The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, March 16, 2018

So you want an editable coursebook …

The classic ELT coursebook has been falling out of favour in certain circles for some time. The topics are too bland, they can’t possibly be of interest and relevant to all the different students they try to cater for, their methodological approaches are too rigid and don’t always fit with approaches that teachers would like to adopt, they’re too inflexible and difficult to adapt.

As someone who’s worked in ELT publishing for nearly 20 years (although never as a general coursebook author), I can see both sides of the issue. I understand the limitations that publishers are working within and the difficulties of delivering something that works for everyone when commercial restraints demand that an expensive-to-produce coursebook series will need to sell to the widest possible demographic. I also know from talking to teachers I meet from around the world that beyond the ELT Twitteratti, many ordinary teachers are actually quite happy with the status quo. At the same time though, I do agree with many of the criticisms of coursebooks and I find the current, publisher-led, writing-by-committee approach to coursebook production frustrating on all kinds of levels.

I’ve always found the “do away with coursebooks and let teachers write all their own original materials tailored to their students” argument unhelpful and unrealistic for most teachers. Recently though, I’ve read a number of articles which take a more constructive position, suggesting instead how coursebooks could be improved (see Sandy Millin and Kyle Dugan). One suggestion that I’ve seen in a number of places, and that I want to address here, is the option to make materials available in easily editable formats so that teachers can adapt them to be more relevant to their students. It sounds like a great idea, giving teachers (and students) the best of both worlds, but even leaving aside issues around students preferring print books to digital or to piles of handouts, there are a number of important issues to consider around copyright and intellectual property.

Original texts and permissions: 
Anyone who has ever written materials for publication will know that if you want to use authentic texts from external sources, there are lots of hoops to jump through to obtain permission from the copyright holders to reuse them. Some sources just point-blank refuse, others charge considerable fees and most put restrictions on exactly how the text can be reused (whether it can be changed, shortened, adapted, etc.). That means that making those texts available in a format that could be edited by teachers is generally just not possible from a legal perspective. The best that might be feasible in such a context would be to make the original text available in an uneditable form, say, as a PDF, perhaps with the accompanying activities in a separate Word document that could be edited. There are permissions issues with photos and artwork too, so those would probably need to be stripped out of any editable versions.

Intellectual property and reputation:
One reason why many copyright holders won’t allow their work to be used and adapted in any old way is because their original intent in writing the text and the message they intended to convey could too easily become distorted, misrepresenting their ideas in a way that they wouldn’t want to put their name to. Imagine you’re a political journalist who’s carefully constructed a piece to put across a particular argument and point-of-view, then someone comes along and chops it about in such a way as to miss the point, or worse still, end up suggesting an opposite view, but with your name still attached.

Arguably, ELT writers are slightly less precious when it comes to presenting their personal views in a grammar or vocab activity, but there is nonetheless, a good deal of professional expertise and principle that goes into writing ELT materials. I frequently object to changes suggested by editors to activities or even individual items that I feel would change the nature of the activity and no longer achieve the intended language-learning objective. Other times, I’ve included something to make the material more inclusive, for example, and no, I don’t want all my female scientists swapped for men who are easier to find stock photos of! When materials go out into the world with my name attached, I want to feel that even if a few compromises were made along the way, I’m still essentially happy with the content.

I fully expect teachers to adapt the materials I write - to skip activities, to write up extra questions on the board or even to make a handout with alternative activities to go along with a reading or listening text in the book. It would be a bit strange if they didn’t adapt to some extent because they know their teaching context and their students and I don’t. Generally though, it still remains clear to the students, or to whoever else might see the resulting hybrid materials (parents, colleagues, etc.), who wrote what. So if those adaptations contain language errors or changes that I wouldn’t agree with or that completely miss the point I was trying to get across to students, then that doesn’t reflect on me or damage my professional reputation or that of the publisher. If those materials were fully editable, then the line between my intellectual property and any local additions (be they brilliant or error-strewn) would become blurred and versions of the material could start circulating that bore my name, but which I would never have written myself. For me, that’s problematic. 

Of course, we could just remove authors’ names from classroom materials. Much of the work I do already goes largely uncredited apart from in tiny print on the acknowledgements page, so I don’t really have a problem with that (although I think it somewhat lessens the incentive for authors to produce great content). But that still doesn’t solve the problem of publishers (or ‘content providers’, if you will) establishing and maintaining their reputation, not to mention avoiding piracy … but that’s maybe a topic for another day …

In short, I think editable ELT materials might be possible in some form, but they would have to be constructed in such a way that certain sections of the material could not be changed and also so that any changes that were made were clearly attributed. It’s an interesting challenge that I don’t think is insurmountable, but it’s certainly not as straightforward as it might at first seem.

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Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

Some absolutely valid perspectives, Julie. Thanks! I know alot of teachers just have that "if only I could..." wishlist with materials and it can be a pain to consider all the other logistical, intellectual, and legal sides even if they are all worth considering.

While it's not quite the same thing, but I feel a little twinge of irritation when I see something about ARC changed here or there, be it the name/deletion/substitution of a role or perhaps a duty of that role. But I also try to accept that my work is out there and I shouldn't control what's done with it or how it's used an adapted. Still, I'd like to see that I'm cited as the originator of this work with the caveat that it's been changed by X teacher who's using it. Of course that probably doesn't happen 100% of the time.

9:14 pm  
Blogger Anissa Khaldi said...

Even adapting through excluding some activities or questions can distort the writer’s intention regarding methodology. For example, a teacher may avoid going through guided discovery in a consciousness raising activity and directly gives his learners the rules, because he doesn't have enough time or he doesn’t have the necessary skills to go through guided discovery with lower level learners.
So why should we accept this and not editing materials. Editing can be allowed by the writer who should state some conditions for editing, such as the aim of the activity should be the same, conditions related to methodological issues ...

11:41 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love this idea. I work for a local organisation in Myanmar (www.moteoo.org) writing context-appropriate textbooks, which we publish, in print and electronic forms, as creative commons. They are on our website as PDFs, but if people ask we can send them editable InDesign versions.

We are about to embark on an English for Development series, and I am thinking that one useful format might be to bring out a sort of musculoskeletal version, into which people could add our provided text/exercise/audio recording/project, or substitute their own.

I'm going to think about this.

11:54 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Anissa, I agree that any changes by a teacher might alter the writer's original intent for the materials. However, if students have a copy of the original book, at least they can see what the teacher has skipped or added. It's clear that the teacher made the changes, NOT the author of the book.
If materials were in an editable form which the teacher could change and then print out, it wouldn't be clear to the students (or parents or other teachers who the edited printouts were shared with) which material was by the original author and what had been changed by the teacher.
Of course, the resulting lesson for the students might be the same in either scenario. My point is that if materials can be edited and changed so that the changes are not tranasparent, then the reputation of the author (and the publisher) could easily be damaged.

12:03 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Katerina, Of course, there is also a place for local, non-profit and open source materials. If you have already made the decision to make your material available under a creative commons licence then you have accepted some degree of flexibility in the way that the material will be used and making it fully editable may be appropriate. I'm not sure though that editability is appropriate for commercial materials where publishers and authors have spent many years establishing a reputation for a particular kind of quality and where schools, teachers and students choose to use those materials exactly because they guarantee a certain "standard". If students then received an edited version, which may contain mistakes or inaccuracies, they may assume those errors were the fault of the named author and publisher, rather than having been introduced locally by their teacher.

12:14 pm  

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