Are open textbooks the end game?

“I don’t want to be part of a movement that is focused on replacing static, over-priced textbooks with static, free textbooks.” I hope Robin DeRosa’s thoughtful post about open textbooks provokes some reflection on the tone and goals of the open textbook movement and its advocates. It begs the question of whether we are waging the wrong war here, at least in part.

And I agree that there is something unsettling about promoting a free and open version (even in the full 5R sense) of a resource that itself is a dinosaur and in desperate need of rehabilitation. However, open textbook adoption does allow students to gain in terms of both cost savings and educational outcomes (at least for those whom would not have otherwise purchased an exorbitantly priced “required” textbook). And as Amanda Coolidge points out, these outcomes are incredibly valuable.

But Robin’s post does makes me think about the end game of open textbook advocacy. A bolder approach might view the goal of open textbook adoption as relatively lower-hanging fruit because by itself this action does not require a large degree of behavioural change on the part of faculty. Indeed, the aforementioned benefits all flow directly from free, immediate, and permanent access to required course materials. The deeper pedagogical benefits of “going open” are on a higher branch and include the ability of both faculty and students to modify and adapt the instructional materials to suit course and pedagogical goals. But how many potential adopters would actually take advantage of the license to revise and remix?

I have spoken previously about the heterogeneity of faculty, using the pencil metaphor. In brief, it is the leaders who adopt a new innovation, driven by intrinsic motivations, and willing to experiment and fail. The sharp ones learn about what the leaders are up to, get excited by the proof of concept and begin to adopt the innovation themselves. Together the leaders and the sharp ones form small pockets of innovation that persevere despite the absence of support, coordination, or strategic planning (and occasionally in the face of opposition).

Source: "Pencil" by sylviaduckworth. Reproduced with permission.

Source: “Pencil” by sylviaduckworth. Reproduced with permission.

But as a vocal advocate for open textbooks, my audience is usually the wood—the ones who represent the mainstream. These include faculty who have usually never heard about OER, and who “would” adopt open textbooks if they were available for their subject area, were easily accessible, were accompanied with a suite of ancillary resources, were of sufficiently high quality, and had demonstrated efficacy (or so they say). One challenge that I face involves distinguishing between the wood, who may have sincere, rational criteria that they need to be satisfied prior to going open, and the ferrules, who raise fairly disingenuous objections (e.g., what faculty member has ever asked a traditional textbook publisher for efficacy research?). You know, those criteria that, once met, are swiftly replaced by another set. Together with the erasers, the ferrules are occasionally the most vocal in the group.

Keeping this heterogeneity in mind, I believe the approach with open textbook advocacy needs to be similarly nuanced. For faculty who enjoy experimenting and innovating, open textbook adoption does feel like a meagre position to advocate. These are the folks who will enjoy playing with authentic and open pedagogy, who may actually take full advantage of the ability to revise and remix, and understand that adopting open educational practices is really just about good pedagogy and in that sense is not at all radical.

Peering into the wood, I see faculty who currently adopt high-priced, static textbooks but care enough about their students to feel guilty about this decision (principled agents in a principal-agent dilemma?). In at least some of these cases, the ensuing guilt leads them to bend the course to map onto the textbook, which, while not an example of great pedagogy, could be construed as an empathic response that ameliorates both their guilt and their students’ resentment. This is the region of the wood where the social justice case for open textbooks may resonate particularly well. But of course there are many other subgroups of faculty, including those who not only adopt a high-priced textbook (that has a viable open alternative) but who utilize only a small portion of it, leading to an understandable swell of resentment among their students. Complicating things further, across all types of faculty we have embedded and false (if optimistic) assumptions about textbooks, including about the impact of textbook quality on learning and the extent to which students procure and engage with these resources.

But let me come back to Robin’s post, in which she implores that we “stop fetishizing the textbook, which is at best a low-bar pedagogical tool for transmitting information. OER is better than that.” Of course she is spot on here. But if traditional textbooks are the lowest common denominator among instructional resources, perhaps it is fair to ask whether widespread open textbook adoption is not the lowest common denominator among our goals? One could certainly argue that, at least for those faculty who are not drawn to innovation or change and are happy to swim back and forth in the same pedagogical pool, the substitution a free resource for a paid resource is a pragmatic (and for their students, a very meaningful) goal. But surely we should not limit the conversation by framing it solely in these terms and primarily using arguments about open textbook quality and efficacy that cater to the ferrules? For doing this feels a bit like talking about the wattage in a your new home speaker system. It is a technical proxy for useful information but by itself does not inspire anyone to dance. And boy does the open education movement make me want to dance!

Allow me to take this metaphor one step further. As a former professional dancer, I am well aware that dance is a very effective form of exercise. However, I also know that the prospect of a workout is not what makes people smile and shed their inhibitions on the dance floor. Rather, it is the music that compels them to move. In some ways I think this is what Robin is getting at. Last week at the 2015 Open Ed conference we saw data that suggested that the cost of textbooks is the least important factor that faculty consider during the adoption process. So perhaps we should let the cost savings to students be the encore and instead let the pedagogy take centre stage.