Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Getting There From Here

As regular readers know, I’m not above using the blog to fish for helpful hints.  (Readers under 40 can replace that with “helpful hacks” if it clarifies.)  This is the latest effort at idea fishing.

I’m a fan of Open Educational Resources (OER).  They’re free, usually electronic alternatives to commercial textbooks.  They offer the rare win-win-win: students save money, so they win; students show up to class having “bought” the book, so faculty win; students are likelier to complete, so everyone wins.  A few big publishers lose, but I’m okay with that.  I can see a clear goal: get entire programs to adopt OER, like Tidewater Community College did in its Business program.  We could save students thousands of dollars apiece, we could market the hell out of it, and we could level the playing field to some degree for low-income students.  It’s a fine and worthy goal, if I do say so myself.

At Holyoke, I was able to direct some grant dollars to stipends for individual faculty to investigate, adopt, and report back on the success or failure of OER in their own classes.  A fair number participated, and the feedback was generally positive.  But a couple of years later, OER remained largely on the fringes.  Some folks jumped in with both feet, and some more used it to reduce the overall reliance on paid books, but most continue(d) to use commercial texts.  A smallish exploratory project led to positive, but still smallish, adoption.  

The culture of Brookdale, as of Holyoke, effectively forbids mandates, so adoption has to be voluntary.  I can hope to convince, but I can’t command.  I’m okay with that, too.

I’d love to see a viral transmission model, in which faculty who have good results with OER tell their colleagues, and momentum builds naturally. (“Nobody put off buying the book!” is a pretty enticing argument…) After a while, students might seek out OER sections to save money -- voting with their feet -- and thereby create enrollment pressure on those who still force purchases.  Ideally, eventually the commercial publishers start producing better value for the money out of sheer market pressure, so even non-adopters win through a sort of coattail effect.

The part I’m struggling with is getting there from here.  

I’m happy to support some early explorers, but the resources don’t exist to stipend everybody.  And I don’t want early stipends to have an unintended chilling effect on later participation, by inadvertently encouraging people to wait for payouts before moving forward.  (At a previous college, an earlier wave of retirement incentives seemed to have taught people to wait for the next wave.  The pipeline got pretty jammed while people waited for checks that weren’t coming.  The effect is real.)    

Here’s where I hope that my wise and worldly readers have seen something I haven’t.  For those who’ve seen a successful large-scale transition, how did it happen?  For those in the midst of it, what’s working?  Any hints/hacks you could share would be appreciated.

Could you affect the results by maintaining a master list--easily accessible to all on the campus website*--of all the textbooks each course requires and how much they would cost to purchase? If students see "oh, I'd have to pay twice as much to take Geology as Biology for my science credit" that could provide students with a easier vote-with-your-feet approach. And it's good transparency for students in general.

*Probably on the registrar's page. Your tuition and fees page could also link to it.
Here is an example of a list of open-access textbooks:

I'd ping someone at Lumen Learning: http://lumenlearning.com

(I don't work for them or anything, but I do work with OER in the K-12 space, and know people who work there.)
I don't have an answer, but I do think that you've brought up a fascinating aspect of OER: how to maintain them over time.
I hate how much textbooks cost as much as anyone, but at least the money means that someone will be incentivized to write new textbooks.
It seems like OER follows this pattern: someone with money decides they want this to happen (*cough*Gates Foundation*cough*), ponies up the money to make it happen, then walks away and hopes for the best. After that either people just keep reusing the exact same book (and thus not 'keeping up with new trends') or else the faculty get to add 'write a textbook' to their job description.
It seems like a lot of the challenge isn't just getting people to use it now, but having a realistic plan for keeping the option attractive in the future.
Our math department at my community college got a summer grant to write a textbook for our liberal arts math class. We each did a chapter, and it will be piloted this Spring. It's the "I hate math and can't wait to finish my math requirement" math class. We know they would NEVER use the book after the class is over, so keeping costs down is key. We're writing our own online homework as well.
The best free textbook I've found is E.O. Wilson's Life on Earth.


This is what a good textbook should be like.

(Downside: only works on an Apple device. Upside: excellent use of those device's capabilities.)
If your textbook requires an Apple device, it's probably not going to do well on the metric of affordability.

I said it before, and I'll say it again. I'd also recommend pushing not just towards free resources, but cheap ones. Dover Books are great for mathematics. Some other fields (e.g. biology) might require more up-to-date resources, but I don't see why some grants couldn't hire someone folks to write $20 textbooks that shouldn't go obsolete right away.
Why not ask for evidence of contributing to an OER at recruitment, advancement & tenure?
Do you know what your institution's bookstore makes in terms of revenue for the college? I've always been curious as to how deeply embedded the publishing industry is in various institutions, public and private non-profit alike.
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