A closer look at B.C.’s open textbook plan

BCcampus responds to Prof. Pettigrew’s critique

On Monday, Professor Todd Pettigrew expressed his skepticism at a new open textbook plan by BCcampus. Here’s a rebuttal from BCcampus communications director Tori Klassen.

Media outlets have reported widely on the B.C. government’s announcement of Canada’s first official open textbook project, to be co-ordinated by BCcampus.

This Maclean’s On Campus post betrays an egregious misunderstanding of open textbooks and the project to date, and what’s more, an educator wrote it. Professor Todd Pettigrew did a cursory examination of the open textbook links BCcampus posted on our own blog entry, and did not contact us directly to pose any questions he had before passing judgment. In his opinion, B.C.’s open textbook project might be “a recipe for disaster” because the texts will be “government textbook[s] created by a committee.”

The truth is BCcampus has already started on a pilot project to create a limited number of open textbooks, and faculty from B.C.’s post-secondary system are writing them—faculty like Adrienne Watt from Northwest Community College. Not only that, but they are being reviewed by faculty to ensure quality control (just as traditionally-published textbooks are).

“I can’t see how it’s a disaster waiting to happen,” said Watt.  “If other profs do assign my book, I expect them to add/edit/delete material, and attribute the source to me and my College. If they are teaching a course, I trust they are subject matter experts and know what they are doing. Education professionals choose the textbooks for their courses all the time, why not look at another option – open textbooks.”

Instructors like Watt find it difficult to constantly change lecture materials to accommodate the ever-changing editions of textbooks, so when BCcampus proposed a pilot project to create open textbooks, Ms Watt jumped at the chance. Her regular practice is already to put together a number of chapters based on the materials she teaches. Since there are many students who can’t afford to purchase a text, she considers open textbooks a win-win situation. Moreover, Ms. Watt is hoping that other instructors can build on what she has put together to make it their own.

BCcampus expects the recently-announced project to provide open textbooks for B.C.’s 40 most popular courses to have the same quality control, and the same positive impact.

So, when Pettigrew states in his piece that “…to imagine that [an open textbook] can be slapped together online and be good simply because it’s cheap is naïve.” In fact, our extensive collaboration with and support of educators like Watt who are champions of open educational resources shows the opposite: there is ongoing concern for quality, for sound pedagogy, and for peer review.

Pettigrew also asks “…the books are only free if you get the online version… Does that mean all students will need to purchase book readers or tablets to use them?” If he had contacted BCcampus directly we could have told him that printed versions of the texts will be available at cost: about $30 per textbook.

Much more could be said about the benefits and challenges of open educational resources and open textbooks. We just completed a week-long international conference on Open Education in Vancouver where these topics were presented, discussed and debated. There are valid criticisms of open textbooks and challenges to B.C.’s project, but none of them were covered in Maclean’s online.

It’s too bad Professor Pettigrew chose to jump into the conversation without informing himself more thoroughly beforehand. For a start, we suggest he head over to the newly-updated Wikipedia entry on Open Textbooks where there are, at last count, 42 references to published research on this topic.