Open Textbooks – An Instructor’s Perspective



The Sun

By Karla Panchuk

This post originally appeared on the blog Petragogy on March 23, 2014.

I’ve wondered before about the feasibility of creating an open textbook for introductory physical geology.  I got as far as sketching out some of the ideas and stopped when it became clear that a lot of work would be involved.

My most recent thinking about open textbooks was motivated by learning some startling facts from my students:  (1) At sea level, water boils at 1007°C.  (2) In areas on the ocean floor where new ocean crust is produced, water can be heated up to 10,007°C.

Setting aside for a moment the fact that that my students didn’t see anything wrong with water boiling at 1007°C, or with water on the ocean floor being a little shy of twice the sun’s surface temperature, what bothered me is that they encountered this information in their textbook.  I get that typos happen.  I’ve made some in my own course materials. The issue is that they are very hard to fix.  Ideally, I should be able to go into a document, change 1007°C to 100°C, and hit “update.”  Voila.  Problem solved.  Instead, I emailed the publisher’s salesperson for my region and told him about the error.  If he passes my email on to the right person, then in two years when the new edition comes out, water might once again boil at 100°C.

This is why writing my own textbook has a certain appeal.  Because no one is going to pay me to do it, I might as well make it freely available online.  It is free and relatively easy to make the textbook look pretty and to put it in places and formats that allow convenient student access.  The main difficulties are twofold:  First, I have to write it and find appropriate images that I am legally entitled to use.  Second, if done properly, I will have made use of online open education resources, and that means continually monitoring those resources to make sure they haven’t changed in unacceptable ways, or disappeared altogether.

When looking at a task requiring this much work, it is wise to see if someone else has already done the work for you, or is in the process of doing so.  Sadly, it appears no one has seen fit to build what I need.  It is also wise to see if others are interested in accomplishing the same task. Ideally, a project like this would involve a number of contributors with a wide range of expertise.  Perhaps a book sprint could be organized.  These are remarkable events during which a group of cloistered writers spends three to five days working on the book, facilitated by a company which organizes and feeds them.  At the end of five days a finished product is ready to upload… and apparently it is a good one.

Who knows—after years of writing fixes for course materials, I might have enough for a textbook anyway.

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