Advocates such as myself would like to believe that open educational resources are the panacea for the problem of ever rising textbook prices, but as we can see from Michigan's open textbook project, publishing a textbook is harder than you might think.
Last year the Michigan Department of Education set aside a $600,000 grant to launch the Michigan Open Book Project. With half of the money spent, the first batch of textbooks commissioned under the grant were released in August and critics aren't happy.
The critics contend that the four textbooks (history, economics, geography, and social studies) are rife with errors.
One Detroit school district reviewed the books and concluded that “all (the books) need significant editing and revision, if not complete re-writing", while the Oakland Intermediate Schools warned teachers in its social studies fall newsletter to avoid downloading the e-books.
"Despite the fact that these materials are free, Oakland Schools does not support the use of these materials with students,” the newsletter said, citing conceptual inaccuracies, poor grammar, factual errors, and other problems.
“It’s free, online, that’s awesome. But our kids deserve coherent, well-written materials,” says Darin Stockdill, a University of Michigan staff member and curriculum specialist, told the Detroit News. He said that the books he reviewed, on his own time, were "some of the most poorly designed social studies textbooks” he had ever seen.
And it's not just the content; the textbooks are being distributed in a confusing manner.
The textbooks are available in PDF, Epub3, and in iBooks, but the supported platforms are not correctly or clearly identified. The Epub3 format is described as the Chrome format (it requires Readium to function properly) while the PDF format is listed as the Windows format. Neither description is accurate, for obvious reasons.
And then there are the poor design choices. One of the textbooks I tried, for example, auto-played a tune each time I opened it. (Just imagine what that would be like in a classroom of 30 students.)
The textbooks' many problems stem from inexperience both on the part of the authors and the editors (assuming there were any).
Unlike other open textbook projects, the MOBP did not start with already available textbooks and then edit the books to suit its needs. Instead, the textbooks were written from scratch.
David A Johnson, a consultant with the Northern Michigan Learning Consortium, told me that the project "started with the Michigan Content Expectations and worked to build small introductory pieces to give students initial exposure to the state content".
He added that the writers are all social studies teachers from the grade levels that they represent with a history and background in the content. While that doesn't sound bad, the Detroit News makes it clear that the teachers were under-trained and under-prepared:
The writers, who spent one day in a group training session, were selected from a large group of applicants, all of them Michigan social studies teachers. They were asked to design the materials “based on what they would want their dream resource to be,” Johnson said.
Creating the textbooks frm scratch isn't necessarily a bad approach, but it is unnecessarily labor intensive when compared to other projects. For example, I know of one elementary school teacher who developed his own textbooks based on the free and open textbooks published by the CK-12 Foundation.
To be fair to the Michigan Open Book Project, many traditionally published textbooks have similar problems. That elementary school teach I mentioned above first got into rewriting the textbook because the books provided by his school district were written on a high school level.
And I am sure you recall the story from a few weeks back about the McGraw-Hill textbook that had a section on immigration that referred to slaves transported across the Atlantic Ocean as "workers".
So no, this is not a new issue, but it is a good reminder that when one commits to publishing a textbook, one can't stop halfway.
When the Michigan Open Book Project set out to publish books from scratch, they should have gone through all the way and committed to a thorough editorial review, including beta readers.
Or better yet, the MOBP could have chosen the fiscally responsible shortcut and started with a previously published open textbook. The point of this project, after all, is to save the state money while providing the best quality textbooks to students. So far, this project has failed on both points.
image by mrpetersononline