The modern college textbook, often written with a specific course in mind, is expensive, inflexible, and hard to customize or update. Professors who wish to teach courses without adhering to a syllabus completely aligned with a particular text have only a couple of options: force students to buy an expensive book that they will only use a percentage of, or spend large amounts of time compiling other source materials into a custom coursepack. The result is a net loss — students lose out on innovative materials while racking up costs (and half-used texts), and professors lose opportunities to pursue new directions and develop custom courses without a significant initial investment.
The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, with support from the Harvard Law School Library, has developed a Web-based platform — H2O — for creating, editing, organizing, consuming, and sharing course materials. With this capacity to develop countless customized electronic textbooks, we envision building a corpus of open-source materials available for dynamic use by faculty and students at Harvard and beyond. Piloted with legal casebooks, H2O has been received with broad approval in Professor Jonathan Zittrain’s Torts class, with the planned expansion into a number of additional courses in the 2012-2013 school year.
Using H2O, professors may freely develop and collate course materials by selecting cases from a wide — and growing — repository; by editing those cases to the sections that are most relevant to their particular pedagogy and approach; and by grouping them into readings for each day, week, month, and semester. Once the materials are assembled, they can be copied in part or in whole by other interested faculty and then edited further.
H2O is based on the open-source model, originally a method of writing software that relies on the strength and skills of a community, rather than a single person, to develop a product. Instead of locking down materials in formalized casebooks, we believe that course books can be “free” (as in “free speech”) for everyone to access and build upon.
H2O charts an important path towards the development of twenty-first-century textbooks — a path that builds upon the ethos of open, shared, and available online materials. We envision a community of professors who share materials, allow others to tweak them, and return the new versions to the community for further use and additional development.