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From Codex to Bits: Discourses, Practices and Materialities in the Open Textbook Phenomenon


Using interviews, observations and a system analysis approach this research project tracks the development and implementation of open textbooks in Californian higher education over 24 months. Open textbooks – which are digital textbooks that can be freely accessed, shared and adapted – are being embraced by governments, philanthropists and educational institutions as a possible solution to the college access and affordability ‘crisis’ in the United States. Yet, while much work has been done to create, disseminate and champion open textbooks, our understanding of how these resources are impacting upon the higher education landscape remains limited. This study makes the case that it is increasingly crucial to investigate empirically how educational technologies like open textbooks ‘come to be’ (that is how they are constructed, both socially and materially-technologically), while at the same time assessing how these resources are actually deployed in practice. The study demonstrates that binary conceptualizations of openness (i.e., ‘open’ vs ‘closed’) based on formal characteristics (e.g., licensing) are not reflective of how people ‘do’ openness in practice, and that different needs, values, priorities and interpretations of ‘open’ give rise to different artifacts in different disciplines and institutional settings. Moreover, the study shows how the frictions of open textbook production, circulation, and maintenance – the labor and expense, cultural barriers, as well as infrastructural limitations – belie the fantasy of open textbooks as a dynamic interface prime for adaptation, modification and remix. Finally, this study challenges persistent narratives about the so-called ‘immateriality’ of open textbooks by highlighting the durability of print and paper practices within an increasingly digital environment. Ultimately, by placing open textbooks in a wider context, this study questions discourses that assume that educational change is driven by progressive technological advance, and which posit a distinct divide between “open” and “traditional” textbooks, as well as between “new” and “old” technologies more broadly. It argues that educational disruption occurs within existing norms and practices and alongside existing technologies (e.g., print) in a heterogeneous socio-technical field where technological artifacts (e.g., open textbooks) continuously evolve around new innovations (e.g., Big Data).

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