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Crowdsourcing the Textbook: Terminology, Technology, and Technique


We've explored the benefits and challenges of eTextbooks here at Inside Online Learning, but haven't given much attention to how these books are prepared. Crowdsourcing is emerging as a strategy in which Instructors and other content experts are not only creating textbook content, but also managing the collaborative writing process of multiple contributors and customizing products for use in their courses.

Traditionally, textbooks are printed in large volume and used in academic courses to present learning material focused on a particular topic. They are usually written by a single author or small group of authors working with a publisher and editor. Textbooks in general have received criticism for many years because of the related expenses, static nature of the content, and difficulty associated with updating them to include recent research and information, as well as correcting mistakes. There are even educators calling for the end of textbooks as a standard component of courses in favor or other available options, such as open educational resources (OER)

With eTextbooks, the printed content has moved to digital formats accessible by computer and various mobile devices. But, a digital version of a printed book may retain some of the same challenges including high cost to students and limited use in courses.

Defining the "Crowd"

In a past #IOLchat session, our participants discussed crowsdourcing from an educational perspective. Their definitions included "a technique for leveraging collective creative and intellectual capital" and "a group of people serving as a source of information, rather than relying on just one person as the authority." Wikipedia was given as an example of a crowdsourced product, and is one that may more accurately reflect the practice of allowing members of a larger group to contribute. This can be counterproductive when not all contributors have expertise in the areas they are editing.

Textbooks by nature are authoritative and rely on content expertise in their development to ensure accuracy and appropriate coverage of the subject. Eleven Learning, a company that publishes open-source community-powered textbooks, uses the term peersourcing to describe their process that "involves gathering real-time manuscript feedback in the form of edits, comments and contributions" coming from a community of "established, passionate, and verified educators and peer reviewers."

Supporting the Process

Textbooks often contain chapters written by different authors. This approach is not new, but the process and tools available for coordinating the work and review allow for new models of collaboration and publishing. A 2010 conference presentation by academic researchers at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland used a business model to explore the crowdsourcing approach to writing textbooks. A series of questions guided their review of four projects:

  • How did the crowd add value? Expert authors may begin the process then open it up to a larger crowd at some point for further work, editing, and commenting at different levels.
  • How were the authors compensated for their work? The final product could be sold to students, just as other forms of eBooks are available for sale, or the book could be part of a course fee. The digital version may also be free to access online with an option to purchase a print version.
  • Who were the authors and why did they choose to participate? A range of possibilities exists here, but most projects were led by a small group and had some sort of editorial process in place to review and select final content. Most projects issued an open call for participation.
  • How was the collaboration of authors supported? Wikis and social networks like Ning can serve as "community and discussion hubs" that support coordination of the work and communication among those involved.  

Students may also be involved in the process. A study by researchers at North Carolina State University presents a project in which 120 students at worked together to "crowdsource" a textbook supplement for computer science and computer engineering students. Student participants experienced peer reviewed writing and the use of wikis in the process. Using the open software Expertiza, this work was guided by:

  • Deadlines and expectations for review and revision.
  • Wiki workspace and coordinated writing of sequential chapters.
  • Different types and stages of feedback including anonymous peer reviews, and instructor and teaching assistant editing.

More Innovation Ahead

Management through Collaboration: Teaming in a Networked World, led by professor Charles Wankel from St. John's University, is just one example of a textbook project that involves hundreds of co-authors from 90 countries. David Wiley, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University, also recently led the development of an online textbook, Project Management for Instructional Designers, as a "large scale, multi-person revise/remix project" undertaken by students.

While crowdsourced texts, and especially eTexts, may result in up-to-date, easily modified, interactive learning resources with the possibility of global input, they do require time and effort in coordinating the collaborative writing and review process to ensure that the end product is beneficial to learners and maintained moving forward. Keep an eye on this trend and opportunities that may be open to you to contribute to a future crowsdourcing project.

Image credit: victoriapeckham, Flickr, CC-BY

February 21st, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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