This Conservative Country Is Trying Something Radical in Education

This Conservative Country Is Trying Something Radical in Education

Why you should care

Because free textbooks may sound like a great idea — but it’s more complicated than that.

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This is not a story about Brazil, but it could have been. At the starting gun — a 2007 Cape Town conference of education experts — Brazil and Poland were neck and neck in a race for open education, for a new world in which textbooks grow, change and don’t need to be rebought every year. Nine years later, Brazil is not considered a world leader when it comes to digital textbooks and open licenses for academic resources. Poland is a different story.

The Eastern European nation is now home to the first national open-textbook program in the world. Now, Poland isn’t exactly seen as a bastion of forward thinkers, or of progressive education. But ironically, that’s part of the reason the country has made such great leaps and bounds here: The educational system hasn’t worked. About half the students in Poland have tutors outside of classes to augment the education they get in public schools, says Alek Tarkowski, an educational activist with the Centrum Cyfrowe Projekt. Radical dysfunction, in turn, allowed the Polish government the momentum to combine several progressive education programs — digital textbooks for students, public funding for textbooks and open licenses on educational materials that let creative teachers remix their lessons.

It began in earnest in 2011, when Poland decided to bring in an online open-textbook option. That struggled to catch on, so two years later there was a new model: a publicly funded textbook for first-graders, this time on regular paper. The nation’s textbook industry kicked back mightily against government-provided textbooks, arguing that their free-market rights were under attack, as schools would be pressured to choose the government version of the book, Tarkowski says. But the progressives have won a measured victory, at least for now: While older grades still see parents paying between $66 and $132 annually per child for textbooks, textbooks are now publicly funded for elementary and middle school.

This might surprise those who’ve been following Polish politics: The very-right-wing Law and Justice party, which won a parliamentary majority in 2015, isn’t what anyone thinks of when discussing traditionally lefty programs like open access to educational materials and creative commons licensing. “We were very lucky that Alek in particular had very strong ties with the previous government and was able to work with them very closely on the development of the program,” says Melissa Hagemann of Open Society Foundations, which has supported some of Poland’s initiatives. When the new government came in, it wasn’t a problem — partly because the initiatives are guaranteed funding until 2020.

But how will the textbook content fare under a right-wing government? Tarkowski says the program may tie in with some near-and-dear Law and Justice issues and that the party’s patriotic values could seep into government-created textbooks as the program progresses. The new government is big on nationalism, Tarkowski explains. “They really want to shift the books children read to be more aligned with conservative, patriotic, traditional values,” he says. Tarkowski says it doesn’t much matter right now: “As supporters of openness, we’re basically agnostic to it.”

Even aside from shifting political winds, there are limits to the revolution open textbooks can work in Poland. With open textbooks and digital textbooks all mashed up, the problem of Polish schools not always having decent digital access could be a serious impediment. And one of the selling points for open-education resources — that they can be shared globally — doesn’t hold in Poland, since nobody outside the country is going to produce Polish-language resources.

However, the open-access movement is thriving across the world: in South Africa, Hong Kong and (of course) Canada, where British Columbia has been working on its open-education movement for more than a decade, with millions put toward creating 140 open textbooks aimed at postsecondary students at universities and in trade schools. “[Open education] is not a trend or a phenomenon,” Amanda Coolidge, a senior manager at Canadian open textbook project BCcampus, says. “It’s a movement.”

The next step after open textbooks may be even more drastic: no textbooks at all. While the open-textbook movement has been great for introducing innovative policies into Polish schools, Tarkowski believes it’s possible to move beyond the concept altogether: “Children sitting in rows, rote-learning content from a single textbook — it’s very 19th century,” he says. “But now we’re in the postindustrial age.” As Poland creaks into the future, he posits, it’ll need to train creative minds, and that’s where creativity with the source material comes in. “You can cut things out, create your own version and share it with others,” he says. “It becomes a living textbook.” It becomes a bridge between the old model and the new.

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