DIY Student Textbooks

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 Canadian colleagues with whom I had a fantastic discussion and debate!). 

I am always eyeing my presentations to see what matters.  I’ve said it many times from the stage and I’ll write it here.  Just as I slogged through 2 years of stand-up to come up with 12 solid minutes of material, I do the same with my keynotes and plenary talks.  For a decade now I have delivered my most popular talk around Education 3.0, the congruence of neuroscience, learning research, and education technology.  But, starting in 2013, I added an entirely new talk to the mix – Learning Innovation.  It spun up quickly and I have had as many requests for that keynote as any other.  The main concepts speak ideation, creating a context of Learning Innovation at a University, and creating a perpetual culture of creativity on campus – at scale. 

But now, after five years of giving the presentation, something really encouraging has happened.  It involves textbooks and deep, powerful learning.  It involves transference.  It involves innovation at a local level. 


The reason this is so exciting to me is partially from seeing associative thinking at work! For example, another workshop I have delivered more than 70 times over the past 12 years is around gamification.  I show instructors how to leverage large scale gamification across multiple classes.  The session includes a game element itself, so participants play, then build, as they learn.  But the best part, to me, is when I hear from those teachers a year or two later, detailing how they took the ideas and ran.  I’ve had almost 20 faculty share large-scale gamified learning experiences from their schools, following the talk on games for learning.  What I report today is just as exciting.  But it involves the dreaded textbook.

Probably like you, at my last University, we had students paying $500-1000 in textbook fees per semester.  Having worked under a publishing umbrella previously (albeit not in a publishing capacity at all – I was on the technology & 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 editions 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.  eBooks don’t really seem to help much, as publishers save printing costs while not necessarily passing those savings on to students. (And the numbers of students actually reading the materials is far lower…)  All in all, it’s a problem!

So, it excites me bring some possible innovation to the table during these innovation keynotes.  And in a relatively short time, it seems to be working!

The innovation idea is pretty simple.  Like low cost book adoptions, as well as faculty-written materials and collections with help from the bigger repositories (Merlot, OpenStax, etc), the idea pushes that envelope even farther.  It is one of my favorite learning ideas ever.  It is simply the STUDENT-written textbook

Yes, you read that correctly.  I originally saw this done in a few programs in Singapore, Australia, and Germany and so it became my first “Learning Innovation” recommendation as Chief Innovation Officer.    

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 unpack in the workshops.  (I hope they get your own juices flowing to see if there might be a riff on this theme that works for you and your students…)

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. 

·       First, 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 multiple workshop audiences have fleshed out, 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.

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 Squarespace 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!

But here is where it gets really cool.  In the past 3 months, I have heard from 4 different instructors who actually applied this workshop concept to their courses!  A few reached out to me after seeing a blog pop up in Twitter, letting me know how their project has evolved over time.  Of the four disciplines represented, it was also encouraging to see that they were differentiated.  One was from the computer sciences, one professor teaches philosophy, one new book is for economics, and one is for my home discipline of communication.  The projects, which I am currently interviewing these instructors about, range from curated works to individually written chapters, from group, stand-alone texts to a project that has been revised and updated four times already!  Yes, a fourth edition! 

I will report more over time, but I had to share some quick thoughts.   While this may not be the best methodology for every class or every professor, for some courses and some master instructors this might truly prove to be a learning force to be reckoned with! 

Stay tuned for updates in the near future.  Connecting students to learning can be done in more and more interesting ways and I plan to continue reporting on it!  I hope some of it helps you innovate with your students.

Good luck and good teaching.