What if I don’t want to teach out of your e-textbook?

28 10 2011

For those of you joining this blog relatively recently, you should know that it has not always been devoted to the subject of educational technology. It was probably about six months ago that I was approached about teaching online, and I decided to take a good long look at what that would entail. While trying to figure out whether this kind of instruction was good for me, I began to wonder how this kind of instruction could be good for anybody, particularly students. That’s when I started sharing what I found out in this space since I figured most professors in a similar position to mine probably knew as little as I did about how online education actually works.

Since I have not actually taught online, I am at something of a disadvantage when describing the pitfalls of that experience. Nevertheless, you can learn a lot just by reading closely, and I’m lucky that I know a few people now who can help me make sure I’ve got my facts straight about this subject.

After reading this exchange between the representatives of two edtech companies, I started thinking about the process of assigning textbooks in online classes. Yes, universities can afford a lot of shiny toys if they can manage to hold classes without professors, but it seems that e-learning providers can still make a pretty penny if they can break into the textbook market too. Otherwise, edtech companies wouldn’t be fighting about it.

What if professors want to assign free e-books instead of Pearson’s content?, asks Pearson competitor Nixty. My question is what if professors don’t want to assign anyone’s e-books? What if professors don’t want to assign any textbook at all?

Never having taught an online class myself, I had to check with MfD to make sure that I understood the current state of textbooks in online education accurately. She basically described it for me this way: Some professors gobble up the one-size-fits-all packages that e-content providers offer because it makes their lives easier. Other professors use the LMS as a platform for discussion, and tend to choose their own texts. At the same time, a lot of institutions are moving towards fully online courses which would include textbooks, I suspect because of the efficiency of it all. That appears to be Pearson’s business model with OpenClass.

As I’ve explained before here, my department chairman once tried to get me fired because I didn’t want to assign the same textbook that he did. Therefore, I’m fairly ferocious about protecting that prerogative. But this is about more than just being able to decide what textbook you want to use. This about whether the books that I want to teach would be available at all in an online environment.

Some of us don’t teach out of survey textbooks anymore. I do fine building my own web pages and linking to my assigned reading. Others use WordPress. A pre-packaged online environment is a threat to that prerogative.

But what about upper-level history classes? They absolutely depend upon the depth and breadth of previous scholarship in order to inform students of specific knowledge that fits the subject of the course. I tend to switch most of my books every time I teach something above survey level. Would I be able to get all of them through OpenClass or any other LMS? Do most of the smaller university presses even offer e-books yet? My publisher is offering some current titles (like mine) that way, but not the backlist.

Even more fundamentally, are e-books always a good way to consume academic monographs? Would students even want to read David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage (a monster of a book my grad students are slogging through now) while sitting at their computer screens? It wouldn’t be very efficient to ship that tome to Afghanistan (which is where they told me many of the soldiers I would have been teaching would be stationed) if I were trying to teach students located there. Would I be pressured to teach something else?

It’s not just an academic freedom thing. Picking new books and documents each semester is a large part of what keeps my job interesting to me. I don’t want it to be standardized for efficiency’s sake because the inefficiency of it all is what makes it fun. Every day of every semester is different this way. You can’t say that if you’re working on an assembly line.

I don’t expect people who plan to make money off disrupting education to care about these concerns, but I do expect that other humanists would. What say you other humanists?



2 responses

28 10 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Two quick things, neither of which answer your important question about whether any of this is anything other than a nuclear-level distraction to the humanities.

“What if professors want to assign free e-books instead of Pearson’s content?, asks Pearson competitor Nixty. My question is what if professors don’t want to assign anyone’s e-books? What if professors don’t want to assign any textbook at all?”

It’s hard to tell as OpenClass itself is hard to see, but I’ve read accounts that suggest its LMS features are fairly ordinary. So my guess is that if you don’t take up the benefit of content integration, what you get is something that’s either not as good as or not better than the thumping great LMS you have already, except to the extent that it uses Google Apps for Education. But as I say, it’s hard to tell.

Second, on professors who do use assigned publisher content to make their lives easier — I think that’s not entirely a fair characterisation. These are often people who’ve made a decision that e-content enables them to do more with their class time: more actual teaching. It seems to work this way in big survey courses in some disciplines, that place a heavy dependency on content and testing. And there’s a point where publisher content that comes bundled with testing and the whole thing can be poured smoothly into the blender of the analytics instrument just makes sense.

The bigger questions: like you, I work in the humanities, and down here in Australia we know a thing or two about small or no-textbook subject areas. The distinguishing freedom of the humanities is that students are learning to be researchers, and they can do this really very independently of specific content — the topic is often the excuse, in some ways. So I also don’t find textbooks the best way to develop these skills and confidence; I’m looking for online learning environments that focus on creativity, sociability and depth of interpersonal exchange. It’s interesting how many standard LMS designs miss this.


31 10 2011
Eric Foner has better things to do with his time. « More or Less Bunk

[…] guess this counts as a follow-up post to the one I wrote Friday on trusting textbook publishers with content. I’ve been reading Diane Ravitch’s The […]

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