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A New Value Proposition for Open Textbooks

 Engaging students with knowledge practices?

April 24, 2017
 
 

Two recent events have highlighted advances in the adoption of Open Education Resources: the announcement from New York State about a new state-wide Open Textbook investment and a new partnership to “bring open course content to faculty members through the campus bookstore.”

Welcome as these new announcements are, and as much as we hope they represent a breakthrough on OER adoption… we’ve been predicting an imminent ‘tipping point’ for Open Educational Resources usage long enough to be a bit cautious. IHE’s Inside Digital Learning summarized last week how some of folks involved in OER for a long time viewed these developments, and these expert opinions reflected a diverse range of viewpoints in both the short and long term.

I’d like to expand on my two-paragraphs of quick opinion in that article, by exploring how an overlooked value proposition for Open Textbooks that could help us reach that elusive tipping point. If we use Open Textbooks and other OER to make visible the way faculty work with knowledge in our teaching, can that help us to model for our students how they will need to engage with knowledge practices in their own careers (and in their other roles as community members and global citizens)?

Building Capability in Adapting and Creating Knowledge and Knowledge Practices
We know we need to prepare students for a future in which they will work with knowledge that doesn’t yet exist, using knowledge practices that don’t exist, in jobs that don’t yet exist. Building capability for such a dynamic knowledge environment includes a conceptual perspective on knowledge as evolving rather than fixed, a skill set for extending knowledge and knowledge practices in innovative ways, and above all a sense of agency and self-efficacy for this kind of knowledge-building as part of contemporary professional and vocational workloads. Some researchers are framing this kind of capability as ‘the Deliberate Practitioner’, encompassing the more familiar ‘Reflective Practitioner’ goal but with a much strong forward-looking view of practice (rather than just reflecting in retrospect).

With this goal in mind, we believe an open textbook can become more than an exposition of the subject matter content – it can also be a demonstration of the process by which the pedagogical content knowledge has evolved over time within the professional community. That process demonstrates how the knowledge can be – and must be – adapted for particular contexts, how new research evidence can be applied to improve outcomes, and reveal instructional challenges that remain as open questions being actively addressed.

How Open Textbooks Could Add Value to Developing Capability in Emerging Knowledge Practices
I’m not suggesting that every student using an open textbook within a course – in Math or History or Psychology – is going to be keen to drill down into this process view of the knowledge captured in the text: their primary focus is going to be on applying the content knowledge to the learning tasks assigned in the content area. But if we are serious about developing the graduate attributes that are common across all disciplines, we’ll already have some sort of parallel curricular structure to motivate and support students in using subject-specific course assignments to develop and demonstrate their generic outcomes.

A good example is the way the University of Central Oklahoma asks instructors to tag one assignment in each course where the grading of course-specific work will include an indication of competency demonstration on one of the “Central Six” attributes that cross all programs. That structure also provides students with a navigation path to documenting capability in these common attributes within their co-curricular transcript, the Student Transformative Learning Record.

Now imagine a scenario in which our “Central Seven” includes a graduate attribute for capability in Practice Improvement, Knowledge-Building or Workplace Innovation. If we wanted to tag an assignment in a Math, History of Psychology course where students could get a start on this capability, an open textbook could serve as a meaningful reflection resource by illustrating how the information they are applying in one of their assignments has been built up by the professional community – especially if their instructor was involved in the process and can schedule some extra time to share personal experiences with interested students as part of their co-curricular set of digital badges or credentials.

That’s only a first level of competency and agency. A next step might be participating with a faculty member in Students as Partners in Teaching & Learning activities to enhance enhancing the open resources, where the results are included in the open network of educational resources as an exemplary non-disposable assignment (preferably with tracking of re-use beyond the original context as further demonstration of the legacy value from the students’ contribution). To best frame this accomplishment as a transferable capability with impact in other workplaces, I’d also suggest labeling such activities more along the lines of Students as Partners in Knowledge, Learning and Innovation (“SPARKLIN”) teams.

The Business Case for Open Textbooks Can Be About More Than Lowering Costs
This meta-capability for knowledge practice work is emerging as a key graduate attribute for our students, and one where open textbooks could play a critical role. The business case for open textbooks – or, more accurately, Open Innovation Networks in Educational Resources – would then go beyond a quantitative argument around cost savings to a qualitative advantage in enabling innovative student outcomes.

We’d need some new infrastructure to manage such knowledge spaces, of course. It’s more than just an index of changes, such as the several dozen adaptations, customizations and extensions that faculty have created for some of our OER classics (e.g., Collaborative Statistics). The design rationale and knowledge advance in each change would need more explanation for students to relate it to their experiences in using the text and to their future experiences as knowledge adaptors and creators in the workplace.

And let’s not forget that there are other ways we can support student development of skills and agency in knowledge practice work. For example, they can use their own work of learning in our ‘workplace’ of teaching and learning as a testbed for improving their own practices by adapting exemplary learning practices and applying research evidence about learning.

Dr. Thomas Carey works with higher education leaders on institutional strategy for teaching and learning. He is Executive-in-Residence at the British Columbia Association of Institutes and Universities, Research Professor at San Diego State University, and Visiting Scholar at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Teaching & Learning Innovation. My thanks to the University of the Fraser Valley’s pilot study team on developing student capability for mobilizing and creating knowledge in the workplace.

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