Hacking the open textbook


The killer apps for education, argued Stanford University professor John Willinsky at last week’s Open Education Conference, will be built when we apply our lessons to our communities “so that the learning I do in school contributes to the public library and to the public knowledge of my community” — so that open education remains open.

Willinsky’s keynote, along with Gardner Campbell’s keynote at the same event, have resonated with me since because these are the fundamental questions we must ask: How do we keep open education open, and to what end?

Now more than ever, it feels like an incredibly important time to be making a clear argument for what we mean by open education. “That is not what I meant at all,” as Campbell, echoing Eliot, argued pointing to the proliferation of MOOCs and such, “That is not it, at all.”

Nor do open textbooks seem like “what I meant at all,” even though British Columbia’s minister of advanced education John Yap opened the event with an important announcement about the province’s commitment to that very thing. In other words, open education is much, much more than open textbooks. It is, as Campbell argued in his keynote, about yearning and opening. And it is, as Willinsky argued in his, about a commitment to the local and the commons.

And yet, despite my reluctance to place textbooks at the core of “what matters” to open education, one of my favorite presentations was about that very thing — a presentation by Megan Beckett from the South African non-profit Siyavula and its workshops to help develop textbooks. Of course, it’s worth noting that, just as Campbell’s keynote called for more attention to the verb “opening” rather than the adjective “open,” the word “Siyavula” is Nguni for “we are opening.”

Siyavula has gathered teachers and university-level students in South Africa to write openly licensed textbooks in math and science. Over the course of two to three weekend-long workshops per book, volunteers come together and collaboratively author a textbook.

The workshops include an introduction to copyright, Beckett says. And they must deal with a variety of practical and technical issues (including which authoring platform to utilize). But by bringing together a diverse group of people, the textbooks include more ideas than you’d find if you’d just commissioned a single author to write the copy.

In her presentation at Open Ed, Beckett pointed to some of the “lessons learned” from the Siyavula textbook workshops: peer review is necessary sooner and more often than they’d originally anticipated. And that process of both writing and editing can be intimidating for participants as they weren’t trained as writers.

But training as textbook writers or not (whatever that means), it’s clear that the knowledge that community members — teachers and otherwise — possess is worth gathering and collecting and sharing. And there are so many opportunities, I think, for us to build educational materials together, license them openly, and make them easily and freely accessible to learners.

Siyavula covers math and science, and other places have been working on similar tomes. There have been textbook hackathons in Finland and in Boston, for example, compiling math and computer science materials.

There are many opportunities for similar events to create textbooks for other disciplines — and to create materials beyond textbooks as well. Why couldn’t we build annotated versions of fiction found on Project Gutenburg, for example?

Wikipedia has made efforts recently to convince professors to make editing the collaborative encyclopedia a class assignment. It seems as though there are many more opportunities of this sort to have the work we do — as researchers, as educators, and as students — to contribute to open education.


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