Need a better textbook? Hack it yourself

Need a better textbook? Hack it yourself
Otago University put on a hack weekend to create a new textbook

If you've been a tertiary student you'll remember those textbooks that assume you grew up in America, Britain, or wherever the book was written, referencing TV shows and other cultural phenomena that never made it downunder.

Otago University's Department of Media, Film and Communication came up with a creative solution to that problem by organising a virtual hack to create an open introductory media studies text for first-year uni students.

"Communication and media studies in particular in Australia and New Zealand come from a cultural studies approach, so you need to look at it as part of a cultural system," says project coordinator Dr Erika Pearson.

"In the US it's all about language and rhetoric, they look at things like, if it was was a speech by Barack Obama, whether he used this word or that word.

"If you used an American textbook you'd have to delete two thirds of it anyway."

She adds these textbooks can cost as much as $120 to $150.

"When students are taking eight or nine papers and textbooks can cost $150 each, it soon adds up, especially if the student is the first generation to go to university and they're not expecting [that cost]."

The department was inspired to hack a new textbook by a project in Finland that held a weekend marathon to create a maths textbook, licensed under Creative Commons.

The Kiwi project went ahead after Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand public lead Matt McGregor came to the Otago University to give a talk and ask if they'd heard about its available grants.

Creative Commons gave Otago a couple of thousand dollars for the department's manager and administrator Bernard Madill to spearhead the hack, says Pearson.

It was all done virtually using Google Hangouts, with the University of Canterbury and Massey University joining the Otago team, along with independent teams from Auckland and South Australia.

The project has three phases, the first was setting up the collaboration framework and foundation structure of the text, followed by developing the teams' first drafts. The second phase is the hack weekend, to be documented into a 'cookbook' for others to follow in future text hacks.

The conversations between the teams have been recorded and members have kept written diaries and video diaries, says Pearson. "Because we're so dispersed, everything has been emailed so we have this massive email thread we can mine."