How to Pair Affordability for the Students with the Freedom to Create Materials that Custom-fit your Course
Dr. Sean Fitzpatrick
1: How did you first become interested in the topic of Open Educational Resources?
Affordable textbooks, whether open or not, have always been a concern for me since in most of the positions I had at larger universities before, where textbooks are set by committees, I didn't have much influence in what book was going to be used. This changed when I started teaching in the Math Department at Uleth where we introduced a new Math 1010 bridging course for Calculus basics. First, we looked around for commercial textbooks that were available and there was one that would have worked, but it came at a ridiculously high cost. Knowing that the standard material in the commercial textbooks is also available in many other places made me think that we should try to come up with a customized solution that could work for the course exactly the way we wanted and that also wouldn't set the students back too much money to enroll. My interest in OER is linked to the fact that they pair affordability for the students with the freedom for an instructor to create something that custom-fits the course in question.
2: What are the advantages of an open textbook over a traditional textbook?
With an open textbook, you are free to pick and choose what you want. In my case of the aforementioned bridging Calculus course Math 1010, even though there wasn't a single book that did everything, I found a pair of books – the APEX Calculus by Hartman et al and the Open Precalculus materials by Stitz and Zeager that had everything I needed. I first choose the chapters I needed from each book, assembled them in the order that fit my course after and finally added my own portion, before I turned it into a course pack. The advantage with adopted OER materials is that you don’t have to wait for a new edition to come out before mistakes can be corrected or more materials can be added because as soon as you find something that isn't up to your standards, you can just go on to your computer, pull up the file and make the change immediately. I would like to emphasize that the book may not be perfect the first time you use it, but the open nature of the text means that every time you teach from the book, you can find things to improve, and gradually the book will get better and converge towards an ideal text.
3: Can you explain what was involved in the modification of the OER materials you are using in your courses now?
The amount of time and effort depends on how picky you want to be as far as the product you want to put in front of your students is concerned. The Open Calculus book I chose, for instance, had a decent layout with professional graphics and good content to begin with. One major quirk I had to address right away though was a big blank section at the bottom of each page, which would not matter much in the US where printing prices are minor, but I needed to keep the page count down to cut the printing cost for our Canadian students. For that as well as for my own modifications of the content, I needed to figure out the code that the creators were using so that I could adjust it to fit my own course. The amount of work I put into the modification of a compatible code base for that one Calculus textbook paid well off because now, if somebody wanted to put together his or her own book for something else, he or she can just choose any of the existing chapters and simply paste his or her own materials into that single, nicely consistent document.
4: How do you make sure the textbooks you adapted are of good quality?
The starting point to me is to find an open textbook which has good quality to begin with. One of the places I looked for some of the math materials is the American Institute of Mathematics that maintains a website with a list of what they call approved textbooks, meaning books that have been vetted by somebody, that have been used in a classroom and the creators have some feedback on, so that it’s to be reasonable book that you could use it in the classroom and that would work alright.
5: How long did it take you to modify the OER materials for your math courses?
It's been two summers worth of almost full-time work, but that's not just for one book. Two summers worth of work yielded five textbooks , including the code base and an OER online homework system installation on our server.
6: What would you recommend potential OER adopters do if they want to get into the modification of their own materials?
If you're interested in adopting open materials, you want to start by spending some time searching to see if you can find an open text which is almost good enough. Some of the resources that I'm aware of are specific to my field of mathematics, but I'm sure other disciplines have their own sites of their subjects, like the BC Open Campus Initiative or the MIT for, for instance, that both have a good database of OER to begin with. Once you've selected your book, you will want to go through it to make sure that it's going to fit your purposes. In places where it doesn't align with your needs, you will need to make the necessary changes. Admittedly that’s not something you can do overnight, but if you have enough buy-in from yourself, your department and the people who may be teaching that course in the future, then over time you can create a book that’s up to your standards and fits your course better than any other textbook ever could.