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Michigan’s Open Textbook Project Flunks Out With Critics

5489176330_511772d624_bAdvocates 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.

Also, one Minnesota school district spent $15,000 paying three high school teachers to rework a stats textbook published by the CK-12 Foundation so they could use it in their classes.

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".

slavery immigration

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

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Thad McIlroy October 16, 2015 um 6:33 pm

This is unfortunate, as open textbook projects are, at least conceptually, praiseworthy. It’s proof, I think, that textbook prices are high not solely because of publisher profit goals but because it costs a lot to create excellent textbooks.

I can’t imagine that all the teachers in the district are detractors: I hope some will comment here with another perspective.

I note also that there is a "Revisions" option on the site ( that spells out "If you believe there is an error or omission that needs to be fixed, the good news is — this isn’t your printed textbook! We continue to review the materials and have developed a process for addressing any issues that may creep up…"

fjtorres October 16, 2015 um 7:49 pm

The whole point of Open Source is to pool resources and refine existing versions, not to constantly reinvent the wheel.

Nate Hoffelder October 16, 2015 um 11:40 pm

@ Felix

Indeed. This almost isn’t an open textbook project, just for that reason alone. It’s more of a program that is simply giving away its own proprietary textbooks (like Bookboon, for example).

fjtorres October 17, 2015 um 10:37 am

There is also this:

A lot of open source’s value comes from identifying things *not* to do.
Relying on individual grade school teachers alone to write textbooks is probably one of those things.
Textbooks are one of those products that really benefits from collaboration since there are competing interests at play; clarity vs comprehensiveness, accuracy vs political correctness…
A proper textbook probably needs seversl iterative passes on the full project and this one sounds like it went live with (maybe) an alpha product with little is any testing.
Which is hardly unheard of in a lot of Open Source projects.
(And more than a few closed source projects, for that matter.)

david follmer October 20, 2015 um 11:08 am

Some day people will learn that publishers do a lot of work make a good book.

John Hilton III October 20, 2015 um 4:42 pm

It’s interesting that other research seems to indicate that, at least in some settings, open resources are an adequate substitute for textbooks (e.g.,, . It is puzzling why they would start from scratch when there are so many resources from which one could build.

Nate Hoffelder October 20, 2015 um 5:14 pm

I too was puzzled by that decision. I don’t see why they duplicated the effort.

Skip McWilliams February 29, 2016 um 4:14 pm

As a ebook maven….have you seen the new wave of etextbooks that are coming from companies who are in the ed biz but new to the textbook business?
We are one of the four who believe that e textbooks should not be 80 dollars a kid.
After all, what does it cost to send electrons. We believe etextbooks should be under five dollars a kid. Our VOCES books have earned high marks and several awards….thought you should know.
Skip McWilliams
Head of VOCES etextbooks for all program.

??????(??????) | July 7, 2016 um 9:30 pm

[…] in history, economics, geography and social studies was issued in August, 2015. There has been significant negative reaction to the materials’ inaccuracies, design flaws and confusing […]

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