Digital Textbooks for Schools
Wikipedia For Teachers


In the digital classroom of the future there is also going to be a need for digital teaching and learning materials. Open Educational Resources (OER) are going to provide the key for this. There is already a German OER biology book – and Germany could also learn a good deal more from various initiatives that have been launched in other countries.

Freely accessible learning materials available online for everybody that come with a licence that permits them to be worked on or redistributed – is one way of generally defining Open Educational Resources (OER). This was also exactly the way Hans Wedenig and Heiko Przyhodnik imagined the perfect school textbook to be – so open and so free. That is why, without further ado, they invented the Schulbuch-o-mat – a platform for the production of OER textbooks. Their first project was a biology textbook for the seventh and eighth grade that was geared to the framework curriculum for Berlin schools, including the Hauptschule (secondary modern school) the Realschule (middle school), the Gesamtschule (comprehensive school) and the Gymnasium (grammar school).

Free textbooks

“For us it was not about challenging the publishing sector, but more about tackling shortcomings,” says Hans Wedenig. One evening in Berlin he was sitting around chatting with his friend, Heiko Przyhodnik, about the way the schools their sons attended were using the media – they were both not very happy about it. Outdated information in expensive books that had to be used in lessons year after year and that completely ignored the way pupils were using the new media in these times of smart phones and tablets. A further point – of course, there are huge amounts of teaching materials, because teachers prepare their lessons individually, but there has never been one place where these materials could be stored and made available to everyone.

This is exactly the kind of platform the Schulbuch-o-mat is intended to be – one where teachers can gather material and exchange ideas on it, a kind of Wikipedia for teaching materials. “Our aim was to simply create a free textbook and show that things can be done differently,” says Wedenig. The two of them then collected 10,000 euros on the startnext crowdfunding platform and launched the project. In the meantime the textbook is finished and has been authorised with a Creative Commons Licence, CC-BY-SA. This means that the content can be used again and again, provided the author is named and the work done with it takes place under the same conditions. This means that teachers in all the different federal states of Germany can use it, as long as they ensure that the content they use is in line with the recommended curriculum for the subject in their respective state. Although school textbooks require regulatory approval in most of Germany’s federal states, it only applies to books that have to be paid for.

Advantages compared to printed textbooks

“The textbook market is being turned upside down and no way can it be stopped,” says Wedenig. “The change is coming – you only have to take a look at what has been happening for so long on the regular book market and in the music industry.” Sandra Schön, from Salzburg Research, a research association, also sees it the same way. “It is clear that business models will have to be rethought. Why should school textbook publishers, of all people, be immune to change?”

The question is, however, just how long is it going to take for this change to arrive in all classrooms. Researcher Schön has already had some experience herself with producing open teaching materials. In collaboration with Martin Ebner from the TU Graz and over 100 authors, 80 specialists and lots of other helpers she produced the L3T textbook (Teaching and Learning with Technologies). “The aim of our project was not to show that we could produce a book like that for little money, we wanted to show just how useful OER is,” says Schön.  In Austria, for example, the Ministry of Education has developed and financed a book on the fundamentals of teaching with sample lessons and progress reports. The people responsible decided on the OER version for the project. If the teaching materials are available online and are appropriately licensed, as many colleagues as possible can make use of it and adapt it to their needs very quickly – that is something that could not be done with a classic textbook in this form.

OER initiatives in Poland and Norway

While there was an initiative in Germany to sniff out school computers for illegally produced digital copies, other countries adopted a substantially more decisive approach to the subject. In 2012 Poland launched an OER offensive with its digital school project and invested around 11 million euros in the production of free and openly accessible teaching materials for the 4th to 6th grade. All the materials have a CC-BY licence and may therefore be copied and worked on, provided the author’s name is mentioned. In Norway the government-sponsored National Digital Learning Arena (NDLA) is responsible for the production of OER materials. The materials are particularly geared to the secondary level, quality management is carried out in cooperation with the universities and other institutions.

In Germany, the government takes first steps in sponsoring OER. The current coalition government consisting of the CDU, CSU and SPD parties issued a statement, “In collaboration with the federal states and players from all fields of education we will develop and implement a common “Digital Learning” strategy that makes decisive use of the opportunities presented by the new media for improving education. The textbooks and teaching materials at universities are also to be made freely available, as far as it is possible, and the use of free licences and formats is to be extended.” In  the federal budget for 2015, two million euros have been scheduled for the first time for the fevelopment of OER.