Textbook publishers argue that their newest digital products shouldn’t even be called “textbooks.” They’re really software programs built to deliver a mix of text, videos, and homework assignments. But delivering them is just the beginning. No old-school textbook was able to be customized for each student in the classroom. The books never graded the homework. And while they contain sample exam questions, they couldn’t administer the test themselves.

One publisher calls its products “personalized learning experiences,” another “courseware,” and one insists on using its own brand name, “MindTap.” For now, this new product could be called “the object formerly known as the textbook.”

The Object Formerly Known as the Textbook,” Jeffrey R. Young

Universities are full of people who either know how to design software or want to know how to design software. We could have spent the last 30 years building an infrastructure of these people and ended up with a public software sector– an entire ecosystem of people and technologies–that made education cheaper and more accessible. It wouldn’t have stopped the commercial sector, but it might have pushed it to do more for less money.

This is the way research and development used to work before “buying from the lowest bidder” (if there was a competitive bidding system at all) was the only model. We got what we paid for, of course. Commercial software has helped to make online and traditional education more rather than less expensive and, arguably, slowed down the development of new communication technologies. We got a system that serves billionaires instead of the public.

Now it’s happening again as we move out of the age of paper-based textbooks. Once again we have the chance to create a public system of open source textbooks rooted in the huge numbers of education professionals who know how to create multi-media textbooks (writers and designers as well as scientific and humanities researchers) and the huge pool of people who want to learn how to do these things. We need a public textbook infrastructure.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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