open & distance learning

reflections and ideas on open and distance learning - by irwin devries

Untextbooks, rethinking instructional design, and whatever else comes to mind

“I see instructional designers, educational technologists or learning ecology consultants (which was a new title for me) as the Marine Corps of the educational world. They have seen many battles and have (mostly) survived. They have even learned how to occasionally win battles. That’s the kind of wisdom of which academic leaders and faculty and instructors should make much better use.”

Dr. tony Bates

As if people aren’t already busy enough. Dr. Michelle Harrison from Thompson Rivers University and I recently initiated a collaboration with BCcampus to develop an open textbook/reader on rethinking instructional design. To be written by multiple authors, representing multiple voices, the textbook is intended for use in senior and graduate level instructional design courses. We proceeded to cook up some initial thoughts, which went something like this.

Open textbooks are increasingly entering the mainstream of higher education as an important and valued element of open educational practices. While open textbooks are now available in a growing number of disciplines, the academic area of instructional design itself has relatively few open resources. (Which means we want to teach about open educational practices, for example, with…proprietary textbooks…right?)

Maybe not…

Online learning and use of educational technologies continue to grow in higher education, and also we see crossover of instructional designers more broadly between other sectors as well. In both our design work and teaching, we see a need for resources to spark a rethinking of instructional design beyond some of its traditional approaches among practitioners, faculty and students. We certainly know we’re not the only ones thinking about this, and we simply feel ready to add our own nudge to this slowly moving caravan of desires for change.

Some examples of issues to approach are the persistent underlying influence of behaviorism in instructional design practice, often in subtle and unrecognized ways; emerging open and critical pedagogies that are challenging some of the very foundations of instructional design; and the fact that instructional designers are increasingly wanting to know how to design inclusively and for different ways of knowing. And all this in the face of serious questions about the corruption of social media, the learning technology industry, and privacy and safety online, to name but a few. To summarize, given these and many more design settings, there is a need to learn about designing for… (fill in the blanks). In a way, we recognize that each of these areas relates to variations of questions forced by applying open and critical instructional design to the field.

This situation calls for teaching and learning resources not only for basic coverage of technical aspects of the field and its history, but also for our area of interest, which is introducing emerging directions in research and practice in the textbook/reader. This may consist of a collection of both recent  openly licensed research articles, and invited chapters and other commentaries…or a whole lot more…

When our colleague and friend Dr. Tannis Morgan recently took on an Open Education Researcher role with BCcampus, we were delighted to expand the team to include her; and Michael Paskevicius (with a shiny new PhD!) was welcomed on board shortly thereafter. The formidable foursome continued the conversation and soon arrived at the question, what kind of textbook/reader or resource do we want? We bashed out a quick early idea, and it went something like this.

Crowdsourcing the Untextbook
Open has provided us with new ways of constructing higher education, but at the same time has been mapped onto many of our existing artifacts and systems such as textbooks, design processes such as ADDIE, and course publishing models.  The textbook has been a prominent focus in the discourses and practices of open.

“A textbook is not merely a compendium of knowledge. Rather, it is an assemblage of knowledge organised for educational purposes. Textbooks, therefore, are not simply depositories of knowledge. Through their chapters, headings. tables, illustrations, worked examples, homework exercises, and so on, they mediate the structure of knowledge on the one hand, and the performance of teaching and learning on the other.”

Hamilton, 2003

While open licensing enables certain open pedagogical practices, what other aspects of the textbook need to be rethought in the context of open pedagogies and practices in light of the contradiction by Hamilton noted above?

In exploring options for the textbook, we are planning to build upon the emerging idea of the “untextbook” and facilitate a set of group processes to explore it further at several upcoming open education conferences. We held our first session at the Educational Technologies Users Group Fall 2018 workshop.

Upcoming sessions will challenge participants to be creative about the idea of the “untextbook” as conceptualized with its use in open pedagogy (Cronin, 2017) from the start. How can we build open pedagogy into the design of the untextbook resource itself so that students can engage, participate and contribute more effectively? How can the untextbook challenge traditional elements, roles and hierarchies embedded in pedagogically structured learning content? How then would we consider the purpose, structure and types of content? How would it be used in the mediation of knowledge, teaching and learning? Would it stimulate a rethinking of learning resources and learning design? Could an untextbook prioritize other forms of expression than just text, such as visual thinking, comics, other media – or alternative forms and combinations that we haven’t really thought about yet?  Finally, we need to consider how an untextbook could be developed and sustained over time. Could an untextbook be built and owned by community? How could the community be formed and what would define membership? How do we maintain currency and usability without the untextbook coalescing into yet another “finished” artifact?

Ideas generated in the earlier sessions will provide input for an all-day collaborative sprint that aims to begin creating prototypical untextbook elements within a critical instructional design lens at the Cascadia Open Education Summit in April 2019.  Our processes are still under development but will involve an iterative, design-based research approach, as well as Liberating Structures group activities.

Along with the conferences, we plan to do a lot of crowdsourcing using different methods to collect ideas and, ultimately, contributions. More to come.


Cronin, C. (2017). Openness and Praxis: Exploring the Use of Open Educational Practices in Higher Education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(5). doi:

Hamilton, D. (2003). Instruction in the making: Peter Ramos and the beginnings of modern schooling. Accessed at


  1. Sounds like intriguing music and a great band put together to jam… but in reading this I’m left wondering, what is an “untextbook”?

    One might argue that the wider interest/use of open textbooks over the previous undelivered promise of OER is it’s familiarity with the analog. People have expectations, assumptions of a textbook, and most of the ones I glance at, even with embedded videos or H5P thingies, are very “book-ish”.

    I guess that’s the challenge. Anxious to see what comes out of the jam room.

    • Irwin DeVries

      December 19, 2018 at 9:21 am

      More than fair. I think we’re seeing “untextbook” more as an exploration than as a thing, somewhat in the way that the “unconference” is producing a change in the way we are thinking about and doing conferencing; i.e. creating more time for exploration and sharing among participants. Maybe a little like the LMS, we wonder what limitations the format imposes that could be rethought – how many things we do just because the format allows it or makes it easy? The fun thing about design based research is you don’t really know what comes out at the end, if there is an end. So, I don’t have a complete answer, but will keep reporting from the unbenches.

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