These are the notes from my Educon session earlier today.
A. What Problem Are We Trying To Solve?
Using textbooks built from open content mitigates common issues with traditional texbooks.
Accurate and reliable numbers for K12 education are hard to come by, but according to the College Board the average yearly cost for textbooks for an undergraduate student in a 4 year college is $1,137.
Restoring Teacher Autonomy and Learner Control
Sometimes, educational organizations make bad choices. If and when this occurs, the traditional textbook model can leave schools, teachers, and learners with some flawed choices. Traditional textbooks offer little recourse aside from buying a completely new text. A textbook model that allowed schools, teachers, and learners more control over the content they used in their learning would allow people the autonomy they needed to shape their learning to meet their needs.
Greater Quality and Accuracy
Textbooks contain mistakes. Sometimes we change our definitions, or learn new things.
Paper texts - and textbooks controlled and distributed by traditional publishers - are cumbersome to update, and often require repurchasing the updated book as a "revised" copy.
More Equitable Distribution of Resources
If the costs of acquiring high quality learning materials decreases, more people will be able to access them.
B. This Is A Political Issue
Publishing companies spend millions on lobbyists for our federal government.
For extra fun, search this Federal Lobbying Database for the Common Core Endorsing Partners.
The data on lobbying spent at the state level is more difficult to come by. If anyone has a source for getting this information at the state level, especially for Texas and California, please let me know.
C. What Isn't The Problem?
Curriki, MIT's Open Courseware, OER Commons, Flexbooks, and Flat World Knowledge are providing content that is (in most cases) licensed under a Creative Commons license.
This open content languishes within content silos. Some courses provide the source materials as html downloads, but in many cases the material requires a level of technical expertise to copy in bulk that is beyond the reach of most educators.
From a technical place, these barriers are completely unnecessary. The only reason they exist is to defend a business model and/or a distribution model predicated on controlling access to content.
How's that working out for the music industry? Newspapers? Print in general?
E. But What About The Learning?
The problems laid out above would be less critical if the traditional textbook wasn't so intertwined with issues related to curriculum and assessment.
In VERY general terms:
Curriculum - which is aligned to standards - determines the scope and sequence of what gets taught.
Textbooks get written to address the needs defined by the curriculum.
Depending on the curriculum, and/or what gets purchased, the textbook package can include just introductory texts, or a full complement of lesson plans, test and quiz banks, and other ancillary materials.
Learning is reduced to student progress through the curriculum. It's important to note that this is not a necessity, but that this result is frequently an organizational decision, because:
Assessment focuses on measuring mastery of content to the exclusion of higher level skills.
In an educational landscape where people are attempting to measure school and teacher effectiveness based on student test scores, strange things can happen. Administrators can cook the numbers. Teachers alter tests of students. Administrators reinstate segregation based on race and gender.
F. The Problem Isn't The Textbook
The problem is how learning is assessed, and the role that the textbook plays within that context.
G. Moving Along
Breaking down the process of informal learning, we usually start with:
Base knowledge, or pre-existing knowledge. To do advanced chemistry, one must know how to balance equations. To discuss how Napoleon influenced 19th Century Europe, one must understand the French Revolution. Base knowledge can come from many sources, and textbooks are one of them.
Questions that frame the subject. In informal learning, these questions come from specific needs we have. The phrase "passion-based learning" has garnered attention of late, and as much as I despise perpetuating jargon, it's a decent image. But in any case, in a school setting, these framing questions can come from teachers, students, or other sources. Ideally, the people creating these framing questions are as close to the learners as possible, if they aren't the learners themselves.
Process. In this step, students create. The framing questions, on top of base knowledge, provide a scaffolding to support student inquiry. In an ideal world, this inquiry results in two distinct artifacts: first, student-created texts that show what they learned; and second, an analysis describing how they learned. Over time, these texts form a roadmap that demonstrate mastery of content and the processes through which mastery is obtained. These artifacts also provide concrete points for teacher or peer feedback.
Student created work can then be used as an additional means of assessing student growth over time.
H. And This Is Our New Open Textbook
Much of the existing work "reinventing" the textbook focuses on the device (iPad, anyone?). Efforts that are device centric will fail. They will probably get a lot of VC and grant money in the process, because they are shiny and can be used to create exciting marketing copy, but they will fail nonetheless, because they are trying to stuff a flawed model (both business and learning) into a new device.
There will always be a market for books that do a good job providing this base knowledge. Possibly, some of these "reinvented" textbooks will do a good job delivering this solid base material.
However, many texts that deliver base knowledge should be assembled from content that is freely available, easily remixable, and published under a Creative Commons license. Here, I'm specifically thinking of any introductory text to a core discipline, general history texts, grammar manuals, etc. This content already exists, and is already licensed under a Creative Commons license. Transforming it into a reusable form requires time and work, but once that work is done, we can all reap the benefits - and when I say "we" I'm thinking primarily about students, schools, and communities that would be able to access accurate, current information and adapt it to their local environment.
The second piece of the equation involves the framing questions and lessons we design around content. Teachers create these supporting materials regularly, yet few get shared even within schools, let alone with the greater world. All that is required to make this sharing happen is to publish them under a Creative Commons license on a blog that has an RSS feed.
I. People and Time
As noted earlier, the content exists. Good, accurate base content needs to be collected and edited by domain area experts. And yes, teachers are domain area experts.
People need to publish lessons on their blogs. Ideally, these lessons will be tagged with a subject and/or keywords.
More importantly, though, schools and administrators need to see this as an important worthwhile activity. Administrators need to advocate for the increased use of open texts within their schools. Parents need to ask their school boards why money is still being sent to textbooks companies unnecessarily. Teachers need to advocate for greater autonomy within the classroom. Unions need to negotiate for the creation and remixing of open content counting as ongoing teacher professional development. Schools of education need to educate students about the positive shifts that can occur in classrooms built around open content.
This is a lot of work. But the good news is that all of the content exists. The technological tools required to publish, collect, remix, and republish already exist. All we need now are people and time.