DIY Textbooks


I hope you didn’t mind my last two posts about moving, innovation minus service, and the surprisingly arduous task of building a new home.  I know they danced around learning more than piercing the center…but it’s as top of mind as anything else in my life right now.  But as they say – back to our regularly scheduled show!

I’ve had a really rich few weeks of speaking and workshop presentation.  This also means a wealth of healthy conversations with conference goers around the country (and a nod to my 2 Canadian conferences!).

DIYTextbookDuring those workshops and plenaries, I’ve started a whole new stream of presentation – Learning Innovation.  My latest talks and seminars speak to idea generation, creating a context of Learning Innovation at a University, and creating a perpetual culture of creativity on campus – at scale.  As such, I’ve started to unpack some of the initiatives we’re starting at Saint Leo and I think it’s time to share some more detail.  It’s as much to see if there are some other ideas, thoughts, or questions that might arise from you, the readers, as it is to start sharing how we’re tackling some 21st Century issues in learning.  So let me start with our Textbook initiative.

Before I stepped foot on campus, my President asked if I might be willing to help with a cost-lowering-textbook KRA (Key Result Area) meeting.  There was a committee exploring OER, RLO’s, and lower cost textbook options for the school.  Probably like you, we have students paying $500-1000 in textbooks per semester and it has to stop.  Having worked under a publishing umbrella previously (albeit not in a publishing capacity at all – I was on the technology & then academic research side of the house), I’ve been exposed to a lot of new and interesting ideas regarding textbooks.  And as a faculty member of almost 20 years myself, I know the struggles.  New books are coming out faster and faster to stop used book sales.  The books themselves are used less and less by both faculty and (especially) students, with some studies suggesting less than 60% of students actually buy all of their required texts.  (And the numbers of students actually reading the materials is far lower…)  All in all, it’s a problem!

So, I was excited to bring some possible innovation to the table.  And in a relatively short time, we’ll see if some of the ideas might work!

While we’re piloting a few options – like low cost book adoptions, as well as faculty-written materials and collections with help from the bigger repositories (Merlot, OpenStax, etc) – my favorite pilot (personally) is the STUDENT-written textbook

OpenTextbookYes, you read that correctly.  I have seen this done in a few programs in Canada, Australia, and Germany and so it became my first “Learning Innovation” recommendation at Saint Leo.

But before you get overly excited and/or disturbed, know that it is a pilot and that we are not trying to create this solution for all classes at Saint Leo.  We know there are simply some courses where it would not fly for any number of reasons.  But in those where it will…

I hope you can see the learning potential!  I feel it’s pretty obvious if you follow the thought through as to just how much learning could take place when students research, curate, and produce content.  It’s said that people learn best when they teach and essentially that is what this project entails – students teaching others.

So here are some of the basic strategic questions we’re asking.  Perhaps they might get your own juices flowing.  (And by all means, if you find something that works better, differently, etc, please share!!!)

To begin, there seem to be a few ways to take this strategy.  Ultimately they all have the same outcome, but the actual logistics are different.

  • CreativeCommonsFirst, the professor / content developer needs to consider the quantity and medium for whatever content has been created, curated, or commercialized, to help the students start.  (They would likely struggle if starting from scratch.) So, one option (A) is to create a true primer – the 5 or 9 quintessential concepts students must have access to.  This can be like a mini-text, likely just a handbook, course pack, or even handout.  Another option (B) is to create a starting list of assets for the students to check. Ideally this asset list would have 2-3 (possibly more) assets that accomplish exactly the same thing.  This gives the students choice around which asset to use, but still ensures the same outcome, content application, etc.  Finally, a third option (C) would be to give students the top X books used for this course and ‘challenge’ them to create a better (more updated, more catalysts for learning, more credible, better language for today’s learners, more media centric, etc) experience.  Of course this also puts a critical component in the mix that I particularly like – giving a student permission to find fault with a textbook is a good lesson in and of itself, no?
  • After deciding what kind of assets to start students with, the next consideration is how to segment the work.  Again, as I see it, there are various options.  1) Every student can write a book themselves. The obvious issue here is amount of work – ALL grading would likely come from this single project.  2) Every student can write a single chapter.  There would be the need for overall congruence, so you may need an ‘editor’ panel of students (or possibly use all students) to make sure the book held together as a single ‘thing’ in addition to each chapter standing up.  The nice opportunity here is a presentation per chapter, allowing the students to quite literally teach one another. 3) Groups can create the book, allowing them the freedom to project manage the experience – determine who does what and when.  The facilitator could assure that each student wrote X and also edited Y that way.  4) Groups can create each chapter, with the same principles in place as option #3 AND the presentation option for #2.

PBL[I think an interesting premise then starts in term 2-  does the professor use exactly the same project paradigm moving forward?  Or, would it be better to make the project an ongoing experience, allowing each subsequent class the option to update, improve, and enhance the product?  (I see merit in both.)]

  • Finally, the actual textbook experience (I’d label it as an experience over a textbook unless you specifically want a book created) should be considered.  Obviously an iBook is a starting place.  The original project I saw was based on an iBook.  I haven’t really seen a better book creator yet – at least not one that does anything close to a textbook.  (Like Story Jumper – great for making children’s books, but not for a project like this.)  But, with so many tools out there, perhaps it’s time to rethink what a “book” even is! Does the professor / students / course actually need to create a virtual or physical book?  (Although this certainly would be a nice resume booster to hand a potential employer by students looking for jobs.)

But perhaps a website is more appropriate. Something like Hyper History ( comes to mind.  It’s essentially a mind-map that has hyperlinks connecting each element.  This would promote the use of as much or little multimedia as desired.  Students could create products using Google sites or simply get some server space on the University’s website and use some development tools.  (Stuff like Softchalk could work for example, but there are a wealth of developer’s tools out there.)

Likewise, a blogging tool may be a good way to go.  The nice thing with WordPress or other tools is how easy it is to make them into a ‘magazine’ like Wired or People as viewed on a tablet.

There are some interesting tools out there like Prezi, or a new one I saw recently called VoiceBoard  out of the UK, etc.  What’s interesting with those tools is that they require a far less text-centric approach, which we all know from research is a better way to convey messages and might be a nice reinforcement for students.

MADMAGZ or Blurb might be an interesting compromise between images and text too.  These are 2 virtual magazine creators.  The cool thing there is that the eventual magazine could be shared with anyone (potential employers), looks great on a tablet in person, and also could be enhanced overtime.

Similarly, digital storytelling tools might be a good compromise, allowing for some nice graphics and multimedia.  A solid list of those apps / tools can be found here: or here:

Of course, in the same spirit of the overall project, professors could also leave these decisions up to the students!  The only potential problem there is time – not sure they could pick a tool, a format, AND create a product in a 16 (or other) week term – a lot would depend on the expectations.  But I do think it’s an interesting option as students can bring tools or frameworks to the party the professor never considered!

Overall, I hope you can see the tremendous learning potential in this strategy.  Students have skin in the game from the get-go and professors get an almost unlimited number of “hooks” by which to guide, play devil’s advocate, argue, push, pull, etc.  (My favorite response to the idea was in Ottawa where a professor said, “How have I never thought of doing that before?”)  Again, this may not be the best methodology for every class or every professor, but for some courses and some master instructors this might truly prove to be a learning force to be reckoned with!

Stay tuned for more initiatives, as well as updates on this one.  Big things are happening at Saint Leo!  I hope you agree.

Good luck and good teaching.

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer

About Jeff Borden

My title at work is ‘Chief Innovation Officer.’ So I'm trying to transform teaching and learning at scale. How do I do that? Through my "life" jobs. Primarily, I'm a dad and husband. But I'm also a professor, writer, professional speaker, comedian, researcher, lifelong learner, musician, dog-owner, and even a ranked disc golfer... I've spoken to, trained, or consulted with hundreds of thousands of educators at all levels, in numerous countries, K-20, about how to teach and learn effectively in the 21st Century.

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