Firing a cannonball in open textbook publishing

Brick wall with an outline of the government house towers.

By Agata Mrva-Montoya

On Friday 29 November we launched our first open textbook, the result of a pilot project that we started in 2017, when we first became interested in engaging with the educational sphere. We wanted to find out whether there was interest among academics in producing open educational resources, and what resources were required to publish them.

You are probably wondering, ‘Why firing a cannonball?’

‘Fire bullets, then cannonballs’ is a concept developed in the book Great by Choice by Jim Collins. According to Collins:

First, you fire bullets (low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction experiments) to figure out what will work – calibrating your line of sight by taking small shots. Then, once you have empirical validation, you fire a cannonball (concentrating resources into a big bet) on the calibrated line of sight.

This is not quite what we have done with our first open textbook, but we didn’t venture into the project without preparation. In fact, we fired lots of bullets, that is, we published lots of books, fine-tuned our publishing workflows, and did lots of research before we embarked on the project.

We wanted to find out who has been involved in open textbook publishing in Australia and New Zealand, but also in Canada and the USA. In the USA, the open textbook movement has been supported by ‘federal and state legislative efforts to reduce the overall cost of higher education’. Many initiatives have been funded by government grants and produced by library-based publishing services and infrastructures, often in collaboration with university presses or other parts of the university.

We also looked at what open textbooks have been published, particularly in Australia – in what subject areas and the intended audience: the host university’s students or beyond. We were also interested in how they were published and the output formats. We noted that open textbooks have been usually released as PDF, ePub or Mobi files, with an option to buy print copies at cost price.

We reviewed the literature on the benefits of open educational resources. The research shows that the use of open textbooks in teaching has been associated with higher grades, greater retention, better completion rates and higher satisfaction among students. Students not only do better, but they also save money. We were ready.

In October 2017 we released a call for expressions of interest to the University of Sydney community to see if any academic wanted to write an open textbook. We received three proposals and the Australian Politics and Policy proposal was chosen as the most innovative project, with the greatest potential impact.

We chose to fire a cannonball!

Dr Peter Chen wanted to create a customisable, open textbook to provide a holistic coverage of politics and public policy for use in undergraduate and postgraduate university courses. He wanted to give instructors the ability to compile a bespoke edition to suit their teaching needs.

Chen organised a team of nine editors to work on the development of Australian Politics and Policy. In its final format, the textbook contains 40 chapters with most of them in two versions, junior and senior. Over 110 scholars have been involved in the project, including 70 university-based and independent scholars from across Australia who wrote the chapters and another 38 academics who carried out anonymous and rigorous peer review to ensure the highest standards.

While the textbook was being written, we worked with wonderful professionals at Infogrid Pacific (IGP) to develop a platform to host the textbook and our other OA books: Sydney Open Library. This platform allows users to read the books online and download a PDF file of each title.

The tricky part was to devise a way to enable instructors to customise the textbook for their unit. An online form will allow us to collect basic demographics and a list of required chapters, so that we can create a customised version of the textbook and email the PDF and ePub files to the lecturer. As IGP’s Digital Publisher has the capacity to create remixes of books hosted on the platform, the manual customisation process is fairly straightforward and we will be able to supply instructors with high-quality PDF files and fully accessible ePub 3 files for their students.

Cover: "Australian Politics and Policy" edited by Peter Chen et al.

Actually, the more tricky part was coming up with the cover design. We wanted for the cover to evoke both politics and public policy, appeal to both academics and students, and make the nine editors happy. I think our designer, Miguel Yamin, did really well.

Symmon Natour, Pat Norman and Michelle Harrison from the University of Sydney Library created a promotional video for us, starring Dr Peter Chen and one of his students, Salina Alvaro. They talk about the benefits of the open textbook and explain the customisation process.

The textbook comes with an instructor’s kit containing review questions and lecture slides. Having additional resources is expected in educational publishing, and we wanted to make it easy for academics to adopt the textbook for their units.

Australian Politics and Policy was officially launched last week. Lisa McIntosh, interim University Librarian, Prof. Pip Pattison, DVC Education, and Prof. Rodney Smith, president of the Australian Political Studies Association, fired the cannonball, and for the next few months we will be closely observing how far it goes, and whether it hits the target.

We have plans to evaluate the success of the textbook as part of a research project investigating its value, strengths and limitations. We hope that the results will help us improve its future iterations, and contribute to the broader scholarship on the creation and adoption of open educational resources.

The editors have plans to revise existing chapters to improve their content and keep them up to date, to add new teaching resources, and expand the number of chapters available in the textbook. We will keep recalibrating the cannon.

We hope that the Australian Political Studies Association will endorse the textbook and the current editorial group will formally become part of its Teaching and Learning committee. Getting an endorsement and an ongoing association with APSA would be fantastic for the future of the textbook.

In the introduction to the textbook Prof. Rodney Smith is quoted describing the average Australian’s knowledge of the political system as ‘sketchy, at best’. During a time of escalating national and international debates on critical issues such as climate change, having a good understanding of political systems and policy making has never been more important.

Together with Dr Peter Chen and all the editors and contributors to the textbook, we are hoping that our open textbook on Australian politics and policy is going to change that. Please check it out, spread the word and help us ensure that our cannonball is a success.