Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Answering some Questions about OER

This week I was asked by a reporter at my school newspaper about Open Educational Resources. I wrote up my responses to her, and figured in the spirit of openness, I'd share them here. The reporter's questions are in bold.  For those who don't know, WAMAP is the same platform as MyOpenMath, and the one that people at my school are more familiar with.

Firstly, what made you interested in creating an online textbook, and was it difficult to do?

The first book I did, for Math 107, came about because I was teaching the course online.  I really hated that my students were paying $150 for the book in a terminal course they really didn't want to take anyway, especially since it is a topics course and I was only using about half the book.  Somewhere around 2008 I moved the homework for the course online in WAMAP, so I wasn't even using the text for homework questions anymore, and that cost really seemed ridiculous.  I figured I could write a decent replacement for the chapters I was using, so I sat down and did it.  I can't remember how long that first version took, but it wasn't too horribly long.  I started using it, and figured I might as well share it in case anyone else would find it useful.  Over the years, I've added several more chapters, some totally by myself, and some by building off of work given to me by other faculty at other schools.  I was able to do a refinement and add some more chapters as part of the Open Course Library grant (described better below).

The second book I worked on together with Melonie Rasmussen, for Math 141 and 142, was connected with the Open Course Library grant from the state community college system.  The grant was technically for building a course using existing open resources, not writing a book, but we couldn't find anything existing we liked, and Melonie and I had always wanted to write a free book for that course, so we figured it was a good opportunity to do it.  That grant gave us each 1 course release from teaching for a year.  The first draft for the book for 141 took me about 6 weeks of 2-3 hours a night at Starbucks, and about the same for the 142 book.  Melonie put in a comparable amount of time revising, adding "try it now" problems, etc.  Luckily, we were able to use existing WAMAP questions for homework - we didn't end up adding exercises to the book for several months.

So was it difficult?  Yeah, it was :)  But the effort we put in meant that other faculty at Pierce, Green River CC, Shoreline CC, UCLA, Scottsdale CC, etc. didn't have to put in that same effort; they could simply take what we created, make any changes they needed to fit their college's course, and start using it.  And that's exactly what's happened.   The 141/142 book has saved students around the country at least $500,000, probably quite a bit more.

Also, do you feel that your textbook works just as well as a print book?

To be clear, open doesn't have to be an online vs. print thing.  Many students do buy bound printed copies of our open text, which is sold in the bookstore, or available on Amazon for $15.  And some students assigned commercial texts decide to buy ebook versions of them.  The issue is really commercial vs open:  $100+ print and $60+ ebook, vs ~$15 print and free ebook.

To the question, I certainly do think it works just as well as a commercial text, though obviously I'm a biased source :)   Luckily I have some data to back that up.  For the 107 book, I only have a little data (about 450 students), but it's shown a steady (but not statistically significant) increase in student success for students using that text.

For the 141/142 text, we compared about 5000 students from Pierce, Green River, and Shoreline using the text in 2011-2013 to about 5000 students who had used a commercial text the years prior, and saw no statistically significant difference in success rates.  I'd love to be able to say we saw a huge jump in success, but frankly, I'm fine with no change since we saved those students $300K in the process.

There's a lot of data out there for other math courses and courses outside math, and all of it seems to suggest that students can do just as well, often better, with open resources than with commercial texts.  I think there are two main reasons:
1) Students have access to the materials day 1, so they're not getting behind on their homework or reading while waiting for their financial aid check to come in.
2) The instructors often have collected and customized the materials to exactly target their desired course outcomes.  This also means the instructor is more connected to and excited about the material, since they have some ownership of it.

Finally, do you feel that OER would be possible for all kinds of courses?
Of course it would be possible, but not everyone has the time or ambition to create a book for the fun of it :)  Happily, a lot of progress has been made in existing open resources, but whether they are sufficient for faculty is a different question.

I generally see that there are 3 kinds of instructors:

The first are the makers - the people who like to create unique learning experiences for students.  These folks are really well suited to OER, and are probably perfectly happy to just not use a book at all.  Particularly in disciplines like social sciences and humanities, I know some instructors have chosen to ditch a traditional text altogether, feeling they can create a more meaningful experience for students by combining readings and articles from a variety of sources.

The second group are folks that want a complete textbook for any of a variety of reasons, often driven by a course that needs a strong reference text.  For them, things have come a HUGE way in the last few years.  When I released by first version of my 107 text, it was one of the very few open texts out there (and one of a very few that would be considered mainstream).  Since then, tons of grant-funded projects have released really high quality OER material for a ton of disciplines.  There are now dozens of courses that have high quality complete open textbooks available, and there are dozens more in the pipeline.  Math now has open textbooks for almost every course.

The third group are folks that rely on publisher materials.  Usually when we adopt a commercial book, the publisher will supply us with complete solutions manuals, test banks, powerpoint slides, online homework systems, etc.  Some faculty rely heavily on this kind of material, and as you can imagine, most open textbooks don't come with this kind of stuff.

We've tried to address some of that in math through WAMAP, an open online homework system for math that can be used with open textbooks.

The open textbook organization OpenStax College got enough grant funding for their project that they're trying to build some of those ancillary materials for the books they're creating, and is teaming up with commercial companies for the online exercises.

There are also efforts, like the Open Course Library and the Kaleidoscope Project, that have worked on developing "complete courses" using open resources, in the hopes of filling some of those needs.  The Open Course Library had mixed results, with some courses being very useful, and some not so much.  The Kaleidoscope Project courses were created a bit differently, with a stronger focus on adoption.  Some of them have been quite successful in adoption beyond the original creators, partly because of the services of the company providing support for the project.  (disclosure:  I've been on leave working with that company for the last year).

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