A Word For Those Who Say Textbooks Are Hard To Create

Some follow up thoughts on this earlier post on open content.

As we talk about open content, one of the refrains we hear pretty regularly goes something like this:

Creating a high quality textbook requires skills in marketing, sales, web design, [fill-in-skill-here], and that is too much to expect from people who aren't professionals.

A similar, related objection to open content is that the resources created and released under an open license don't come with any test banks or evaluations.

OER

I generally nod politely when I hear these objections because they have nothing to do with the process and value of creating open content, and everything to do with the business model of selling access to content. These are two different things.

If you look at content as a product that needs to be sold (ie, as a fixed entity, like a textbook) then your sales channels, your product marketing team, and the skills needed for marketing become necessary for your business. But, this perspective takes a narrow approach on what open content can be, and reduces it to just a replacement for a textbook. This perspective misses how the value of open content accrues over time. Or, in other words, open content should not be blamed for the failure or success of business models that need to sell content.

In response to the people who feel the need to have assessments packaged alongside open content as a pre-requisite for a broader adoption of open content: first, if you want assessments, write assessments. Nothing is stopping you.

Second, the question of assessment -- and the related questions of how, what, and when to assess -- is a larger, and very open, question. Arguably, one of the ways to view the new goals of the Common Core standards and the "next-generation assessments" they appear to require is as a form of corporate welfare carefully sculpted to the large textbook companies that played a guiding role in writing the standards. Making the claim that open content needs to be packaged with ancillary tools that address the unanswered question of assessment is a bait and switch; it can be a well-intentioned bait and switch, but it's not relevant to open content adoption, as assessment can be defined in many ways in many places. The fact that textbook companies package texts and assessments together shouldn't actually confuse us into thinking that the assessments sold are actually good. Convenience doesn't always come with quality.

Third, making the claim that a set of learning resources must be tied to a set of assessments in order for the resources to have value puts too narrow a focus on what learning can and should be. This view of assessment is generally found among those who see open content as just a replacement for a textbook, rather than a way to reimagine the role of texts in our learning and professional development.

In closing, lest anyone get the wrong impression, I agree that quality content is hard to create. It requires work, and time, and attention to detail, and review, and fact-checking. But, textbooks used in classroom settings are commonly adapted to the needs of the classroom, with chapters ignored, replaced, and/or augmented. At least with open content, these modifications can be edited back into the resource so that future classes don't need to reinvent these modifications. However, the fact that texts are commonly modified or only partially adopted serves to prove the larger point: people working in classrooms at any level commonly make adjustments to their texts. Open content makes it easier for that modification process to be recognized as what it is: a domain level expert adapting a resource to meet a specific educational need.

Image Credit: "OER" taken by Open.Michigan, published under an Attribution license.

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