Free open-source textbook project: call for participation

A while back a number of us talked about producing a free open-source textbook to the Hebrew Bible/OldTestament/TaNaK/whatever you call it today. Since that first flurry the idea has quietly dropped. However, also since then I find I have one day a week next semester to do with as I please, and even more time next year :)

So, I would like to put some of that time into this project. In order to start this rolling I want to do two things:

  1. Gather a small group to be the editorial team: this group would correspond by email in private and take the final decisions, its members should be established teachers willing to spend at least a little time thinking and planning, and perhaps some more in bursts on editing tasks (though if we could get funding this might largely be outsourced). To nominate yourself or someone else please either comment here or write to me: tim at
  2. Begin and sustain a wider discussion of the parameters of the project: that is I hope the blogging community will contribute criticism and ideas that will inform the editors decisions. I’ll begin this here.

Some items for early decision.


We need to decide the scope of the project, in at least two ways:

  • Do we deal with the Hebrew or Greek canon? (I think this one is easy, put the first priority with the shorter Hebrew canon, and extend to enable a version that includes the rest when contributors permit.)
  • Is the textbook to be sectarian? By “sectarian” I am thinking of sects both religious: Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant…, and scholarly: minimalist, maximalist, etc…   (I think a similar approach might be possible. In the first instance the core chapters would try to take a non-sectarian line, and we might deliberately ask  for a reviewer from different “sects” from the author to ensure at least fairness, if not the mythical “balance”. While, once the basic chapter is written, anyone might add to it a section that suggested how this information becomes a INSERT SECT ADJECTIVE reading.)

There will be issues of size etc. but they can be discussed later.


Since the first suggestion, by Brooke on Facebook and AKMA in his blog, we have been calling this FOSOTT (Free Open-source Old Testament Textbook). While I like the acronym, and the meaning, I am less sure about designating the object of study as “Old Testament”. This is a sectarian description. I am sure different instructors can use different terms for their classes, a simple search and replace would enable one to use different terms throughout. But what name, for this rose we study, should we use in the project title?

Peer review:

Above I have mentioned reviewers, I think this work, in its “canonical” form should be peer-reviewed. As I suggested above I think for a textbook chapter such a review process might help ensure less bias and better balance, while hopefully not stiffling individuality… but I imagine others may think differently.


Like AKMA I think a CC license is the obvious choice, for me too attribution is a minimum. But he preferred non-commercial, and I would go for even greater openness…


Are we thinking text plus pictures, like a conventional print work, or will we build in the possibility of a richer electronic edition with internal and external links, video and sound… (My take is that we ask for a basic text-plus-pictures, but also seek to produce in parallel a richer electronic edition, the “print format” version could include the links to media on the project site in print format.)

Earlier discussion of this idea:

FOSOTT (Free and Open Source Old Testament Textbook)

Open Access Intro to OT

The Shortcomings of Traditional Textbooks in the Digital Age, and Our Invitation

Funding Neopublishing

multiauthor multiple possibility neotextbook

Several posts on this blog (posts in reverse chronological order :(

Open Access, Open Source, and Open Ended Textbooks

I know I have missed bookmarking quite a few contributions, so please let me know and I will add a link to yours :)

Next-generation digital book?

TED often has inspiring and intriguing short talks. Though, as a long-time visitor to the site I’m less easily wowed than I used to be. One from the latest crop is a commercial demo. It’s what Push Pop Press (or possibly TED) think is “the next-generation digital book”. Take a look, it is impressive:

I suspect the technologically clever windmill that turns when you blow will lose its wow in a few weeks, but the possibilities of the visuals is stunning. Though in the demo the data “visualizations” were on the whole less than impressive. Not a patch on for example the more static data visuals TED demonstrated a while back.

And that’s my frustration with Push Pop Press’ Al Gore book, it looks good, it may be fun, but it is static. Umberto Eco classified literature on a scale from closed to open texts. Closed texts tell you what to think, open texts encourage exploration and readers to form their own understandings. (Although his distinction was intended to describe a significant feature of fiction, I think it applies at least as powerfully to educational and “factual” books.) Looked at with Eco’s eyes, Al Gore’s sequel to An Inconvenient Truth is a closed text, it fails to encourage exploration or imagination, but tells us what to think. Despite its title Our Choice is not about us learning and growing, it’s about us watching and enjoying a masterful performance by the programmers and designers.

This iBook is a digital equivalent of the bread and circuses TV or the mega-Church “worship” that are the opium of the people in the wealthy and comfortable bubble that is Western Culture. It is indeed a next-generation digital book as the corporates would like it to be, saleable and static, a disposable commodity. A true next-generation digital book would by contrast be open, it would encourage exploration and conversation far from being disposable it would open new possibilities and thoughts on return readings.

The technology for such a book does not need teams of expensive programmers. With minimal coding skills we could do it with a combination of HTML and WordPress. The linkages and connections made possible by <a href=http://… together with the ongoing conversation and community that blogging tools allow are all that is needed for a true Next-generation Digital Book. I love to see us produce a FOSOTT (free, open source Old Testament textbook) that as well as a paper edition offered an e-book version that included such interactivity.


Image from BecomingJewish.Org

Jonathan (my always stimulating, still just, but soon moving on, colleague) of ξἐνος pointed me to a piece in the NY TImes by Lisa W. FoderaroIn a Digital Age, Students Still Cling to Paper Textbooks“. This may be, and much of it reads like, the traditional claim that “books won’t disappear anytime soon”, digital technologies and books are different, and the new cannot replace the old… Cant that has been around at least since the first enthusiast on the other “side” proclaimed with equal evangelical fervour the death of the codex. It is different from the run of the mill in a couple of ways.

First it is based on research. Among other things this gives hard figures. For example: “three-quarters of the students surveyed said they still preferred a bound book to a digital version.” Which of course is a resounding vote of confidence in the codex textbook, especially in view of the fact that a couple of years ago the figure would have been over 99%.

It’s the implied competition and contrasts between e-textbooks and paper ones that interested me.The three paragraphs I quote below came, in reverse order (with just one paragraph from the original left out) which I think enable me to make a reverse case.

“Students grew up learning from print books,” said Nicole Allen, the textbooks campaign director for the research groups, “so as they transition to higher education, it’s not surprising that they carry a preference for a format that they are most accustomed to.”

This familiarity factor is gradually diminishing as students come into the system with less familiarity with print codex works as a major part of their previous study. Already some of our first year students (younger than the average, and straight form school) only use print books if we encourage them to. Most of these students’ assignments are written using resources available on the Web, if I am lucky through Google books. But often from websites of pastors sermons, or reprints of devotional classics.

Many students are reluctant to give up the ability to flip quickly between chapters, write in the margins and highlight passages, although new software applications are beginning to allow students to use e-textbooks that way.

But of course the very things these students are reluctant to “give up” are precisely the things that any decent e-text should make easy! Non-sequential access is what hypertext is all about, commenting and user annotation are easier and more flexible in an electronic environment, and highlighting is basic. It is only publishers rushing shoveleware onto the market repurposing existing titles into containers that are designed to mimic a dead tree that makes current e-textbooks unresponsive and equally dead!

“I believe that the codex is one of mankind’s best inventions,” said Jonathan Piskor, a sophomore from North Carolina, using the Latin term for book.

Duh! Of course it is. It revolutionised the world almost as much as the invention of writing. That’s why we may expect that the next big step forward, e-text, will be equally (or at least nearly) as revolutionary.

So, who is interested in a Free Open Source Old Testament Textbook?

WordPress to codex :)

TaDa a codex! (Photo by Friar's Balsam)

The Center for History and New Media, George Mason University the people who brought us Zotero, the neat simple free “just does what it should” bibliography manager have held a One Week | One Tool project funded by the (US) National Endowment for the Humanities. The tool they produced (only 0.3 alpha as yet to be fair) they call Anthologize.

Anthologize is a free, open-source, plugin that transforms WordPress 3.0 into a platform for publishing electronic texts. Grab posts from your WordPress blog, import feeds from external sites, or create new content directly within Anthologize. Then outline, order, and edit your work, crafting it into a single volume for export in several formats, including—in this release—PDF, ePUB, TEI.

I wonder if we could use it with some other WordPress plugins to make making FOSOTT easier? And what about collaborating on and publishing the output of a colloquium? Like the Isaiah and Empire one?

The only trouble is, to get full brownie points in the academic system we may need to use a conventional respected print publisher, and I doubt any of them will be happy with opting into such a system :( How come systems (like the NZ “Performance Based Research Funding” exercise or US tenure committees) end up stifling innovative ways of undertaking basic scholarly tasks like publishing the results of research? Still FOSOTT wouldn’t count for such purposes anyway – it is merely teaching!

HT: Digital Campus

Neopublishing, FOSOTT and gateway sites

Isn’t it exciting that at last there might be movement in the direction of a really simple and significant piece of what AKMA neatly neologises as “neopublishing“! By now you know that it all started with a twit that was published on Brooke’s Facebook page (see his blog Anumma for the belated expression of this in public “Open Access Intro to OT“) that happily was seen by AKMA. And that Mark offered (in The Future for Textbooks Online) his own slant on AKMA’s take on Brooke’s ideas. Doesn’t this sound like the resume of an episode of one of those teenage soaps one’s daughters watch?

In the latest round of posts, AKMA (Funding Neopublishing) highlights some really interesting ideas for funding such a project, and since this is a high demand, low(ish) cost project the idea of (almost) crowdsourcing the funding ought to be possible :) While Mark, always the gentleman and peacemaker, seeks to convince (himself and?) us that AKMA’s multiauthor multiple possibility neotextbook is really much the same sort of teaching tool as his own proposal for a gateway site focused on the needs of beginning students and intro classes. They aren’t, but both would serve really useful purposes. FOSOTT as a textbook would allow consistency of design, format and presentation making the assimilation of the basics of the discipline easier for beginners. An Intro Gateway as a collection of links to quality (somewhat?) assured resources selected for usefulness to beginners would be great for the further reading that we hope all students will do, and that the smart ones actually do do.

Incidentally, to display my own peacemaker tendencies, I think both Mark and Bob (in his comments to Mark’s most recent post) have it right: Mark point that there are now (on at least most topics) far more quality resources and enough to make a workable “further reading” list for an intro class is correct. Bob is also right though that Google works better as a search engine, and so can offer more complete coverage than even the NT Gateway or iTanakh can manage (just note the cost though for an intro class, teachers must spend more time educating students to be critical).1

  1. Yes, we say that this is what we do, but really we sometimes resent the time spent explaining how they should have known that the latest Indiana Jones stunt is not worth the price of the salesman/archaeologist?’s hat, since that time would have been much better spent downloading more of our precious learning into their poor feeble brains. []

Free Open Source Old Testament Textbook project

From AKMA and Mark I learned that Brooke Lester had asked his Facebook friends, “I know the answer before I ask, but: Do we have no good, critical, open-access Intro to Old Testament textbooks?”

I have no idea what Brooke said, because this conversation is not on Anuma, and I’m not in the favoured few friended on Facebook. But both Mark and AKMA’s replies are brilliant, and brilliantly different. I read AKMA’s first, and he outlines exactly how such a project, that he calls FOSOTT Free Open Source Old Testament Textbook project would work. Basically with different people contributing chapters, and eventually a collection of variant chapters offering different perspectives and approaches to choose from and build your own textbook. As AKMA points out most of the infrastructure is ready and print on demand would make paper copies easily obtainable. I also love AKMA’s suggestion of podcast editions, short video intros and other optional extras. I’d add three details that I did not notice in AKMA’s presentation (which you must read!) some form of peer review or selection of authors1 so that the quality is not compromised and an archive of earlier editions so that versions are stable and therefore citable2 Thirdly I’d like to see strong guidelines for authors so that there is a measure of consistency in the topics treated and headings used, because such a straitjacket though a crimp on authors’ creativity would make life easier for poor beginning students ;)

Mark’s suggestion is a beefed up and focused version of his NT Gateway (or perhaps more precisely of Chris Heard’s iTanakh) such a site, collaboratively curated, that pointed students to suitable selected material already available on the web would also be brilliant.It has the advantage of avoiding the need for yet more spiffy wheel designs, but the disadvantages of lack of consistency and difficult printability.

I can envisage using both in different ways. FOSOTT as a textbook, that students are required to read selected chapters from week by week, they can choose whether to read online or buy a print copy, and the beginner focused Gateway site as a suggested further reading resource.

I therefore volunteer to write a chapter for FOSOTT, I can start writing at the end of next year (2011) when my current writing projects end, and if FOSOTT gets underway would prioritise it over another “volume” of HBC or other projects.

  1. Notice that here I strongly disagree with a commenter who suggested starting the textbook as a Wiki – not because I don’t like Wikipedia, I love it, but because there is so much crud “biblical” material around and I want a resource I can use to help my students see what “good” looks like! []
  2. As a teacher I need this so that I can check students bizarre quotations in their essays. []