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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Building Your Own Textbook

Audrey Watters

Education technology journalist

Textbooks are a multi-billion dollar industry -- an estimated $3.5 billion for the K-12 market alone. But the growing availability of digital content and open educational resources (OER) is giving schools the opportunity to bypass some of the traditional expenses of textbook purchasing. It's also giving teachers the opportunities to build their own textbooks.

No doubt the move from print to digital content is shaking up the entire publishing industry. But the opportunity to shake up and rethink textbooks seems particularly profound. When you digitize other types of books -- novels, for example -- you (probably) want to retain the layout and the chronology of the original print version. But when you digitize textbooks, you can disassemble all those various pieces that comprise it -- the different units, chapters, exercises, diagrams, illustrations and so on -- and you can re-engineer something completely different. You can add video explanations, for example. You can make the diagrams interactive. You can add social elements, letting students make notes in the "margins" and share them with one another.

You can also include in a digital textbook (or "course packet" or whatever we'd call this new collection of materials) just those resources that students are actually assigned to work through.

Considering the Source

This sort of flexibility to reuse and remix content is made possible through the open licensing of educational materials. There are several organizations and companies that provide open source textbooks, including Flat World Knowledge and CK-12 (the former is a traditional publisher and focuses primarily on higher ed textbooks; the latter is a non-profit that offers K-12 science and math materials).

States and districts are increasingly turning to these sorts of open resources, particularly as budgets shrink. Earlier this year, the state of Washington launched the Open Course Library, a collection of open source textbooks for the state's 81 most popular college courses, and California has just proposed legislation that would fund a similar effort there. And teachers in the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota created their own math textbooks (in part with resources from CK-12).

In having its teachers build the textbooks, the district touted the money it saved, noting too that the teachers were able to craft curriculum specifically suited to Minnesota standards. And just as importantly, as the textbooks are digital, they can be continually updated -- unlike the printed textbooks which in the case of the Anoka-Hennepin district were only refreshed once every decade.

While frequent updates might not seem so important for math textbooks, it's more obvious how this impacts something like science or social studies, where the materials should be more responsive to real-time, real-world changes.

By helping build the textbooks too teachers can make sure that not just the core content, but all the various resources and exercises are useful and relevant. And the lessons plans that teachers themselves already build can be incorporated into the textbook's design and in turn shared with other classrooms.

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