reading for my students as an alternative to a textbook chapter or other materials I have found online to use as readings." It just doesn't happen.

So before teachers can get to sharing, teachers have to "create"  textbook materials, something they probably haven't done before unless they have worked with a commercial textbook publisher. Writing a textbook is harder, more time consuming —and often scarier—than sharing something one has already made. And writing a whole textbook is far too much to expect of the average teacher (or two or three working together) in terms of commitment and scope.

I would recommend creating a single reading that a teacher might assign in her class, whatever seems most interesting and useful to write about. In Writing Spaces, the chapter created by each author(s) is exactly that: an essay meant to be a single reading assignment. At first when we started Writing Spaces, I wondered if the essay genre would work for other disciplines; it's not very traditional textbook like. And then I remembered how much I learned from and enjoyed reading Isaac Asimov's Understanding Physics series during college. It, too, uses an essay style effectively. My colleague Keith Rhodes has reminded more me than once that the textbook genre evolved largely because of the need to sell textbooks, and that there are likely other genres of writing that would work as well, if not better.

In order to facilitate this, the communities that are being constructed to share texts will need to provide resources on writing and people to provide feedback on initial drafts that teachers won't yet be ready to share publicly. Teachers will be more likely to create texts given the support mechanism to do so.

So my final advice to teachers wanting to create open textbooks?

  • Don't think "textbook"; start by creating a single reading.
  • You might pick something to write that you need a reading for, some topic that the textbook you use doesn't cover.
  • Write in a genre you are most comfortable with, whether an essay, something that looks like a more traditional textbook chapter, or even the very modular approach that instructional designers encourage for self-directed learning. But keep in mind that your target audience is students and use rhetorical strategies that best suit that audience.
  • Test your reading with your students in your classroom.
  • Find another teacher or two to offer feedback on the writing (you might do this before testing with your students).
  • Revise.
  • And then, if you are ready, share it online.