About 10 years ago I put out the word among a few musician friends that I was looking for a decent quality but relatively inexpensive 12-string electric guitar. It’s something I seldom use but from time to time there’s just that particular sound that you want, and then of course you have to have it. The truth about 12-string electric guitars that most of them are horrible to play and many don’t stay in tune very long no matter how hard you try. It’s not easy to find the right one. Within a few weeks, by word of mouth, I was introduced to a local guitar tech who had just what I wanted in his rack of guitars, and at a price I could live with. After the deal was done, he asked me if I’d be willing contact him first if I ever planned to sell it. With a wink he was asking me for for first dibs, mainly because his instruments were more than commodities; they were individual things he cared about. The understanding was informal, non-binding; he just liked know to that the large numbers of guitars he bought and sold over the years were safe, pampered and well fed wherever they might have been adopted, and that they would go to another good home when it was time to pass them along. I ran into him not too long ago and let him know I still owned and appreciated the guitar. He immediately knew which instrument I was talking about and acknowledged my update with an approving grin. I’ve heard similar stories to this from conscientious people who sell or re-home pets such as dogs – they don’t just forget the animals after the transaction is complete.
It’s not that a story needs a point, and in fact I like this one just the way it is. But also this story came to mind over the past few weeks when my colleague Naomi Cloutier and I were conducting a small research project in preparation for an OpenEd 2015 presentation in Vancouver.
As part of our data collection we conducted video-recorded interviews with a number of faculty and staff in our Curriculum Development department at TRU Open Learning, all of whom are involved in some way with developing, editing, producing and/or implementing BCcampus open textbooks in online courses in our development shop. The interviewees included three instructional designers, two editors, a video producer and a production technician.
We wanted to learn about their experiences working with a number of open textbooks that have been either incorporated into our online courses alone or in combination with the OERu, or edited and produced in our shop. They all expressed their appreciation for the flexibility of working with openly licensed content and told us that they found it meaningful to be part of a project to better serve students and faculty. But one of their main concerns was how these textbooks would sustain over the longer term. After all the work done to develop and use them, what would keep them alive, updated and flourishing?
Now back to the guitar story: in the same way that this loosely formed group of musicians keeps an eye out for the instruments they circulate, I wonder if we would want to see a similar ethic of care for open textbooks. There are many methods and models for releasing open textbooks into the open ecosystem, and with that I think there needs to be at least one person, or better yet a small community of persons or organizations who actually care about one or more specific open textbooks that they’ve been involved with. They keep a benevolent eye on where the textbooks are going, where they’re being used, and when they’re in need of a little TLC, as well as encourage others to take them over and run with them in the same way. Over time creating and maintaining open textbooks and more broadly OER are hopefully becoming part of a natural process of meeting one’s own needs while also doing the things necessary to make it available to others.There is a certain amount of intentionality needed to put an OER, or open textbook, out into the big wide world and have it flourish. To adapt a Nigerian proverb, it takes a village to raise an open textbook.
That village, in the case of open textbooks, may well be communities of developers, faculty, institutions, organizations and others who care about the open textbooks they develop or adapt. Beyond any technical, staffing funding and other solutions and models, they will be very important to the future of open textbooks.