How Good Can a Course that Follows a Standard Textbook Be?

[Note: this post marks my attempt to rejoin the Open Learning ’17 conversation, from which I’ve been absent for several weeks. We’ll see how it goes; fitting even one more thing into any semester is a challenge, and I’m juggling several “extras” this semester.]

The post title is deliberately a bit provocative (and, of course, riffs off of Steve Greenlaw’s  “How Good Can a Free, Open Source Book Really Be?”, one of the readings for this week’s discussion of Open Educational Resources (OER)).  But it’s also an honest question, one which I hope can shift the perspective of our conversation about OER and quality a bit.

In reading Steve’s three posts chronicling his adventures in writing a free, open economics textbook for OpenStax, and the questions raised by the endeavor, I was reminded (and not for the first time during the past year of exploring OER and the conversations surrounding them) just how much pedagogy, and pedagogical assumptions about how courses do or should work, differ from discipline to discipline.

At least at the five fairly-varied institutions where I’ve taught, English classes, whether in literature (my original field of study) or composition (my primary pedagogical field) are rarely structured around following a textbook from beginning to end.  Sure, we may choose readings from an anthology, perhaps one with some contextual material or discussion of subjects like genre or symbolic language, or perhaps assign a handbook covering grammar, citation, and/or research techniques, but it’s not common, at least in my experience, to structure a class around working our way through a textbook, chapter by chapter. Even when English teachers do adopt a textbook, we tend to mix and match textbook material with outside material, skip around, and pick and choose.  Assignments and activities are more often created by the instructor than taken from a textbook.

This doesn’t, of course, keep publishers from creating composition textbooks, complete with ever-increasing amounts of the “ancillary material” Steve mentions in his second post, and urging us to require our students to buy those textbooks (first-year composition is a huge market, even bigger than the one made up of introductory economics students).  But textbooks just don’t structure or define the introductory composition course in the same way that it sounds like they do in other disciplines, including economics.

This is even more true of the course that has formed the backbone of my teaching load for the past 17 years: English 302, Advanced Composition, a required discipline-aware writing class that students ideally take around the beginning of their junior year.  Because 300-level composition courses with similar learning goals are rare, we don’t really fit into an existing market (though this doesn’t, of course, keep textbook reps from trying to convince us that they’ve got the perfect book for our class).

The class is, however, a huge one, with over 100 22-student sections taught each semester, and the instructor community is correspondingly large (even with many of us teaching 3 or 4 sections a semester).  A few of us do assign and use textbooks, but we’re even more likely than English 101 teachers to pick, choose, and adapt the pre-existing materials we use, commercial or not (as a group of us discovered last summer, there aren’t really free, open textbooks that fit the class exactly, either; given our experience with commercial textbooks, this wasn’t a surprise).

Mostly, especially when it comes to assignments and activities, and often when it comes to instructional/informational material as well, we create our own curricular materials. We also share materials with each other, and adapt each others’ materials to our own particular approaches to teaching the class (which has common course goals, and some common kinds of assignments, but allows individual instructors considerable freedom within those parameters).

We’ve begun to formalize this ongoing process of collaboration with the project we began last summer: the English 302 OER collection (currently housed on a Blackboard organization site, so I can’t link to it, but we plan to move our materials to a public platform soon; for the moment, here’s a copy of the proposal we wrote for a GMU 4-VA grant to support some of our work last summer).  We’ve found that the philosophies behind OER specifically, open education more generally, and creative commons licensing in particular fit very well with the community of collaboration we’ve already built, and even help to solve some minor problems with the existing culture of sharing (for instance, it’s useful, come salary/promotion review time, to have a way of identifying, via a licensing statement, who originally wrote an assignment, who adapted it for a different disciplinary “flavor” of the class, who created a slightly different version that works well with a different assignment sequence, and so on).

At the same time, we’ve begun to articulate a standard of quality which the collection and the course represent, and which we have to some extent taken for granted: our students’ learning is guided and facilitated by materials that are selected, adapted, and/or created, and are regularly revised, by the same people who interact directly with the students who use the materials, and the work those students produce.

When you think about it, that’s a very different scenario, and a very different standard of quality, from a class in which students use curricular materials created, and perhaps even selected, by someone whom they will never meet, and who will never meet them, or see the work they produce, or hear the questions they ask, in response to those materials, and inw which instructors have no power to change materials that are not working well.    Of course standard textbooks are revised, and presumably there’s some form of feedback mechanism that informs that process, whether it involves instructor surveys, or review by selected instructors of chapters under composition/revision, or application of knowledge gained through the scholarship of teaching and learning.

But we’re still talking about a mass-produced product, necessarily designed to work for the majority of students (but not necessarily adapted for any particular local population), and fully revised comparatively infrequently, with limited information about how well it works in the classes in which it’s assigned.  In food terms, commercial textbooks are Big Macs, or Budweiser in a can, produced in factories far from the end user, and shaped by customer surveys and maybe focus groups, not gourmet burgers or craft brews created onsite by the same people who interact regularly with the customers.

So why do commercial textbooks exist at all, given their fairly obvious deficiencies in comparison to locally-produced materials?  I can think of a few good reasons (in addition to explanations such as custom, inertia, and the various structural factors that tend to perpetuate a lucrative market once it exists).  Textbooks, and the process of creating and selecting them, help to define the current consensus within a discipline about what students, especially introductory students, need to know, what vocabulary they should be using, etc. That’s useful when those students eventually encounter people who took courses in the same major at other schools, or even took other sections of the introductory class at the same school.   Some standardization is useful.  Textbooks also relieve individual instructors of the need to reinvent the wheel; it wouldn’t be very efficient for each instructor to spend time writing his or her own textbook from scratch (and English department chairs and writing program administrators are regularly reminded just how inefficient nonstandardized classes taught in many small sections are, from the perspective of the university budget).

In  many ways, OER offer the best of both worlds: instructors don’t need to reinvent content that already exists, but they’re free to adapt, revise, and remix to meet the needs of their local student population, on a schedule that works for them and that population (and as Steve points out, even standard textbooks from OpenStax are revised more regularly, with more direct input from users, than printed commercial textbooks ).  As Steve also points out, OER are also affordable (free, or at-cost if students want a hard copy), so the students actually obtain and use them (that’s another major reason composition instructors are moving away from the commercial textbooks and handbooks we did use; even though English and comp textbooks are much cheaper than, say, the average science textbook, many students have decided textbooks are just too expensive, period, and no longer even consider buying, or budgeting for, them.  In many ways, commercial textbook publishers have destroyed their own market, and it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to reconstitute it).

But an open textbook, even one which an instructor has adapted to local needs, is still to a considerable degree a generic, mass-produced product (perhaps a hamburger-helper dinner with some extra vegetables and a favorite spice or two added by the home cook?)   If we were looking for the ideal, truly the highest standard of quality, wouldn’t we be producing all our own curricular materials in-house, adapting them for our particular student populations  (or even for particular students — a goal which Nelson articulated in Computer Lib/Dream Machines, and which some forms of computer-aided-instruction, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, attempt to meet)?  Do the reasons we don’t create materials locally derive primarily from concerns about quality?  If we didn’t start from the assumption that a course should be structured around a preexisting textbook, whether commercial or open, how would our conversation about what makes a course “good” change?



3 thoughts on “How Good Can a Course that Follows a Standard Textbook Be?”

  1. As the kids say, “this.”

    Welcome back to the Open Learning ’17 hub, and thank you for a truly extraordinary post. There’s a lot to engage with here, but rather than leave a long comment, I’m inspired to write a post myself. So there: I’ve committed myself to doing so. And this post is the inspiration.

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