OpenTextbooks in Canadian History: Part II

By John Belshaw

There are three reasons why anyone teaching or studying introductory history ought to be excited – or at least curious – about OpenTextbooks. First and foremost – and most likely to appeal to us cheapskate Canucks – is that they are free to use, order, assign, etc.

By “free,” I mean, um, free. There is no charge to use them. They don’t come cheaper in a bundle , there’s no special password that you’ll have to buy, no account info you have to submit, there’s no clock ticking in the background and there’s no best-before date. They’re free. Free of charge. Anytime, anywhere. I just looked at one on my smartphone. I paid for the electricity, yes, okay, that’s true. You got me there.

It’s the two extraordinary things one can do with OpenTextbooks, however, that make them most appealing. First off, any instructor can edit the textbook. It might be something simple, like changing up the Suggested Readings. Or perhaps the little learning tasks currently in the OpenText don’t work in your course or in your jurisdiction.  It’s a work of synthesis so it is completely possible that some of the information is even now out of date. Or wrongly synthesized. Perhaps you know something about a particular issue, something that no one else is likely to know. Or you find an error (that happens, sure, mea culpa). So change the textbook. Fix the mistakes, add details, write a whole new chapter, or excise one that you don’t like.

In short, instructors using the OpenTextbooks are, for once, not excluded from the process of creating the teaching instrument. You can do as little or as much as you like.

Better still, consider having your students do so. This option allows you to move beyond the “disposable assignment” and create something of lasting value. In all likelihood there are some chestnut assignments that show up in your course. Perhaps it is that perennial essay on the causes of the Rebellions of 1837 or the good ol’ Origins of Confederation. Consider asking a group of students to look at several different interpretations of such topics. They can highlight the differences between historians’ positions, the kind and use of evidence, the ways in which successive takes on the event(s) have been shaped by the historiography. They could write that up and, if it passes muster, you can add it to the OpenTextbook.

Or take a bigger risk: have them create a visual debate. One of the best I’ve seen thus far in this kind of environment involved stripping the sound from a video of the Nixon-Kennedy debate of 1960 and providing voice-overs for the two grainy figures as they discuss some aspect of the course material. (I’m part of a team that is interviewing historians on their areas of expertise for a set of HD videos: we’re going to drop them directly into the text. Your students could do something similar.)

The point is, the textbook is no longer sealed in shrink-wrap. It’s yours to play with. Reuse, remix, revise, retain, redistribute – the five Rs of open education resources. This is possible because OpenTextbooks are leased using a Creative Commons license. As most readers of ActiveHistory will know, the Creative Commons is the organization that develops, supports, and stewards the sharing of materials through their free legal tools, like the CC license. a place in which writing and visual records (and other artifacts) are shared. Depending on the kind of license in place, the document may be copied, modified, and repurposed with attribution but without written permission of the copyright holder. OpenTextbooks are part of that tradition and set of practices.

I’m now writing the Post-Confederation volume and I’ve been busy recruiting historians across the country. They’ll contribute small-to-large segments of the text, so that specialized knowledge can enrich the text from the outset. I hope, too, that this engagement will encourage instructors to feel increasingly comfortable about making more changes to the product when it is released in 2016.

I look forward to discussion about how this might unfold. There have been many survey textbooks before, competing in the marketplace of academia for adoptions. There was a wonderful CD-Rom on Post-Confederation that came out about a dozen years back. At the end of the day, however, the question was essentially, “which of these do you want your students to buy?” Now, the question is “why would you ask your students to pay for something static when there is something dynamic and freely available, something that you can yourself tailor to meet your needs?”

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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