Friday, July 23, 2010

The Future for Textbooks Online

AKMA has an excellent post on FOSOTT (Free and Open Source Old Testament Textbook).  It's full of the kind of "blue sky thinking" that we surely need to engage in if we are interested in harnessing the values of the internet and the possibilities it provides for collaborative, educational models for our students.  I have been talking about something similar in relation to the New Testament Gateway for a little, looking to expand and develop it as a resource into something that will work as a kind of uber-textbook for New Testament studies.  My thoughts have been derived in part from my antipathy towards that kind of textbook culture that straitjackets students into becoming over-reliant on just one voice.

In the light of this, I hope readers won't mind my repeating a section from my talk at the SBL 2009 (CARG) on How and why the NT Gateway was Rebooted, Revitalized and Relaunched:

There are pedagogical and economical advantages, I think, in the kind of approach that I have been describing, of attempting to provide introductory materials for new students and flagging these up in the clearest way possible. These advantages relate to our reliance on a text book culture. Many students become over-dependent on the one text book that their lecturer or professor has recommended. Instead of seeing the Introduction to the New Testament as one person's survey, they take the author's views as gospel (even when the author is encouraging a critical approach to the gospels!). What the text book says, the student should believe. This is frustrating enough at secondary school level, but it really should not obtain in universities and colleges. But what is the alternative? To recommend ten text books?

And so we arrive at the problem of access to good secondary texts. The average student spends a fortune on text books (book costs, source: Jim Linville) and still the bright university student will need more. If you have a large class, even the multiple copies in the library will quickly vanish. Since moving to Duke, I have been moving more and more towards reliance on free internet resources in teaching. There are now so many of them, so many very good ones, that the job is becoming easier all the time. It occurred to me that what I do in my teaching I could do also on the NT Gateway, and to show people where to find strong academic materials for free online. No more complaints about the books missing from the library! No more complaints about the cost of the text books!

This kind of approach brings with it a huge advantage, that students can get used to hearing a range of voices on the range of topics in their curriculum. They can read across a range of resources both old and new. They won't be constrained to hearing just the text book's view on canon, or the Synoptic Problem, or the authorship of the deutero-Paulines. And the more interested they become in a topic in question, the more than can dig down deeper and find yet more resources.

I am not, of course, advocating the end of print resources in teaching but I am suggesting that sites like the NT Gateway can provide a means by which we can think differently about the text book culture. A range of voices, a range of topics, with guidance for the student about how to access them. There are, after all, things that you can do on the internet that you can never do in a text book, like listening to podcasts, watching videos and playing games. In the long run, when resources like this are attractive, free and easily accessible, what will be the impetus to stay focused on the single-authored-text book? (Full post here; full series here).

Of course those comments were in the context of a discussion specifically about the future of the NT Gateway, and I think the NT Gateway could continue to evolve to make itself ever more useful as a kind of uber-text book for students, but it does not need to be the only portal providing that kind of service, and collaboration could work not purely within sites like this but also between different sites, different projects, different "books" until we are at the point where talking about a textbook sounds very old hat.

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