OpenTextbooks in Canadian History: Part I

By John Belshaw

I had this ‘eureka’ moment in the barber’s chair.  Well, I thought, if a book is like a railway line, heading in one direction from west to east, then an e-book is more like a mine elevator, heading from the surface into the depths, from top to bottom or, perhaps, from north to south. If that’s the case, then an OpenTextbook is like a hive. It is living, fluid, with junctions that run up, down, outward in several horizons but also in three dimensions. It offers options rather than a singular pathway, complexity rather than guiderails, a little more risk but the possibility of greater rewards.

Moving from metaphor to practicality, the OpenTextbook is just plain different from conventional textbooks. For starters, it’s smart. It can evolve. Instead of waiting for the (inevitable) umpteenth edition, you (the prof) can refine and effectively create the newest edition. What if your textbook could be made to look more like something from Harry Potter, with moving images on the page? What if it could function differently?

What if it was available for free?

A couple of years ago the Province of British Columbia’s Ministry of Advanced Education was asking questions about the costs of post-secondary and the barriers students faced to accessing higher ed. One cost, of course, is textbooks. At that time, for example, the text we were using in our courses at Thompson Rivers University – Open Learning cost $88. Other intro texts in the Social Sciences, English, and the Sciences – the usual suite of courses taken by first and second years – generally sell for much more. It’s quite possible that a first-year student could spend over $1,000 on textbooks.

Or not. And that’s what the research points to. Potential students decide to forego higher ed because they cannot afford it. Or they enroll and balk at paying hundreds of dollars for texts that they can’t resell later on because (you know what’s coming) the next edition has rendered them unusable. The planned obsolescence of the university textbook has thus become a real hindrance to students maximizing their learning potential. Sure, some photocopy like mad (thereby violating all kinds of copyright) and some share, but it would appear that many – reckoned to be between a quarter and a third of a class – simply don’t read the text.

On October 16, 2012 at the annual OpenEd conference in Vancouver the then Minister of Advanced Education, John Yap, announced the BC Open Textbook Project with support provided by BCcampus. The goal was to make higher education more accessible by reducing student cost through the use of openly licensed textbooks. Specifically, BCcampus was asked to create a collection of OpenTextbooks aligned with the 40 highest-enrolled subject areas in the province. And it came to pass that I authored the one on Pre-Confederation Canadian History.

Writing a survey text is a very different proposition from preparing an original monograph. Writing an OpenTextbook is still more different. Both require a careful synthesis of existing research, which is fairly obvious. But when one begins that process it rather quickly becomes clear that the meta-narrative might need a bit of tweaking. It’s no surprise that we get stuck in well-worn channels of thinking and that, despite our best intentions, we find ourselves in Week 13 marching down the “Road to Confederation.” Immersed in as much new literature as one can manage and carefully reading familiar narratives obliges the writer of the synthesized text to ask questions about why we think things happened the way they did and why we apportion importance to one event but not to others. What was the turning point? What was the agenda?

That’s what’s common to both the hardcopy and OpenTextbook project, but what distinguishes them is two things, one obvious and the other less so. Obviously, the OpenTextbook exists in an electronic form principally, although it can be printed out. That creates opportunities for experimentation with and inclusion of different media. You no longer have to worry about printing costs so all kinds of bells and whistles can be packed into sidebars and hyperlinks. It can become a vastly enriched document. The second difference is that the world of OpenTextbooks adheres to different rules. When you first encounter a herd of OpenTexts they will be running free across the Creative Commons. They dwell outside the boundaries of conventional copyright.

The implications of that fact will be the subject of my next contribution to ActiveHistory.ca.

John Belshaw is a faculty member with TRU-Open Learning, a consultant to the post-secondary sector, and a freelance writer.

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