by Michelle Willmers
Internationally, the open textbook conversation appears to be largely dominated by arguments related to cost savings and discourse around the possible impact which increased access to learning materials can have on student performance. At the University of Cape Town (UCT), an institution which is grappling with decolonisation and transformation of the curriculum, there is an additional array of imperatives which is driving academics to produce open textbooks – an activity which appears to be on the increase despite current challenges related to lack of institutional reward, pressures related to time constraints and the need for better articulated quality assurance mechanisms.
In order to address the issue of institutional support for open textbook publishing, surface current models of open textbook production and contribute towards the development of a community of practice, the DOT4D project hosted the UCT Open Textbook Conversation event on 2 August 2019. The event was attended by academics, students and institutional managers with an interest in open textbook production, including the UCT Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, Associate Professor Lis Lange.
Setting the stage: Current imperatives for open textbook production at UCT
The open textbook conversation event kicked off with a summary of statements by UCT academics who see open textbooks as a means to address a range of problems experienced by students. In addition to frustrations related to the cost of textbooks, academics at UCT have identified the following challenges pertaining to the use of traditional textbooks:
While it is acknowledged that these factors are cross-cutting and relate to a host of issues beyond the particular resources that are used in teaching, they collectively point to a set of social injustices pertaining to the UCT student experience and the fact that the issue of access goes beyond cost.
Curriculum transformation, student participation and quality assurance
In order to address curriculum transformation, a number of UCT academics are experimenting with a more student-centred approach to the creation of textbooks and other learning materials. Participants in the Open Textbook Conversation event highlighted challenges experienced in this regard, particularly as relates to power dynamics and confidence building. There was a feeling that students often have something to offer in the materials development process, and that lecturers are open to this contribution, but that students may not have the confidence to participate. Conscious effort is therefore required in order to build students’ confidence levels so that they believe that they have something to say. Attention also needs to be paid to classroom power dynamics so that students believe they have the right or place to make a contribution.
One of the key factors raised relating to student involvement was the question of how best to attribute student contribution and ensure that students are not exploited in processes which traditionally constitute the work of the lecturer. Within this context, lecturers working with students mentioned that they are attempting to find a balance in terms of feeding student passion, recognising students as co-authors and offering small incentives to promote participation. The issue of incentivisation was, however, acknowledged as being tricky to manage at times, as students studying in semesters following the periods in which content creation took place may have an expectation that they would be consulted and rewarded in a similar fashion.
Quality and adherence to deadlines were also identified as challenges in terms of garnering student participation. The fact that students have generally not been trained and don’t have experience in producing learning materials requires additional time and attention from the lecturer, who is propelled into playing an editor role in terms of ensuring an appropriate writing standard and level of cohesion in the material.
The need for parity in participation processes, confidence building and measures to ensure the quality of materials produced point to the need for an embedded approach to open textbook creation, rather than seeing it as a once-off process, but raises significant challenges in terms of the time required on the part of the academic. As one lecturer stated in the conversation, it is about changing the perception of what the textbook is, and reframing its definition as a learning space rather than an artefact.
Sustainability of open textbook production models: What are the main institutional challenges?
Combined with constraints related to the time required to develop and publish learning materials, the lack of institutional recognition and support were acknowledged by event participants as the main barrier to sustained open textbook activity. This is particularly relevant in the context of academics attempting to take on a full teaching and research load while pursuing promotion in an institutional context which is skewed towards recognising research over teaching.
DVC Lis Lange was in agreement with the sentiments expressed around time constraint and promotion bias, and stated that the promotion system was designed for a university that regards itself exclusively as a research facility and doesn’t sufficiently value the work that academics do at other levels. She added that when it comes to teaching, the university currently only measures what you teach, and doesn’t give sufficient consideration to efforts around curriculum renewal and open dissemination activity.
Within this context, DVC Lange announced that UCT would be launching an annual open textbook award, similar to the UCT Book Award, which has traditionally been focused on recognising excellence in monographs and other research-oriented books. It was her hope that symbolic actions of this kind could start shifting institutional culture in terms of greater recognition of open educational practice. She stated that it cannot just be a matter of the “heroes of the university” who undertake work of this kind, and that practices such as open textbook production need to become normal for all academics at UCT.
Authoring tools and publishing platforms
The Open Textbook Conversation event concluded with a discussion on authoring tools and publishing platforms. Open textbook authors at UCT are currently using a wide range of tools to collaborate around, produce and disseminate open textbook content. Some of these tools (such as Vula, the UCT learning management system) are institutionally supported and are being appropriated in novel ways for open textbook production, but there is also an array of open source apps as well as proprietary software solutions and social media platforms being utilised.
The academics who participated in the Open Textbook Conversation event are part of a highly innovative cohort of lecturers, but there was acknowledgement that technical expertise (on the part of both the lecturer and the student) as well as disciplinary orientation are a significant factor in the choice of technologies employed. Open textbook authors working in the fields of mathematics and computer science, for instance, are more predisposed to working with HTML, LaTeX and XML; while some authors working in other disciplines feel that the skills required to engage with a markup language based platform constituted a barrier to participation.
The conversation on publishing approaches and platforms provided an opportunity for UCT Libraries to share its institutional strategy around the role of the library as publisher. The OpenUCT repository was also highlighted as an important component of the tools ecosystem, in that it provides the affordance for archiving a version of record as well as detailed metadata and usage analytics.
DVC Lange closed the proceedings by thanking open textbook authors for the innovative work they are doing despite the challenging conditions they are operating under. She added that extensive work was being done as part of UCT’s 2030 Strategy in order to transform the university and prepare for the future of higher education, in which students will want ways of engagement that are not currently provided to them. Acknowledging that tools and support structures need to be put in place to support open textbook development, she linked activity in this area to current efforts to decolonise the curriculum and the university. She stated that in order to address the imperatives of the future we will have to change the manner in which we work and transform.