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Open Education for Writers

Back in September 2012, when Governor Jerry Brown of California signed legislation that supports the creation of 50 free textbooks for common undergraduate courses, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) critiqued the idea of free textbooks, suggesting California’s proposal would cost “tens of millions of dollars to develop, distribute and maintain.”  More recently, Flatworld Knowledge announced it will no longer provide free access to its digital textbooks after January 1, 2013.

But what happens when writers–particularly academics–write textbooks for their students and make them freely available? How expensive is it to produce a book-length OER (Open Education Resource)?

As an example, consider Writing Commons, http://writingcommons.org, an OER project that grew out of an interactive, online textbook I published with Pearson back in 2003, College Writing Online.  A comprehensive rhetoric/reader, College Writing Online provided a thorough introduction to writing strategies, academic genres, and information literacy, and academic research methods.

Once Pearson returned copyright in 2008, I decided to publish the book online for free under a Creative Commons Copyright.  While I considered a second edition with a traditional college textbook publisher, I chose the self-publishing route because I didn’t want to lose control over the resource.  While the resource was parked behind Pearson’s paywall, it received very few adoptions and little notoriety, other than receiving the Distinguished Book Award from Computers and Composition, an International Journal.  By controlling the development and marketing of the site, I was sure I could avoid another paywall debacle–and help a good many college-level writers in the process.

Plus, during the process of co-authoring Agency in the Age of Peer Production, I’d grown passionate about the power of peer production.  By inviting academics worldwide to co-author webtexts with me, I believed I could extend the scope of the project so that it was a viable alternative to expensive textbooks for all college-level courses that require writing, including, for example, advanced composition, professional and technical writing courses, creative nonfiction, creative writing, and poetry. Hence, during 2010, I invited distinguished faculty and writers–people like Howard Rheingold, James P. Gee, Martin Weller–to serve on an Editorial Board or Review Editor Board.  And since then we have published multiple calls for webtexts (see Contribute!)

Now, a good many years later, I’m delighted to report that our efforts to grow Writing Commons like an academic journal have worked out really well.  We’ve reviewed over 75 new webtexts, and we are in the process of publishing some excellent free resources for college students.  Perhaps the most exciting result is that traffic is really blowing up!  Since February of this year, 105,532 unique visitors have accessed Writing Commons.  Via Google Analytics, we can watch the active visitors on the site, note the pages they’re using, and even look via Google Maps at where our readers are living.

So what has publishing Writing Commons cost–besides my time or the time of our staff?  About $70.00/year.

Clearly, this isn’t good news for AAP or traditional textbook publishers but it’s great news for students who otherwise cannot afford textbooks.  And it’s great news for authors–to find they can develop a community around their projects.  This is a remarkable time to live as a writer, a time when an idea can easily be published worldwide.  Academics need to reconsider traditional publishing practices, particularly the time-honored move of signing away copyright in order to advance publication.

8 comments on “Open Education for Writers

  1. Aaron Barlow
    November 27, 2012

    Thanks. Smaller versions of what you are doing can be constructed, too… tailored to just one course. It is important that we pool our resources, as you are making possible but, at the same time, as you know, we can make our individual syllabi into, essentially, the tables of content for textbooks that can be presented cheaply and on quite a number of platforms. After all, the amount of material now available in the public domain or through Creative Commons has grown extensively for just about any field. Creating an individual textbook is just a small way of contributing to what you are doing in a much grander fashion and it makes each course into a much more personal interaction between teacher and student, something that improves the chances of success in the course.

    You are right: this is a remarkable time to be a writer… and a teacher.

  2. Roger Whitson (@rogerwhitson)
    November 27, 2012

    Glad to see you working so hard in the open access arena. I firmly believe this is one of the most important academic issues of our time. Check out the talk I gave with Brian Croxall at the University of Florida last April.

    http://www.briancroxall.net/2012/05/07/theses-on-the-open-humanities/

    In my mind, this is nowhere more important than in the textbook arena – especially considering the massive amount of profits made off of the texts. I’ve been trying to make my courses “paperless” for the past few years, meaning that I make it clear that most of my novels can be downloaded from Gutenberg or I try to substitute “theoretical” essays with videos and other online material. I’m not always successful, but I am also convinced that if more scholars are convinced about the importance of open access research – it will be easier to make such content available for students. One of my current goals is to try to create a series of online, multimodal textbooks for literary surveys – since much of the material they reproduce is (at least before 1922) out of copyright. But I’d also love to see some kind of online, open textbook that can work on a variety of devices (laptops, but also iPads, iPhones, etc.) – responsive design is also a part of opening content to students.

  3. gasstationwithoutpumps
    November 27, 2012

    I’ve been looking into ways to have a free textbook for a course I’m creating, and the best I’ve come up with so far is a combination of standard on-line web handouts and a Wikipedia book:

    http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/wikipedia-books-another-approach-for-a-freecheap-textbook/

    • marccsantos
      December 18, 2012

      Another option is to start up a wikibook. I started one for my Historical Rhetorics seminar 4 years ago, and updated it a little the last time I taught the course:

      http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Historical_Rhetorics

      As an assistant prof, I can’t funnel too much time into it. But I think even the small amount of material (lectures, reading notes, annotations of secondary sources by graduate students) makes for a useable resource.

  4. Pingback: Open Education for Writers | Open Knowledge | Scoop.it

  5. Pingback: Open Education for Writers | Academe Blog | Affordable Learning | Scoop.it

  6. Pingback: Contrary to Arguments by the Open Knowledge Advocates, Creative Commons NC ND Is A Valid License for Academic Authors | Academe Blog

  7. Pingback: | Joe Moxley

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