OpenContent’s Textbooks, The Printing Press, The Internet, and OER

OpenContent’s Textbooks, The Printing Press, The Internet, and OER

August 20, 2019 1 By JR

David Wiley recently posted What’s Old is New Again: Textbooks, the Printing Press, The Internet, and OER. I recommend reading the whole thing, but there were snippets throughout that I wanted to jot down some thoughts around. Overall, in the beginning of the post where he goes over the history of textbook use was really interesting. Finally someone was able to find at least a little evidence supporting the claim of, dictation/lecture has been a staple of teaching for centuries. David pulls quotes from that resource to demonstrate that even in the face of the adoption of textbooks, that instructors largely lectured. One of the more interesting pieces were the pieces of evidence that would suggest that after adopting textbooks with wide margins, instructors dictated their annotations of the text for their students, rather than overhauling their pedagogy:

This is extraordinary evidence – multiple modern libraries holding copies of the same lecture texts that contain literally identical notes throughout – and there are many ways to interpret it. Seen through the lens of faculty’s resistance to change, to me this evidence indicates that faculty could not resist the urge to continue dictating. But instead of dictating the texts themselves, which students now had inexpensive, mass-produced copies of, faculty spent at least part of their lecture time dictating specific annotations that students should make in specific locations in their lecture texts.David Wiley

Jumping from the 1600s to today, David draws a line from teaching practices with textbooks to today’s context, largely I think looking at OpenTextbook projects and platforms. Without mentioning names, he describes online books and annotation tools are pointed to as exemplary examples of how to ‘teach using the internet’, while the actual practice doesn’t change that much from the practices used for centuries with books:

This particular adaptation is even more intriguing when we fast forward a few hundred years (and more that two decades since the internet became meaningfully available to the public) and see how, for some portion of higher education, WordPress plugins for online book publishing and online annotation are considered exemplary models of how learning materials should be created and used on the internet.David Wiley

Throughout the post, there were moments where I thought that we could decouple concepts of “teaching online/with the internet” and “teaching in a digital age”. The implications of digital tools do not necessarily need to take on the tools and affordances of the internet. I’ll come back to this train of thought in a moment, but it’s worth pinning to the board. One thing I think that gets skipped over when jumping from the 1600s and print books to WordPress plugins are all of the correspondence and early online courses where loads of material is developed, but are not “textbooks”. Materials that were created specifically as a learning resource in place of a textbook, or to be an enhancement to the textbook for a course. While they may employ many similar strategies in design and development as textbooks, I think there are some important innovations that took place over that time period that often get overlooked in the narrative of “education hasn’t changed in hundreds of years” type arguments. I can see why this was skipped, as David’s thesis statement is about us using the internet like an old (static) textbook, though. Following this historical intro David poses the question:

…given the additional, radically different affordances of the internet, shouldn’t there be more that we’re doing? I’m not suggesting that we stop reading or taking notes – I’m asking why aren’t we doing those things and more? Wouldn’t it be an opportunity completely and utterly wasted if the primary things we did with learning materials in the context of the internet were the same things we did hundreds of years ago with learning materials in the context of the printing press?…It’s a useful exercise to ask ourselves: what are the unique affordances of the internet – how do they differ from the affordances of the printing press – and what potential synergies are there between these new affordances and what research has established about effective teaching and learning? We should never allow ourselves to become so jaded by “ed tech” that we stop asking – and trying to answer – this question.David Wiley

The quick an easy answers are yes and yes. I immediately though about course designs that uniquly draw on the affordances of the internet, how it’s constructed, and how that can empower students and enhance learning. Federated Wiki (either the parallel hypertext version that Mike Caulfield used for The Happening, or the WordPress version called Wikity), DS106, Connected Courses, SPLOTs (c’mon you knew I was going to mention these genius works by Alan Levine), and more. The emphasis David places on not becoming jaded, however, is quickly followed by something that a lot of people (I feel) in the OER community have become quite jaded with, interactive quizzing. He mentions online interactive practice, but focuses on the interactive practice part which he defines as, ““practice that provides immediate, diagnostic feedback””.

Now, interactive quizzing (which in many contexts is what is actually being talked about when we talk about interactive practice), and interactive learning objects more broadly certainly aren’t new either. They also do not need to be internet enabled, or make use of the full affordances of the internet. They are digital of course (we can distinguish the two here), but also have a history in paper and machinery. If you want to take a deep dive into the history of analogue machines that hoped to achieve the kinds of interactive practice that David talks about here (although, they could not totally execute on the feedback side of things), read Audrey Watters’ work. If you’ve worked in ed tech long enough, or look back at projects through previous decades you’ll see loads of tools that try to automate some kind of assessment and provide feedback from “right” or “wrong” to helpful hints. Computer Assisted Instruction is one of the older terms that is described here, and here’s the thing, you don’t need an open internet to create or share these kinds of artifacts. Sure, the internet is one way that we interact with many of these (largely to broaden access and scrape your data I think), but the idea of targeting feedback and building pathways based on your responses are pretty old as well. That being said, he does go on to say that he’s interested in some of the connections to people that the internet affords and also mentions the problem of distributing a resource (a textbook, a test bank) as a kind of finite resource. But the connectivity of people seems to be places aside and focus given to the connectivity of data.

Thinking about the positioning of textbooks vs. internet done in the historical part of his post, it made me wonder, what current (and maybe less than desirable) practices do instructors engage in, that this technology is unlikely to change? What will they do in the face of this technology to continue teaching as they have? Well, in the case of “online interactive practice” it IS the quiz, midterm, and exam. The technology largely focuses on re-inscribing these assessment practices without adding too terribly much. The argument being made could be used to entrench predominantly behaviourist views of teaching and learning (most ed tech seems to anyway). Looking at the current landscape of assessment systems is largely driven by these modes of assessment and interactions (the multiple choice question still dominates the landscape as the foundation), even in the face of evidence that points to more effective quizzing techniques, or authentic practice and feedback. Furthermore, the systems that are currently out there are less like the internet and more like proprietary software. Can my question set that currently lives in publisher X’s system, be easily migrated into my LMS, or a different system? How easy is it to access the materials? How many more logins do I need to create, and how much more of my data is being used to prop up a business model? To be clear, I do think tools that enable interactive practice are valuable for all kinds of things. I’m sure I’ve mentioned in presentations and elsewhere on this blog about my personal use of H5P to study for the written portions of Judo exams I’ve taken. I think the locus of control and agency of users is one of the first questions we need to ask about when looking at any specific tool though.

A refrain I’ve noticed in David’s comments at conferences or on the blog is about the OER community’s hostility towards for purchase systems, publishers, and certain approaches to pedagogy. I think his comments and critique’s of this have validity and require further exploration. This post reveals a worry around interactive practice systems:

It is possible to simultaneously acknowledge that these systems are capable of dramatically improving student learning AND ask incisive questions about what happens to the data that result from student use of these systems. It’s possible to acknowledge the benefits these systems can offer while being thoughtful and critical about where there might be problems. It’s the unilateral, categorical rejection of these systems by (what feels like) a growing number of OER advocates that worries me.David Wiley

I can see where this worry might come from, especially if this outright rejection by advocates limits the kind of work the OER community can engage in and therefore limit the impact we can have on students’ learning. There is a distrust of companies and publishers generally by members of the community, but given the limitations and approaches in current systems, combined with historical behaviour, it’s also not difficult to see why there is distrust. Entire books could be written on the subject. For me the big question here is, what practices does advocating for interactive practice (as defined) allow us to continue uncritically as the wide margins in textbooks allowed for continued lecturing? Is it the system or tool that changes pedagogy, or something else?