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The Course is Innovative, but What about the Textbook?

The Media and Design Studio (MADS) is among many campus partners working with faculty to develop newer learning materials, including digital textbooks, that offer increased interactive, open production, and lower costs to students. 

Textbooks remain essential to scores of classes across many Weinberg subjects. Last March, a brief panic of how students would obtain them was an important — and eventually resolved — challenge, but only served to draw more attention to ways learning materials can evolve and improve, namely:

From the Ditto Machine to Flipped French 

Each new generation of technology has made it possible to re-think classroom learning materials. Ditto machines of the 60s in Kresge’s basement gave way to photocopiers of the 80s, allowing a hyper-local press of ideas: readers, course packs, and even, custom-made textbooks. The era of personal computing and desktop publishing brought word processors, laser printing, and markup languages for formulas and equations. Yet, the technology of the 90s enabled the capstone: materials that could be widely distributed, instantly available, and easily updated. Still today, many instructional materials are digitally “printed” and shared via the Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF), or elaborated as custom websites. 

Among MADS' earliest digital projects were three web-based grammar texts, developed in conjunction with forward-looking faculty: Le français internautique — French (Spencer, 1996); Intermatik — German (Lys, 1997); and El español integraláctico (Garcia, Ramaly, Labauve-Maher, 1997). Each of these publications was a complete textbook replacement, each tailored to a Northwestern curriculum and together introduced concepts taken for granted today, such as interactivity and monitoring. Armed with just a web browser, students completed exercises electronically and received instantaneous grading and feedback. Instructors not only reviewed this student work but, for the first time, observed how and when the textbook contents were accessed by students.  

screenshot of intermatik German lesson

Screenshot of Intermatik, an intermediate German grammar text
developed by Franziska Lys in conjunction with MADS as a custom-built website

Today, MADS still eyes the development of next-generation learning experiences that can further advance the field of what has been dubbed “courseware.” Flipped French (with professors Aude Raymond, Christiane Rey, and Patricia Scarampi) is a latest effort to create an adaptive experience that responds both to learner types that prefer studying concepts before practicing, as well as students who try to learn by working through iterative exercises. Still building on a traditional textbook model of chapters and sections, Flipped French offers complex interactivity types coupled with algorithms that provide targeted feedback. Students follow customized paths through the material: those who grasp a concept will move ahead while students who need more practice will be given the extra help they need.  

screenshot from Flipped French online textbook
Screenshot from “Flipped French” an adaptive textbook for learners of second-year French
The Power to Publish: Canvas, NUSites, PDF 

Barriers to web publishing have been significantly reduced, and for most common needs, faculty thankfully no longer need to find special teams, software or advanced technical knowledge to develop and publish online materials. Canvas and other similar learning management systems allow for the easy creation and sharing of content within the web browser’s own interface. Canvas also allows authoring of interactive activities and assessments and for nuanced navigation rules to guide the learner through a series of modules.  

Similarly, the WordPress content management software (available via “NU Sites” at Northwestern) offers a simple way to create complete websites for didactic materials, or other scholarly outputs. Many faculty have successfully worked independently or with some modest support to develop electronic texts in this platform.

screenshot of NU sites site made by faculty

Screenshot of “Contemporary Spain,” a digital textbook developed by Elena Lanza and Reyes Morán in conjunction with MADS using the WordPress platform

And, while custom web pages and sites remain one way to author and share course content, they are not always the most practical. Many successful textbook alternatives need only begin as well-formatted documents that can be digitally printed to PDF format and then shared.  

Whatever the form, alternative digital course materials allow a fast-track innovation, a more direct path to correct errata and incorporate student feedback, and a lower (if not zero) cost to students. 

Interactive for Everyone: Open Educational Resources  

If one aim of embracing textbook alternatives is reducing costs for students, an important complement is reducing the time and energy costs for faculty to develop or locate appropriate content. Open Educational Resources (OER) provide a way to achieve both of these goals. OER are materials that have been freely shared by their original authors with a liberal license, or exist in the public domain. 

The Northwestern University Libraries maintain an extensive guide to help faculty understand, locate, author, and teach with OER. Working with these materials is an important means of reducing student textbook costs and is a goal of the larger Affordable Instructional Resources (AIR) initiative launched by the Libraries and University Provost with support from several interested faculty and administrators. For the past two years, faculty interested in authoring an OER can apply for a development grant sponsored by the AIR initiative. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of textbooks spanning a wide variety of subjects are already available as OER and can be found in databases like the Open Textbook Library. Some are titles that have been transferred from a publisher back to their original authors, and then re-shared. Others represent brand new texts that were written specifically for a broader, open community of knowledge. Faculty might find publications ready to serve as a working textbook, while others might offer excerpts useful  as a starting point for further development or remixing with other content. 

The breadth of OER content is certainly worth exploring, including not only textbooks, but also syllabi, lesson plans, activities, and even complete courses, such as those shared via MIT Open Courseware. 

An Open, Advanced Future 

While conventional textbooks may not be going away any time soon, numerous initiatives are underway that empower faculty to imagine fabulous alternatives for students. New, experimental forms of interactive courseware and a new frontier of open educational resources continue to shape not only what learning materials can do but also how they can be made more accessible at lower cost.   

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