Sunday, November 24, 2013


OER and Devices

I’m not above crowdsourcing solutions to very practical campus issues.

Wise and worldly readers, I’m having a hard time cracking the “devices” question for OER.  I’m hoping someone out there has a reasonably elegant solution, or set of solutions.

Here’s the context, and some parameters of useful solutions:

- Textbook costs have become a real stumbling block for many students.  Especially in the sciences and certain social sciences, it’s not unusual for an introductory textbook to run two hundred dollars or more.  For a student taking four or five classes, that adds up quickly.  Since many of our students are struggling with daily expenses, they often try to get through the class without buying the book.  That strategy usually ends in tears.

- Over the past couple of years, several providers of Open Educational Resources have come along -- often with foundation support -- to make alternatives either free or very inexpensive.  Even better, since most of those alternatives are electronic and specifically designed with access in mind, most of them are ADAA compliant right out of the gate.  That’s often not true for certain large, very successful textbook publishers I could name.

- On campus, we’ve used some grant funding to establish a working group of both full-time and adjunct faculty who receive stipends to investigate the possibilities of OER alternatives to commercial textbooks in their respective classes.  The idea is to get some early adopters to do the legwork, and then to rely on viral transmission among faculty for the concept to spread.  Between colleagues saying “look what I found!” and students saying “I’m broke, and how come my friend’s books are free?”, I’m hoping to see adoption of OER spread quickly.  We aren’t even getting hung up on the question of lost bookstore revenues; the college leadership has decided, correctly, that doing right by the students is the most important thing.  Eventually, if OER adoption hits critical mass, we may have to move to some sort of nominal fee for it, but we’re not there yet.

Here’s the tricky part.  

Because most of the OER materials are electronic, they have to be read on devices.  We’re taking a principled position that we aren’t going to go with any vendor-specific platform -- cough Apple cough -- because it’s important that students have many device options, and that at least some of the choices are inexpensive enough that we aren’t defeating the purpose.  And of course, at least some of those devices need to be compatible with ADAA requirements.

Getting from “this would be a good idea” to “here’s how it’ll work” is proving a challenge.  Obviously, some students will bring devices of their own already, and for them, it’s easy.  Others won’t have an issue with buying whatever they want.  But for the students who don’t show up with a tablet or laptop, and for whom every dollar counts, we need to make sure that any device we pick is robust enough to meet their needs, cheap enough to be a net money saver, and tied to a specific course so it’ll be eligible for financial aid coverage, much like a lab kit would be.

Wise and worldly readers, any thoughts on how to thread that needle?  

In my perfect world, there would be an accessible format that would work on nearly any device, and students then could choose anything from the highest-end, most recent ipad to a refurbished version of last year’s kindle, and it would all be fine.  But it’s hard to claim a requirement as loose as that for financial aid purposes.

Has anyone out there figured out the device question?

First, I recommend a survey of your student body. I have done that for some years now, and a distinct minority (ranging from 0% to 5%) do not own a portable computing device that can be used to do on-line homework and they almost all have some kind of computer at home. I think access is less of an issue than you think it is. Yes, they probably buy them with borrowed "room and board" money, but they have them.

If it is competent (which I suspect it is from your nicely designed web site), your IT department ought to be able to tell you exactly what your students use (software and O/S) to check their e-mail.

Second, a resource isn't open if it requires a specific device, whether it be the currently dominant player (Microsoft), or the secondary ones (Apple and Google and Amazon) who are being challenged by the former in the portable market.

The biggest problem I know about is that the "flashy" resources did not work with Apple portables at first, but an app gets around that.
I recommend looking at Open University, if you haven't already. They provide a lot of course material, in a lot of different formats, and while they certainly make use of Apple's iTunesU for distributing courseware the materials are available directly from their website, so those without access to either Apple devices or Windows devices (iTunes runs on both) can still download them.

They have a nice little mini-course on developing resources which I suggest you watch. One take-away I got from it was that ePub seems to be the way to go if you want to maximize access: ePub readers are available for all platforms, and while you loose the nice extras of Apple's iBooks format you gain in portability. (And, if you use a decent XML-based system for managing content, you can easily generate ePub books as well as web pages, so you can have both mobile and large-screen content without increasing your overhead.)

One other caveat: don't assume that your students have recent-vintage devices, or high-bandwidth connections. Open University makes instruction great videos, but they have several versions available scaled for non-Retina iPods up to HDTVs, so you can download only the video that fits your device (or your data cap).
To the extent that this question is about what device would actually meet students' needs and that financial aid could cover ("for the students who don’t show up with a tablet or laptop, and for whom every dollar counts, we need to make sure that any device we pick is robust enough to meet their needs, cheap enough to be a net money saver, and tied to a specific course so it’ll be eligible for financial aid coverage"): I would seriously like to know the answer to that question as well.

I'll have a good look-see at what Open University is doing (to the extent that there's a gold standard for distance education, they're it) but the UK isn't beholden to the, shall we say, wild and wonderful ways of the United States Department of Education.

I shill actively for what OpenStax College is doing, and the hope is they'll have something online for the general chemistry course soon so I can use that as a foundational thing in my course sequences. I already use the OpenStax text in my pre-med physics course.
Nook Simple Touch is my favorite. I've owned (and lost/broken) all of the black and white e-readers. Kindle Fire would handle figures (and color) better, I imagine, but Amazon is trying to control its ecosystem more... Nook will definitely read e-pub, and many other formats.

If you want more of just a "tablet" tablet, I've been happy with my Saumsung Galaxy Tab. With the Nook and Kindle apps. :-)

Do you offer some kind of Freshman Seminar? Adjust the syllabus to include requirements that each student must: communicate with the instructor over email, participate in an online course session (held in-class to provide training), etc., and you should have justification for requiring a computing device of some kind, without being tied to a specific device.
Students who have no (or incompatible) devices can always pay to have the open-source textbook printed. Still much less than typical texts.

Also, we instituted a netbook rental program that has been quite successful. Students pay $50-$100 to rent an inexpensive netbook for the term. The program is pretty much revenue-neutral for us. Problems do arise however, when a student has their netbook stolen or loses it, because then they are on the hook for the purchase price ($250-$300). Still, we are pretty happy with this plan.

Adoption on the part of faculty is uneven. Some are quite happy with the 15th edition of the same text that they have been using for 25 years. Others have not found a book good enough to replace what they were using. Having perused the science offerings, this is indeed true, as open-source offerings in the science disciplines are also quite uneven. Others have found very good alternatives, particularly in Math.
My local K-12 school board has a BYOD policy for students. Checking your primary feeder boards' policies might help with your "traditional" students, and some of the more general frameworks (see might have something useful as well. Obviously it's a different context, but I'm sure parts will transfer.
Our library rents netbooks to students who want them at $10/quarter. No, financial aid doesn't cover it, but it doesn't need to. IIRC, the student government ponied up the startup money through a tech fee. They are very excited about cheaper textbooks. I imagine you could also get a grant for the initial cost.

To Anonymous 7:10 AM:

What were the good OER math books you found?
A couple thoughts:
- Select books which do have a print version available. Flat World Knowledge is a favorite of mine here: while they're not OER, they're affordable and they offer print AND ebook versions of all texts. Many open access book come with print versions, or you might be able to make coursepacks out of PDFs.
- Open licenses give you freedom to export to any format. If you choose a CC-licensed text (any of the licenses that exclude NoDerivs will work) you can convert it to PDF, ePub, etc. and possibly set up print-on-demand if necessary.
- In terms of devices, it's trivial to save enough for a Kindle Fire in a single semester of free etextbooks. That device would make sense as a baseline, though almost any tablet would work.
What's truly crazy here—we can require students to purchase textbooks that cost $200, but we can't require an electronic device that's less than that? When you put it in perspective it's strange.
Our biggest struggle is with the campus bookstore: it's run by a corporation which doesn't want to sell competitors devices. That severely hampers what we can do, e.g. faculty can't require Apple iTunes U materials or .mobi ebooks.
There may be licensing issues with some of the paid ones, but don't you have the option of just printing out the online resources at cost for the people who will not have access? Basically, you just charge for the paper and the toner.

I guess multimedia may be a problem, but if it's just the occasional video file it's much easier for students to go to the library for that rather than having to continually refer to the text.

Also worth a mention: Dover Books. Some of their textbooks are a bit out of date (many things in Chemistry have changed since Linus Pauling's time) but there are a number of their books that are still relevant, and the cost per book is around $10-20.
The OpenStax books (at least Biology and Concepts of Biology) are excellent and available as simple pdfs. I don't think the bells and whistles of fancier formats are worth the hassle at this stage.
A few comments made me realize I had completely missed your penultimate line "But it’s hard to claim a requirement as loose as that for financial aid purposes."

Your challenge is how to get financial aid to pay for a device?

1) Most students at my CC appear to use the "living expense" part of their financial aid for such things. The exception would be the ones with kids where that part feeds their kids.

2) I have seen a number of universities that mandate some sort of computer but do so with a set of minimum specifications rather than requiring a specific combination of hardware and software. I'd suggest looking into some of those examples and see if that gets translated into a maximum $$$ amount that gets put in their "cost of attendance" data so it counts for financial aid.
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