Closed for Reflection

Last November I was surprised and honored to find an invitation from Sam Aston in my Twitter messages. Sam is the Learning Development Librarian at the University of Manchester whom I had the good fortune of meeting at an information literacy conference in Swansea, Wales, a few years ago. She runs the Open Knowledge in Higher Education (OKHE) certificate program for the University of Manchester Library and wanted to know if I could talk to the participants about open textbooks.

It was an intriguing invitation. My impression from an OER conference I attended in London was that education in the UK, specifically the role of textbooks, is quite different from that in the US. The same week Sam’s invitation popped into my inbox, this was reinforced during a meeting with a college dean who is a native of England. Have you ever talked to anyone from the UK about textbooks? (Indeed I have. I am now, too. Hello OKHE!) If you ask what textbook they’re using, they’ll ask you what on earth you’re talking about. This was all on the heels of an open education conference kerfuffle over a panel featuring commercial publishers and a related blog post from Martin Weller (a guru of open education in the UK) “complaining about open textbooks.” Context seemed necessary.

OKHE participants are asked to engage in “prepare and reflect” activities before each session. I asked the group to read and annotate “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.” Though focused on the differences in commercial textbooks customized for Texas vs. California audiences, and the political influences at play in the publication of educational content, the New York Times article makes an unwitting argument in favor of open textbooks.

The article provides a brief overview of how textbooks are produced in the United States.

1. Authors, often academics, write a national version of each text.

2. Publishers customize the books for states and large districts to meet local standards, often without input from the original authors.

3. State or district textbook reviewers go over each book and ask publishers for further changes.

4. Publishers revise their books and sell them to districts and schools.

“Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.”

I paused at number two and asked myself what I found unsettling about it. As Director of Open Educational Resources (OER) at my place of work, I’ve collected three years of student feedback on our use of open textbooks and other OER and can confirm that students value customization. Customization, not content, is king. Customization allows students to be more efficient learners. Customization, or the legal permission to localize, is what open content is all about.

Neither is my concern with the latter half of that sentence. Though the thought of customization without involving authors may seem off-putting, this too is a practice consistent with OER. Open textbooks are made to be shared, to be remixed, to be translated, to be edited. They are shared proactively so educators don’t have to involve the original authors when creating derivative works. My job is literally to help people “customize the books… to meet local standards, often without input from the original authors.” So, what gives?

The crux of the problem is captured in a quotation from a high school social studies teacher from Texas, who noted that “she would welcome textbooks that contain more historical documents and a greater diversity of voices and themes from the past.”

“The textbook companies are not gearing their textbooks toward teachers; they’re gearing their textbooks toward states,” she said.

“Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.”

With profit-focused publishers pandering to politicians, educators and students can get lost in transaction. This dynamic, which dictates who is centered in the design of learning materials, is what is fundamentally different about open textbooks. Openness allows for student-centered design. It allows for empowered teachers. It allows for diverse voices. And it requires transparency.

Transparency has a notable absence in the world of textbook publishing aligned to reinforce the States’ political divide.

But open is not a panacea, as the mighty Robin DeRosa wisely reminds us.

If OER is free, what hidden costs exist in its production? Making these textbooks is taking me a chunk of time in the off-season.  Thanks to my salaried position, I feel ok about putting in the overtime, but it’s a privilege my colleagues who teach under year-to-year part-time non-contracts can’t afford. Who should be funding OER creation? Institutions? Students? For-profit start-ups? How will you invest time in this project without obscuring the true costs of academic labor? Right now, we pass the corruptly high cost of academic publishing onto the backs of academia’s most vulnerable members: students. But as OER gains steam, we need to come up with funding models that don’t land us back in the same quagmire of exploitation that we were trying to get out of.

Robin DeRosa

These are important questions to reflect on in the context of the University and College Union strike in the UK over pay and working conditions.

Our colleagues picketing at the Centre for Commercial Law Studies (CCLS) at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Solidarity!#QMULSTRIKE #ucustrike— QMUL UCU (@qm_ucu) February 26, 2020

I chose to cancel my OKHE session in solidarity with the striking workers. I hope we can take the time instead to consider the labor of knowledge production alongside academic precarity. One of my favorite reads on this topic is “A Critical Take on OER Practices: Interrogating Commercialization, Colonialism, and Content” by Sarah Crissinger Hare from In the Library with the Lead Pipe.

One of the major critiques OA has received is that it can make labor become more invisible (Roh, Drabinski, & Inefuku, 2015). The invisibility of the labor required to do the actual work behind making a publication OA is often “distant” from the rhetoric behind why OA is important, creating a disconnect between values and practice (Drabinski, et. al, 2015). Further, less “academic” work that is fundamental to maintaining OA publications (metadata creation, for example) becomes devalued (Roh, Drabinski, & Inefuku, 2015). Matthew Cheney (2015) argues that we do open systems, including OER, a great disservice if we do not talk about the labor and technology structures needed to make them possible.

Sarah Hare

Comments are open. I welcome the conversation.