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
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.
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
Finally, do you feel that OER would be possible for all kinds of
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
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
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
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.
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
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).