May 18, 2018

A growing appreciation for open textbooks

Michael Chen (senior lecturer, Physics) and three colleagues have been using an open textbook in their introductory physics course since 2016. He has come to appreciate the benefits for both instructors and students.

Though he probably wouldn’t like being called one, Michael Chen is on his way to becoming an open education champion.

Chen is a senior lecturer in the Department of Physics. Since 2016, he has used a textbook licensed under an open copyright license, or open textbook, that allows users to freely share and modify its contents, to teach PHYS 100, a 200-student class.

Chen, who is one of four physics instructors teaching with the same open textbook, explains that the decision to introduce the textbook was made at the department level to save students money. The particular textbook Chen is using was produced by OpenStax, an initiative based out of Rice University that provides peer-reviewed, openly licensed textbooks.

Savings for students and flexibility for instructors

“The book the open textbook replaced was costing students $175. In my opinion that is a ridiculous price. I don’t want the students to have to pay that—it’s not fair to them.”

At the class level, the savings for students amount to about $35,000 per semester.

However, Chen explains that what started for him as a way to reduce expenses for students has since turned into an opportunity to create a resource specifically tailored to his teaching situation.

“I like that I have the freedom to change it as I want … I like that I can change the content so that it is exactly what I want. In my case, the fundamentals of physics don’t change much, but I could see this being a real strength in emerging fields where the concepts are changing and need to be updated.”

Chen notes that he also appreciates the lack of restrictions on how open textbooks can be used and distributed.

“It is much more portable. I can send it as PDF, or upload it in Canvas, or have [students] view it online. I can share a little bit, or all of it. There are no limits.”

It does take time

However, Chen notes that these benefits come with some trade-offs.

“There are places where the textbook stands out as a strong book and other parts that are not as well written.”

To deal with what Chen felt was inconsistent quality, he started by guiding students through the areas where he felt the explanations were poor. “I would tell students during lectures, ‘Don’t look at this part.’ ”

Eventually he decided that rather than simply avoiding the sections he didn’t like, he would do something about them. Chen edited two chapters of the OpenStax textbook by importing it into an open source platform called Pressbooks, hosted by BCcampus. Including the time it took him to learn how to use Pressbooks, he estimates that he spent somewhere in the range of 20–30 hours doing the revisions.

However, that was only the beginning.

“There are still other areas I would like to adapt to suit our teaching setting, so I’m planning to dedicate my upcoming non-teaching semester to reworking some other chapters. Then it can be available to the other instructors in my department.”

SFU faculty members interested in exploring how to integrate open textbooks or other open educational resources into their courses can apply for funding through the university’s Open Educational Resources Grants program, which provides up to $5,000, along with staff support from the Teaching and Learning Centre and the SFU Library. The application deadline for the next round of funding is June 20, 2018.

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