MOOCs to cultivate networked textbooks part 1

I’ve been banging up against this idea both for a paper and for the xedbook… and I’ve finally decided that I’m going to need to blog it out before it makes any clear sense to me. I have some vague ideas and bits of evidence, but I’d love to send it out to you guys for feedback and counterarguments if i could.

I’ve been hanging around the open education space for about 8-10 years now depending on how you count. I was doing open education with Jeff Lebow in Korea before I knew it was called that. There are certainly many that have been at it far longer… but I think I’ve been at it long enough to get a sense of some of the strengths and weaknesses of open projects over time. One of the critical problems that i’ve seen with many open projects is how fragile they are. A person could argue any number of reasons why this might be true…

1. They are easier to start, and therefore you lose less in letting them go
2. They are dependent on a different set of encouragements (not profit) and therefore don’t transfer to new leaders very well
3. They normally depend on core people (or person) and are susceptible to the life changes of those people

Regardless of the reason why they fall apart… they tend to. The piece I’ve been particularly looking into is what happens to the open textbook projects. I can see that many projects look like they have slowed down a bit… like they may be fading… but there is no clear indication of this that I can find. So I’m just going to post the things i’ve been able to find here and hope that some of you can fill in the blanks.

What makes a project open?
Openness is increasingly being seen as synonymous to ‘without financial cost’. I see the relationship between money and openness as extremely important, but not insofar as they are the same. Money is a driving influencer in how many of our projects make their way to completion. For the creation of textbooks, their updating, quality control etc… our capitalist structures claim that the ‘market’ will keep them honest. Simply put, if you don’t do a good job, no one will buy your product. With an open project, people can often engage with your product without buying it. The encouragements that keep you honest end up being things like responsibility, reputation, structures… certainly things that are harder to count.

For me openness is about transparency. When I teach my classes, i openly blog about my design process, the challenges i’m facing in it, and take and incorporate feedback that i receive from those discussions. I think of those as open practices. Practices such as transparency,

A word on why we care about content
This is by no means a full review of every open textbook project out there. I’ve been following stories… both of projects that i’ve heard of over the years, bits of articles i’ve read… stuff like that. I’m increasingly convinced that the battleground of education over the next few years is going to be about content. I know there’s a bunch of career based stuff out there and financial lots of things, but the way the content gets delivered, from the straight up texts, to the quizbanks and cutesy little communities (textbook based LMSs) that go along with them… they are currently the lifeblood of education. Some estimates suggest that 75-90% of content in the classroom comes from textbooks. That’s a lot of content.

The open textbook seems like an obvious choice. Lets get all the peoples together and get them to work on a textbook for each of our fundamental programs in higher education. The Open Course Library project is an excellent example of this. They are going to be pulling the content together for the Colleges in the State of Washington, The idea of pulling together enough money to build the initial run of textbooks (or source other textbooks) to get the cost of textbooks under $30 for each class is a noble one. The folks at BC Campus in Canada are beginning work on a similar model

On the surface, the whole thing makes sense. Lets centralize the cost for creating content, so that students don’t have to spend the $1000+ dollars a year in textbooks. Tuition is rising, lets lower the cost of books and provide some relief to students. Also, if the textbooks start online and lots of great people get involved, they’ll be better than their paper counterparts. Save the trees etc…

I totally agree. The only problem is, there is all the world of difference between starting a project like this and keeping it going. It is possible to pull great people together for the event of creating a text… and tougher, i would argue, to keep those things going over the long haul.

The Second Edition
An earlier project from BC Campus is an interesting illustration of some of the challenges presented by open textbooks. Education for a Digital World: Advice, Guidelines, and Effective Practice from Around the Globe Seems like a solid textbooks talking about digital education. Lots of interesting people from the field writing about educational practice… published in 2008. All but chapter 16 (it has the non-commercial tag) CC Attribution Share alike. Some of the examples no longer work, as one might imagine Chapter 27 – Social Media for Adult Online Learners and Educators needs to be updated a bit for the changes of the last five years (though i may still use it in an upcoming class).

One does not need to look far for the second edition, it’s there on the homepage of the book… It’s now published by a company operating inside the government of british columbia called ‘Open School BC’ and they will sell the ‘second edition’ of the book to you for between $54 and $134. I have no fundamental problem with people selling books… (although i do have a problem with the name ‘open school BC’ seems to be a clear stealing of the open brand there, though i’m open to being corrected) but here we have a project where if someone had converted their curriculum to using the open textbook in 2008 they would have to totally revise what they were doing in 2011. The two projects, from a classroom curricular management perspective, have nothing to do with each other.

You buy in to one kind of textbook, lets say with the best intentions of having your students use a free textbook and getting access to the really smart people in it and three years later, kapow. gone. The second edition kills the plan.

Wandering openness
I have never been to a meeting about open textbooks when someone doesn’t mention Wikipedia. Hey! it worked for wikipedia! They have a cagillion pages and all of them are uptodate! While, broadly speaking, this is true (though i think wikipedia is starting its slow downward spiral) I think the first timer advantage is huge in this case. Lets all remember that wikipedia wasn’t even planned to be wikipedia… it was a side project that essentially got out of control. Lots and lots of people jumped on board and it became the document of record for trivia nuts and barroom debaters. This will not happen for textbooks.

When i look to the open course library project, I see this potential problem looming on the horizon. Here is the Syllabus for the Principles of Accounting course that is the first of the 42 projects that are phase 1 for Open Course Library. I copied the document (as per copyright as far as i could tell) into a googledoc because the courses are actually in an Angel installation. Near the top of the document you have

Purchase the textbook

To a broken link that goes to a publishers site. Now lets be clear about this, OCL does not claim to be a ‘free/open textbook’ project… their interest is in keeping costs under $30. But the problem here is the same… that link above is not linked because it’s broken. And, a little further down in the document we see another looming problem that will probably have to wait until another blog post…

Tools: Online website: Cengage Now (provided with the purchase of the book)

In two lines we see the whole project of Accounting here falling apart. The textbook is gone and the tools are hidden in an LMS attached to a textbook that is no longer at the link provided.

Then I looked at the philosophy 101 course… which led me to this website An awesome resource on finding free or near free versions of ancient texts for philosophy. 7 broken links.

These projects leak if they aren’t constantly supervised.

MOOCs as a possible solution?
From an article in the chronicle comes the problem…

Her [Jennie K. Mayer’s] concern is that chemistry students at this level need supplemental materials to explain basic science concepts. That means plodding through the dizzying array of information out there. A single instructor, particularly a harried adjunct, is unlikely to have the time to sort through the good and the bad, much less to test experiments that just might blow up the lab.

People need help pulling the openness together.

If open textbooks are a solution, they have this problem… As Cable Green (I think, the quote isn’t clear if it was him or the author of the article) suggested in a 2011 article in the chronicle

its [Open Course Library’s] success depends upon the academic community to continually review, revise, and improve the courses, and then post them back online for others.

And the solution that I’m proposing is something that structures the review of a textbook. A MOOC, offered yearly and supported through foundation/government funding, that offers the course for free, online. You can accredit it or not with whatever testing you like, that would totally depend on who’s funding you were using and what your perspective on that sort of thing is. But the MOOC would provide the structure to address the how of how you would get people to review the textbook. Students using the textbook, facilitators delivering the content, would keep people continuously moving through the content, updating where necessary, adding value through community interactions and links to supplementary materials.

It would help address the three concerns that I layed out at the beginning of this post.

1. It would provide the structured, planned start to a project that means putting effective (and hopefully flexible) long term planning in pace.
2. It would provide a set of encouragements (facilitators payed to review it each year as part of delivery, community of people like Jenny Mayer who interact with the content, students being annoying about errors and inconsistencies) that keep the material organized
3. A way of refreshing core members through yearly participation

The key is to utilize the scale of education to your advantage. There are thousands and thousands of people teaching first year accounting. Some of them are passionate about it… some are not… but most/all of them are using textbooks.

Imagine the American Accounting Association co-sponsoring the creation of an introductory textbook with the states in the US. Imagine the yearly MOOC where they taught introductory accounting online. Is it only for advanced students who have excellent learning literacies… sure. But the text isn’t.

What are the specific affordances? that’ll have to wait for part two

We need a structure to help focus the networks on an ongoing basis. The affordances of a MOOC might be the answer.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

8 thoughts on “MOOCs to cultivate networked textbooks part 1”

  1. I now get you, Dave… or rather the MOOC textbook idea. A MOOC as a regular on recurring community that revisits, revises the content it produces in a subject area.

    Doesn’t some of this hinge on a new concept of what a textbook is? Moving away from the monolithic finished product to something that is dynamic, on-ongoing?

    You got me thinking (as usual). There are a ton of fragile points, but that’s no reason to not pursue.

  2. Dave: I think one lesson you can take from Wikipedia’s success is the value of extreme modularity. The bite sized components of individual term entries lowers barriers to participation and barriers to editing and curation. Open content inevitably “decays” and the structure of most traditional textbook means that as soon as significant aspects of the content become outmoded, outdated, or broken (links, images, etc). the entire project is rendered suspect and/or worthless.

    I would suggest that an open textbook project should be divided into clear micro genres and organized like blog posts or wikipedia entries (with tags and categories). You could have Topic Primers (introductory/overview/background material) Deep Dives (exploring essential concepts) and Activated Learning (activities, exercises, applications). The great thing is that each new cycle of a MOOC-based writing process could balance revising old entries with simply adding new ones. Old, decayed material would drift to the sea floor while new material would be churned up to the surface by new engaged participation.

    I think the clear model here is the DS106 daily create bank with its open-ended user and editorial community. This example might also suggest that a successful open textbook may also need to connect directly with a network of practice that uses it and contributes back to it (even beyond a particular set of scholars). Maybe, creating a system for “playlists” that would allow individual instructors to curate paths through the best/most relevant material? Maybe, a link-back method for sharing student uses of the material back with the community?

    In any case, my two cents argue for extreme modularity, a both/and revision, new content strategy to iterations, and a focus on user interactivity in design.

  3. As much as I love the ds106 create bank, I think I have to disagree with Abram. In most classes the textbook is meant to make the modular bits cohere. It’s the road map. But I think Abram’s point (and Dave’s point) about the coherence is right — textbooks decay partially because they have to embed lots of small changeable things in a big, largely unchanging narrative. The whole point of the textbook, usually, is to pull stuff together, and keeping stuff pulled together takes maintenance. This makes WIkipedia the wrong model IMHO.

    But I *love* the idea of a textbook updating marathon as a MOOC. One of the things I think that makes it work is while textbook writing is somewhat dependent on a small number of authors (to maintain coherence) textbook editing doesn’t necessarily work like that. Most of the editing isn’t editing of that slow changing narrative, but is of the fast changing examples. (Very few of which bubble up to the overall narrative).

    The ones that do change the bigger narrative are fascinating questions that would be incredibly engaging for a community to confront.

    Here’s an additional idea — pay the people that run the MOOC and coordinate the effort. How? Have the classes using the textbooks assess a $10 student fee for the upkeep. Apply that money to make sure the MOOC leaders can devote their full attention to the revision MOOC. I think if we want to keep these things updated we have to get used to charging nominal fees — not for the product, mind you, but as a sort of institutional tip jar. So, for example, anyone can get the textbook for free (it’s still open) but institutional reuse gets assessed a (perhaps voluntary) maintenance fee.

    $10 a student times even a thousand students a year provides more than enough money to pay for someone to coordinate, promote, and facilitate the MOOC. It puts someone on the hook to do all the exhausting work, and while it isn’t lucractive, I think it would help get it done. The money might go to the coordinator directly, or, more likely, be disbursed to his/her institution to by some release time to do it.

    I’m really excited about this idea, and can’t wait to see the next part… I could see anyone of a number of WordPress templates that allow annotation as a potential platform, followed by a PressBooks sort of process.

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