A closer look at B.C.'s open textbook plan - Macleans.ca

A closer look at B.C.’s open textbook plan

BCcampus responds to Prof. Pettigrew’s critique


On Monday, Professor Todd Pettigrew expressed his skepticism at a new open textbook plan by BCcampus. Here’s a rebuttal from BCcampus communications director Tori Klassen.

Media outlets have reported widely on the B.C. government’s announcement of Canada’s first official open textbook project, to be co-ordinated by BCcampus.

This Maclean’s On Campus post betrays an egregious misunderstanding of open textbooks and the project to date, and what’s more, an educator wrote it. Professor Todd Pettigrew did a cursory examination of the open textbook links BCcampus posted on our own blog entry, and did not contact us directly to pose any questions he had before passing judgment. In his opinion, B.C.’s open textbook project might be “a recipe for disaster” because the texts will be “government textbook[s] created by a committee.”

The truth is BCcampus has already started on a pilot project to create a limited number of open textbooks, and faculty from B.C.’s post-secondary system are writing them—faculty like Adrienne Watt from Northwest Community College. Not only that, but they are being reviewed by faculty to ensure quality control (just as traditionally-published textbooks are).

“I can’t see how it’s a disaster waiting to happen,” said Watt.  “If other profs do assign my book, I expect them to add/edit/delete material, and attribute the source to me and my College. If they are teaching a course, I trust they are subject matter experts and know what they are doing. Education professionals choose the textbooks for their courses all the time, why not look at another option – open textbooks.”

Instructors like Watt find it difficult to constantly change lecture materials to accommodate the ever-changing editions of textbooks, so when BCcampus proposed a pilot project to create open textbooks, Ms Watt jumped at the chance. Her regular practice is already to put together a number of chapters based on the materials she teaches. Since there are many students who can’t afford to purchase a text, she considers open textbooks a win-win situation. Moreover, Ms. Watt is hoping that other instructors can build on what she has put together to make it their own.

BCcampus expects the recently-announced project to provide open textbooks for B.C.’s 40 most popular courses to have the same quality control, and the same positive impact.

So, when Pettigrew states in his piece that “…to imagine that [an open textbook] can be slapped together online and be good simply because it’s cheap is naïve.” In fact, our extensive collaboration with and support of educators like Watt who are champions of open educational resources shows the opposite: there is ongoing concern for quality, for sound pedagogy, and for peer review.

Pettigrew also asks “…the books are only free if you get the online version… Does that mean all students will need to purchase book readers or tablets to use them?” If he had contacted BCcampus directly we could have told him that printed versions of the texts will be available at cost: about $30 per textbook.

Much more could be said about the benefits and challenges of open educational resources and open textbooks. We just completed a week-long international conference on Open Education in Vancouver where these topics were presented, discussed and debated. There are valid criticisms of open textbooks and challenges to B.C.’s project, but none of them were covered in Maclean’s online.

It’s too bad Professor Pettigrew chose to jump into the conversation without informing himself more thoroughly beforehand. For a start, we suggest he head over to the newly-updated Wikipedia entry on Open Textbooks where there are, at last count, 42 references to published research on this topic.


A closer look at B.C.’s open textbook plan

  1. What happens to the usual peer-reviewed required textbooks? Are they not useful anymore? Why doesn’t the government subsidise them instead of paying for these open texts that might be “open” to editorial flaws?

  2. Margaret,
    Required texts are “required” by faculty. If faculty agree on an open text as required then the old text goes. If they don’t agree then the old text stays. — or a new proprietary text is chosen.

    All the best.

    Rory McGreal
    UNESCO/COL Chair in OER
    Athabasca University

  3. With Publisher provided learning environments that contain world class, peer reviewed content you can actually pay less and get more.

    You have access for the entire time that you require it; you have superior tools including those old school favorites such as highlighting and audio mode; and you have a host of far superior tools that improve student results and efficiency for faculty and our HED institutions.

    With world class Publisher solutions you can get a fully integrated learning environment with world class content; evaluation and assessment; reporting, communication and course/class management tools; lecture capture with contextual search; individualized and adaptive learning tools; seamless LMS integration and optimized delivery to the students’ choice of device anytime/anywhere, not to mention customer & technical support. You can use them in another country, you can show them to others.

    A national paper recently reported that a typical HED student will spend approximately $20,000 per year while completing a four year undergraduate degree. Not sure of the logic of sacrificing the quality of our educational content and solutions and put our students at a world-wide disadvantage to try to eliminate the 3% (when the tax subsidy is included closer to 1% or 2%) students on average spend on a Publisher’s educational solutions. This is arguably the best bang for their education buck out of the tens of thousands students and parents spend directly and through taxes per year. Past self publishing like initiatives are admitting to the unsustainably of “free”. See – Flat World Knowledge will no longer provide students free access to its web-hosted textbooks.

    Publishers have shown that they are continuing to develop solutions that improve results and help manage costs through the use of technology and elimination of non-value adding externalities. We should demand that these improvements continue rather than reduce the opportunity to have them continue. Do we really want to attempt to duplicate (at taxpayer expense) a multi-million dollar infrastructure and retrain and build a new business that is already served by thousands who already have the expertise and have helped build a Canadian world class education system?

    Are there opportunities to broaden our cost reduction efforts – and look into the other 97% of costs for education – tuition, residence fees, rent, transportation, food? Should we expect others in the education business: teachers, administrators, support staff to provide their services free or should we just single out authors, learning solutions developers, web and software designers, programmers, editors, other publishing professionals and the host of small businesses dedicated to serving the education segment? In addition to quality concerns, how sustainable would this be?

    Students and our future generations deserve that we focus our attention on building solutions that get results, overcome barriers (economic and other) and improve accountability for the spending in all areas it takes to provide a world leading education.

  4. Pingback: Weighing the Pros and Cons of Textbooks [Audio Clip] | BCcampus