OER - Open textbooks

Review, Revise, Adopt. Rinse and Repeat.

I am often asked about how I got involved with the open textbook movement. My red pill moment was when I first heard the term “OER” uttered by David Wiley in May 2013 at an annual workshop held at Thompson Rivers University for faculty in their Open Learning division. This is when I began to see the Matrix for what it was—an artificial, parasitic, publisher-driven system in which faculty are unwitting carriers. I am ashamed to say that never occurred to me to look beyond the unsolicited glossy hardcovers that appeared in my mailbox every week. Or to reach out to my university librarians, instead of relying solely on the affable representatives who periodically knocked on my office door asking if I had a spare moment, offering greater automation and promising better outcomes (and when that wouldn’t work, inquiring about sponsorship opportunities). The complicity of higher education with the interests of for-profit publishing houses is truly staggering. It is a partnership that successfully preys on heavy faculty workloads while peddling the false notion that higher education is about delivering scarce (and therefore valuable) content. A textbook case of a principal-agent problem.

A summer break from teaching allowed David’s message to incubate. So when the open textbook team at BCcampus put out a call for faculty to review the open textbooks they had iharvested from other repositories, I expressed an interest in reviewing two open textbooks, one of which (Principles of Social Psychology by Charles Stangor) was in their repository, and another (Research Methods in Psychology by Paul C. Price) that wasn’t, but which I brought to their attention.

Over that summer I evaluated both open textbooks using a rubric from College Open Textbooks that (perhaps fittingly) had itself been twice adapted, initially by Saylor Academy and subsequently by BCcampus. Happily, both textbooks passed muster and fell well within what I considered to be one standard deviation from a traditional publisher’s offering (my internal threshold for adoption). To my slight apprehension, my reviews were published on the OTP website as a resource for potential adopters.

Emboldened by my generally positive evaluation, I took the leap and formally adopted the open textbook for the one section of the Research Methods in Psychology course that I was scheduled to teach during the Fall semester. However, a number of deficiencies remained related to context (e.g., U.S. vs. Canadian research ethics policies), currency, and the absence of navigational tools such as a table of contents or glossary. Which meant work. Moreover, there was no available suite of ancillary resources (a question bank paramount among these). Which required an ongoing commitment.

With three weeks remaining before the first day of class I performed a little triage to determine the most urgently required revisions, using my own review and those of other faculty to guide this process. The availability of the open textbook as a Microsoft Word file meant that I would be able to make the necessary edits within a familiar platform. And so I did, using every one of those 21 days to make only the most critical additions and changes to the content. Along the way I taught myself about Creative Commons licensing and added a cover and a table of contents to make the 377-page document more presentable, before uploading the newly revised textbook (in two digital formats) to the university’s learning management system and my personal website.

And so the adoption proceeded, with the 35 students in my Research Methods course that Fall making for rather happy guinea pigs, having saved $135 apiece (the cost of the incumbent textbook). Although some had to be taught how to use the navigational features of a digital textbook, the students overwhelmingly reported positive experiences with the book, ranging from the ability to print pages as necessary to being able to read the book on all of their digital devices. One unexpected collateral benefit of this was the stronger rapport that resulted from my choice to save my students’ money and improve their access, something which paid dividends throughout the semester and even in my end-of-semester evaluations.

A sample student evaluation from the Fall 2013 semester (CC-BY-SA 4.0)
A sample student evaluation from the Fall 2013 semester (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

One student wrote to me in an email at the end of the semester:

Being a mature student on a tight budget, not having to pay $120 for a text book is a big deal. That’s one of the many reasons I really enjoyed the free textbook for Research Methods. Having many years of school left it would be nice that more teachers and schools could use these kinds of books to help take off some of the financial strain that students like me face.

Funnily enough, I didn’t think to inform anyone at BCcampus that I was adapting and adopting the textbook. It was only at the end of the Fall semester that I contacted Clint Lalonde at BCcampus to inform him of my revision and adoption and to share the modified files. Had I known how much joy this news would bring him, I would certainly have notified him sooner. Awareness of my efforts at BCcampus led to a press release from the Ministry of Advanced Education and a post on the university blog, attention that served as quite a contrast to my 21-day salute to social justice. But while concerns about student access provided me with the motivation, several factors enabled my work:

  1. The benefit of a non-teaching semester and no institutional requirement to perform research provided the necessary time.
  2. The small size of my then-institution meant that mine was the only section of Research Methods offered that semester. This in turn meant that that the choice of textbook was mine alone and did not belong to a committee that might have raised questions about textbook standardization or prattled on about their preference of the smell and touch of a physical book.
  3. First reviewing the open textbook served as a foot-in-the-door to the revision process, providing me with the necessary familiarity with the book’s strengths and weaknesses.
  4. My experience teaching this  course at other institutions provided familiarity with  different institutional expectations and allowed me to evaluate whether any critical material was missing or required revision.
  5. I was able to modify the textbook using familiar technology (Microsoft Word), even if this technology imposed its own technical constraints.
  6. My competency-based approach to teaching Research Methods made it easier for me to adopt the book in the absence of any ancillary resources, an outlying position within a discipline for which reliance on publisher-supplied question banks and test generation software is the norm.

In the three years since this minor revision was completed, my commitment to open textbooks has deepened. In the Summer of 2014, I organized and facilitated the “Great Psychology Testbank Sprint” in which 20 psychology faculty members from seven BC institutions and with complementary areas of expertise came together for two days at a local golf resort. Our mission: the creation of this vital ancillary resource to accompany an open textbook for Introductory Psychology. The result: Amid much frivolity (we took pleasure in embedding one another’s names into the questions), nearly a thousand multiple-choice questions were written and vetted. And what is more, faculty from six of those seven institutions have since gone on to adopt open textbooks.

Day 1 of the Great Psychology Testbank Sprint (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

I have since also completed major adaptations of the Principles of Social Psychology (2014) and Research Methods in Psychology (2015) open textbooks. Unlike my earlier experience, both of these adaptations were completed under the auspices of the OTP using the Pressbooks platform and with the assistance of a collaborator (Hammond Tarry from Capilano University and I-Chant Chiang from Quest University). Importantly, both Hammond and I-Chant were partners who complemented my content expertise, and shared my commitment to good pedagogy and the principles of open.

I am particularly proud of these recent revisions as they take fuller advantage of the open licenses. In the case of the Social Psychology textbook we addressed the reusability paradox by producing the first international edition, deliberately using examples and statistics from a wide variety of cultural contexts. And in the case of the Research Methods textbook we embedded audiovisual media (video clips, QR codes, hyperlinks to interactive tutorials) and wove throughout the text discussions of recent and emerging developments within the field, including discussions of Psychology’s “reproducibility crisis” and the resultant shift towards open science practices that are gradually transforming psychological science into a more transparent, rigorous, collaborative, and cumulative enterprise. Rather like an open textbook.


Note: This post constitutes one part of a chapter (co-authored by Arthur “Gill” Green and John D. Belshaw) titled “Three approaches to open textbook development” in a forthcoming edited volume titled Open Education: International Perspectives in Higher Education. The book is being edited by Patrick Blessinger and T. J. Bliss and will be published by Open Book Publishers with an open (CC-BY) license.

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