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October 2014
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Smarthistory: Toward the Reinvention of the Textbook

We first heard from the folks at College Open Textbooks when Kate Jordahl, Professor of photography and digital imaging at Foothill College, wrote a review of our site (giving it an “excellent” rating) and then again a little more than a year ago when they nominated our site, Smarthistory.org, for the 2010 Text and Academic Authors Association Texty and McGuffey Excellence awards. The idea was to break new ground in promoting web books in the traditional bound textbook field. We didn’t win the award but we were honored to be nominated.

At Smarthistory.org, we have indeed tried to break new ground by imagining what a textbook might be when no longer constrained by the the economics and physical structure of the fifteenth-century technology of the bound book. We felt it was especially important to explore the potential of multimedia for learning resources given the tendency of some authors and publishers to simply take existing text, turn it into PDF files, and put it up on the web.

We also see value in offering curated links to closely related material. Its interesting to note in this regard, that many valuable resources come from institutions with an extremely high level of expertise, but that are outside the university, namely museums and libraries. The availability of so many free, high-quality learning resources has prompted us to wonder whether the very notion of the textbook, a format that has historically sought to offer a complete overview of a given subject, makes sense in an age when information has become so fluid and easy to obtain. Will our students trust that a single static resource reflects the most recent discoveries and debates? Why do textbooks have to be a separate genre? Recently, Louisiana defined “any medium or material that constitutes a principal source of teaching and learning to be a textbook.” That makes a lot of sense to us.

We were really pleased when College Open Textbooks gave us a grant to write two syllabi for Smarthistory. We recognize that, as Smarthistory becomes more widely adopted as an enhancement or replacement for the standard textbooks, teachers will benefit from example syllabi. In fact, we plan to offer more support for teachers and students in the near future. This support is critical, since in the past, art history instructors would gather in the slide library and informally exchange teaching tips. With the advent of digital image libraries however, selecting images for teaching became a solitary experience. We are exploring ways we can retrieve this lost social space for informal conversation among both teachers and students. Recently, we’ve been impressed with openstudy.com – a site that provides a social layer on open courseware – helping students to connect and study together.

We look forward to future collaborations with College Open Textbooks. They have an incredibly important role, namely, promoting the reinvention of the affordable, high-quality learning resources our students need.

By Beth Harris and Steven Zucker

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