Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Open Textbooks: Community and Sustainability

Redwood Majesty
Redwood Majesty (Photo: MizzD)
In our discussions with faculty and administrators about free, openly licensed textbooks, I still get questions about "sustainability." Those questions really boil down to "who is going to pay for all of that work?" Often the implication is that we some how need to mimic the commercial textbook publishing model in order to get "a quality product." This is in spite of the fact that commercial textbooks only really have the illusion of being quality products (see "The Myth of Commercial Textbook Reliability"). And there are companies out there that will be happy to sell you something not-quite-entirely-unlike-open textbooks to help preserve administrators' and teachers' comfort levels with the past models. It is nice to think that there is this all-knowing mental giant of a subject matter expert who went to all of the right schools who will once and for all explain it all into a single book (okay, maybe with some relatively inexpensive supplements, study guides, and test banks). We have to break out of thinking that a textbook is a course. Teaching and learning does not come out of books but from interaction with one another; with engagement. This interaction is best facilitated in community. Here in the community college, it begins in the local school districts with our dedicated faculty reaching out to the local high schools and learning about the challenges the students face. The engagement comes when experienced faculty begin to assess their students and shape their teaching and teaching materials to the needs of their students. And yes, finding quality textbooks as a community can be part of that. But what if part of the equation, part of the problem is that the students can't afford those textbooks? Or the school districts can no longer afford to pay for those textbooks? Or if the textbooks don't really address the needs of the students? Do we make the students buy more supplements to the textbooks?

Over and over again, I am finding that the answer to these questions is community. The math department at College of the Redwoods is just one of many examples I could point to. The teachers have written their own openly licensed textbooks based on their experience with the local students. They created the textbooks first because they found the current commercial textbooks inadequate for addressing the issues of the local students but then also to save the students money, to lower the cost of education.The math department used money from their budget, faculty meetings, sabbaticals, etc. to work on their textbooks. The books are hosted on the math department server along with the online assessment system that they created to accompany their books.

College of the Redwoods also participated in the Kaleidoscope Project. The Kaleidoscope Project focused on community: the eight partner colleges, and the collaboration of the instructors from these colleges to adopt open course designs for general education courses. Common assessments were encouraged, and materials were iteratively improved based on student results. The project also focused on the adoption and development of existing open textbooks rather than creating new materials. The key to the success of Kaleidoscope was the community, not the money.

True sustainability in open textbooks will not look like the previous models of commercial textbook publishing. We already know that we cannot afford that. It will look more like an on-going seminar with high quality, community based OERs and open textbooks as the result. The Creative Commons licensing model will be important. I believe we will need to put an "NC" - a non-commercial license on open textbooks to prevent commercial businesses from locking openly licensed content behind pay walls.

So how do we make OERs and open textbooks sustainable? Change our thinking on textbooks and their relation to courses. Change our thinking on tenure and publishing. For a start, we can do (and formalize) what many communities are already doing:

  • Give faculty release time for writing and editing textbooks
  • Tie writing OERs and textbooks to tenure
  • Participate in the peer-review of OERs and open textbooks (e.g. MEROT Open Textbook Initiative and the College Open Textbooks Community, etc.)
  • Leverage the community that already exists (academic senates, student govt., school boards, etc.) to address these problems
  • Get serious about removing financial barriers to education for students

There are many models of sustainability out there besides the Kaleidoscope Project (such as Open Access Textbooks).

Math Textbooks at College of the Redwoods:

This is from the math department web page at College of the Redwoods. The bookstore once told me that they thought that about 70 percent of the students bought a copy of the book even though a free version was available.
  • Math 376:
    • Each Math 376 student will be provided a free textbook and solutions manual on CD.
      The textbook and solutions manual are also available online at http://msenux.redwoods.edu/PreAlgText
    • Many students find that they also want a printed version of the textbook and/or solutions manual.
      • You will be able to purchase a new printed version of the textbook from lulu.com for $20 plus shipping, and the solutions manual for $20 plus shipping.
    • For more information on Math 376 textbooks and other resources, see the department course page at http://msenux.redwoods.edu/mathdept/courses/math376.php
  • Math 380 options:
    • Each Math 380 student will be provided a free textbook and solutions manual on CD.
      The textbook and solutions manual are also available online at http://mathrev.redwoods.edu/ElemAlgText
    • Many students find that they also want a printed version of the textbook and/or solutions manual.
      • You will be able to purchase a new printed version of the textbook from lulu.com for $20 plus shipping, and the solutions manual for $18 plus shipping.
    • For more information on Math 380 textbooks and other resources, see the department course page at http://msenux.redwoods.edu/mathdept/courses/math380.php
  • Math 120: 
    • Each Math 120 student will be provided a free textbook and solutions manual on CD.
      The textbook and solutions manual will also be available online at http://msenux.redwoods.edu/IntAlgText
    • Many students find that they also want a printed version of the textbook and/or solutions manual. You will be able to purchase printed versions from the CR bookstore.
    • For more information on Math 120 textbooks and other resources, see the course page at http://msenux.redwoods.edu/mathdept/courses/math120.php
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