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Remixing the textbook

posted: 8.9.13 by archived

With much the same feeling of anticipation I used to have buying my pencil box each August, I now keep checking the course schedule for fall to watch my sections fill with students. I’m taking a break this semester from web-based or hybrid classes, so all of my five sections are labeled lecture. I find myself bristling at that designation, insisting to my computer screen that face-to-face and lecture are not equivalent terms (cf. semester after semester of professional development seminars on active learning strategies). As my classes have moved (mostly) into computer labs, I’ve been trying to move from lecture-based to more active classrooms. Thinking about this and working at getting together my own text for fall, I’ve been trying out this hypothesis: active engagement of both student and instructor requires moving not only away from the sage-on-the-stage model but also away from reliance on a traditional, static textbook.

It’s not the same in all disciplines or for all instructors, but as a writing teacher I’m less concerned with conveying information to my students than with prompting and encouraging and inspiring them to actually put words on paper or screen. Of course, this active learning that takes place in a writing classroom has been mightily affected by technology, in ways we don’t fully understand—not just the shift many have made from pen to keyboard but also how cell phones have affected the amount of writing students do, how google has affected their searches for information, and, more importantly, how blogs (for example) have allowed students to become published writers. I think that we’re only beginning to imagine how it might affect the textbook. A quick search on “hacking the textbook” brought me to this blog post in which Larry Hanley critiques what had been promised as the digital textbook revolution for so far just bringing us “your basic, text-centered book gussied up with some animation and annotation tools.”  The richer multimedia experience that digital textbooks allow is certainly valuable (consider for a quick start how wonderful it is to be able in your textbook to hear and see poets reading their work), but surely these digital texts can be customized in ways that have not (as far as I know) been fully been explored.

This is what I imagine:

Individual instructors (or groups of instructors or departments) construct their own texts made of content they produce themselves (including specific assignments and exercises for the course) along with open-source material and, if desired, copyrighted material for which permissions have been obtained; Hanley describes this as “submerge[ing] textbook publication in remix culture.” The flexible platform adopted could allow instructors to add and edit material as the semester progresses as well as allowing students to customize their own texts, adding content as they see fit and printing on demand whatever material they prefer to read on paper.

Textbook publishers can play important roles in this process, with many of the custom publishing options now available a good start:

  • Publishers could serve as a collaborative hub of teaching materials, curating and hosting lessons, assignments, and exercises contributed by innovative writing teachers.  I’m interested in theme-based courses, for example, so I’d love to see a repository organized by theme that provided reading lists and assignments. For material under copyright, they could handle permissions and clearances (as currently offered in custom publishing).
  • They can serve as advisors, providing both technical help putting together materials (a series of textbook templates, for example) and pedagogical expertise as needed to advise inexperienced instructors on possible course designs.
  • They could construct the platforms required for these collaborative resource databases and for the creation of digital textbooks that allow interactivity, student participation, and print-on-demand options for either the entire text or only certain selections.

I see this remixing of the textbook as an important way for me to become more active in taking on responsibility to control the content of my course. It will allow me to construct a textbook not merely as content delivery system but rather as a manual to accompany and support an active classroom. Just how this is going to work remains to be seen…but for me that creativity it will require is not only my obligation but also my delight.

In comments below, please feel free to weigh in on your own experiences with custom publishing (either through a publisher or the seat of your pants) and more generally any guesses or requests you’d like to make about the future of the textbook.

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Categories: Holly Pappas, Uncategorized
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