George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Mathieu Plourde's picture
Mathieu Plourde
Educational Technologist at the University of Delaware

Nice post. I think that one other "pro" for building and adopting open textbooks and OER has to do with teacher development. As instructors dig deeper in the curriculum to find or create the best learning materials and activities, they engage in a continuous improvement process (aka the personal learning network). I created a diagram a couple of weeks ago about this virtuous cycle.

Kieran Mathieson's picture
Kieran Mathieson
Professor, geek, D:aD, dog lover, CoreDogs creator.

Flipped is all the rage, for good reason. A great way to help students learn skills, like algebra, statistics, writing, finance, and programming.

Why not design textbooks specifically for flipped? I've been doing that for the last few years. Attributes like:

  • Outcome-based. Focus on learning a few basic skills. Omit irrelevant material.
  • Deep learning. It's all about process. Watch experts do tasks. Watch students do tasks, mess up, and recover. Learn about design patterns. Most importantly...
  • Formative feedback. My "books" (books-and-software packages) have many exercise embedded in the text. Students get formative feedback through the text, and a chance to resubmit if they don't get it right. The instructor gets reports about how each student is doing, and can work with people who aren't keeping up.

    Exercises require students to do things, like create something, or fix something. All active. That means human graded, with a fast grading workflow that eliminates every mouse click, keystroke, and cognitive operation possible. Key innovation: "clickable rubrics."

  • Other stuff. Metacognitive ("I don't understand! What do I do now?"). Virtual students who model good student behavior. Simple writing. Short sentences. Like this one. Humor. Dogs, lots of dogs.

See it in action at Free for all humans. Read a short story at


ClassroomAid's picture

Great work, Mathieu.
As we have put.. when the curriculum goes digital, let's make teachers and students part of the engaging content assets.

jeck smith's picture

Our education budget outstrips our defense budget and is highest in the world. Still, students from other countries outperform our students. Why is that? Most of the budget is diverted - as you quote 3.5 billion for K-12 alone - to textbook publishers' coffers. We could do a lot better if we support more passionate non-profit ventures such as CK-12, INeedAPencil etc. which are striving hard to increase the accessibility and quality of K-12 education down. Remember that catchphrase "No child left behind" of early 2000s? Do you think we covered enough ground in the last decade to make it a reality? Visit for more information

KerrisS's picture
High School Mathematics/Reading Teacher

Very informative post, appreciated being introduced to Flat World Knowledge and CK-12, I will definitely be reviewing them at a later date. Using these sites, I would love to be able to make my own math text book, it would be geared more towards our state standard (Florida) and would also consist of the materials the students need to learn for the next level. This would also be beneficial to our college level courses, since we lack the resources to purchase the needed materials. I cannot wait to view and build my own text...thank you!

Angie Murphy's picture
Angie Murphy
High School Biology teacher

Thank you for the information on open educational resources. I use our textbooks very little but I really love the idea of creating my own online text resources for the units I teach. Science textbooks become outdated so quickly and with the shrinking budgets in most school districts this will be a huge benefit for teachers and students. Many classes in my building only have enough texts for a class set anyway and students either use the online text if that is available or research the topic on their own.

Robert Rhodes's picture

Look at our website to see nearly 40,000 public domain books that can provide text materials for students, all searchable and downloadable. The site allows teachers to develop a folder of pertinant materials, making their own textbook. Students can do the same, combining things they find into a folder to essentially make their own textbook. There are so many resources available, we wonder how textbooks can justify being second or third, even fourth generation sources when the primary sources are available to students everywhere, and free.

Jim Kelly's picture
Jim Kelly
Providing OER resource links to improve k-12th grade mathematics.

Before you can "Building Your Own Textbook" you need to know what you are building and for whom it is being built. You might want to check out the OER site which provides a list of 1,000 of the most common terms that appear in elementary and secondary school student editions of mathematics textbooks. It tracks which textbooks contain which terms, on what page (for OER materials a link to where the term can be found), for what grade level, and how the term is being used. Information has been collected since the early 1970's to the present Open Education Resource (OER) textbooks series - Connexion's CNX and Flexbook materials.

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