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Will everyone be writing textbooks? a position paper

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michal yerushalmy
9 November 2012

Teachers around the world create teaching materials, search professional materials available on the web and share their repositories and ideas through on-line social networks. While there are teachers calling for greater participation in choosing and authoring their textbooks, it is as yet unclear whether and how teachers—and then also schools, districts and teachers’ professional societies—could already start playing a major role as designers and developers of curriculum materials and how that would change their use of  textbooks in a sustained way. Below I review four challenges arising from what I see as a sensible and perhaps even practical scenario: Everybody Writes (Textbooks)!

The challenge of authority

Textbooks are meant to provide guidance to and present opportunities for students to learn by making the objectives and ideas of the curriculum more readily apparent to them.  Textbooks also provide guidance to teachers, helping ensure their teaching is in line with the expectations of the external authority. As there is a direct etymological link between “author” and “authority” (Young, 2007; Herbel-Eisenmann 2009) a textbook’s authoritarian position derives from the fact that it is written by a recognized expert (or a recognized group of experts). Textbook publishers have already begun addressing a wide range of changes they expect to emerge from the affordances of digital objects, starting from material aspects such as weight and cost and of course quality (e.g. attractiveness of graphics and up-to-date information), to the possibilities of personalization and personal authoring using open resources.  At the same time, different textbook stakeholders would like to figure out more than that: will the idea of the textbook as external authority represented by the expert author remain the norm or will new trends of authoring transform that  authority and expertise into something else.

Challenge 1:  the changes on the horizon, especially those directly touching upon inquiry teaching and learning from open educational resources that advocate community writing—and that seem to be the right ones to support constructivist pedagogies—challenge the accepted and still dominant functions of the textbook and textbook culture.

The challenge of coherence

Digital learning objects have been populating the web for a long time already, but few teachers view using them as a natural and essential part of the curricular materials. Worldwide reports draw a common picture: Technological resources—however much they may be appearing as adjacent to the newer published textbooks,—are likely to be seen as enrichment rather than the core. Another documented phenomenon is that successful Open Source projects are modular in nature. For example, the Lenox open source programming derives its success from being completely modular, as Bonaccorsi & Rossi (2003) explain: “The most important feature of Linux is, in fact, its small and compact kernel that carries out the basic operating system tasks. The system capabilities can be extended by independent modules that are loaded on demand when the system is active and particular jobs need to be performed and can be automatically unloaded if they are no longer required” (p.1247). The success of Wikipedia is similarly rooted in the modular nature of encyclopedia. I agree with the important distinction that Benkler  (2006) offers to support his speculation about the collaborative authoring of textbooks: “Because of the nature and cadence of a textbook, in particular the requirement that it adhere to state-set standards, that it be approved as such, and that these be adhered to in a way that is coherent throughout the book, there may be basic limits on the degree to which a genuine K-12 textbook can in fact be organized for peer production." ( p. 30)

Challenge 2: If we see the textbook as a message about how and which content should be taught, then coherence is a major requirement. Developing understanding of how coherent an innovation is may well be the greatest challenge for teachers (Fishman et. Al 2011, Chazan 1999). Designing with open source repositories would have to reach and proclaim visible coherence.

 

The challenge of quality

Observation 1: An immediate outcome of the removal of external expert authority is the search for alternatives that can help establish confidence and trust in the  resources (Coyne 2010). Designing ways to evaluate contributions is one of the huge challenges our digital networked culture will have to confront and so far we have only a few examples of how to rethink determining the quality of curricular resources [http://cnx.org/help/viewing/lenses ].

Observation 2: There are not many textbooks to be found under Wikibooks and most of these seem to have been authored by a single writer, sometimes with minor contributions from a small group [retrieved 26 January 2011]. Similarly, the texts at CK12.org, which are offering the largest collection of flexible school textbooks and tools for authors and contributors (http://archive.ck12.org/flexbook/ ), do not feature large authoring communities.

Challenge 3: On the assumption that quality is ensured by the participation of large communities and that a crucial part of what makes for high quality open source products is the size of the authoring and participating community, we need to acknowledge that the relatively small educational communities that exist so far carry ramifications that challenge acceptable measures of quality.

 

The challenge of sustainable leadership

Bonaccorsi & Rossi (2003) state that “Two factors shape the lifecycle of a successful Open Source project: a widely accepted leadership setting the project guidelines and driving the decision process, and an effective co-ordination mechanism among the developers based on shared communication protocols. ….In general, no one in the project is forced to perform a particular task but agents choose freely to focus on problems that they think to best fit their own interests and capabilities.” (p. 1246-7)

Teachers are unlikely to commit themselves to long-term participation in an evolving coherent project. The relatively rare evidence of successful cases of teachers’ long-term collaboration in designing their teaching materials as reported by Chazan et al. (2007) and Fishman et al. (2011), supports this speculation.

Challenge 4: A more central role for teachers as designers and authors seems impossible to imagine without some fundamental changes in the work-life of the teacher; the daily pressures of time and interactions may limit visions, even of teachers bloggers, for the participation of teachers in the creation of curricular materials. (Chazan & Yerushalmy in process)

References

Benkler, Y., (2006). The wealth of networks: how social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bonaccorsi, A. & Rossi, C., (2003). Why Open Source software can succeed.  Research Policy, 32,  1243–1258

Chazan, D., (1999). On teachers' mathematical knowledge and student exploration: A personal story about teaching a technologically supported approach to school algebra. International Journal of Computers for Mathematical Learning , 4, 121-149.

Chazan, D. Bethell, S., & M. Lehman (Eds.), (2007). Embracing reason: Egalitarian ideals and high school mathematics teaching. New York: Taylor Francis.

Chazan, D. & Yerushalmy, M., (in process). The Future of Mathematics Textbooks: Ramifications of Technological Change

Coyne, R. (2010). The Tuning of Place. The MIT Press.

Fishman, B., Penuel, W.R., Hegedus, S. & Roschelle, J., (2011). What Happens When the Research Ends? Factors Related to the Sustainability of a Technology-Infused Mathematics Curriculum. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 30(4), 329-353. Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from http://www.editlib.org/p/36145

Herbel-Eisenmann, B., (2007). From intended curriculum to written curriculum: Examining the “voice” of a mathematics textbook. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 38, 344-369.

Young, S., (2007). The book dead? Long live the book. University of South Wales Press Ltd.

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