January 29, 2021

This math lecturer developed her own open textbook—now thousands of students are using it

By Chloe Riley, SFU Library

Senior lecturer Petra Menz (left) and PhD student Nicola Mulberry adapted an open educational resource to produce an interactive textbook that is now used by thousands of students.

In 2018, Petra Menz, a senior lecturer in mathematics, was facing a problem: the textbook for two required courses in the social sciences calculus stream was going out of print.

Fueled by a desire to create a contemporary and free textbook for both students and instructors, Menz began working on an ambitious open education project, funded over two years by SFU Open Educational Resources Grants and the Department of Mathematics. In collaboration with her research assistant, mathematics PhD student Nicola Mulberry, Menz aimed to create a well-designed, technologically enriched open textbook and accompanying teaching materials. 

An interactive textbook that students love

Menz and Mulberry worked with Hope Power, teaching and learning librarian, to identify an open educational resource that could be adapted for MATH 157 and MATH 158. They found the open textbook Calculus Early Transcendentals, which provided a framework for them to build on in several key ways.   

Menz reorganized and substantially expanded the original textbook, increasing the emphasis on student-focused learning such as problem-solving and real-world applications. Menz and Mulberry adapted the written resource into an interactive online textbook and developed a colour-coded design that focused on readability, usability and consistency. They also collaborated on a suite of supporting materials, including lecture notes, student notes, exercises and assignments. 

The integration of high-quality visual elements was essential to supporting students’ understanding of mathematical concepts. In addition to figures and examples, interactive demonstrations embedded in the new learning materials allow students to explore and practice hands-on with 2D and 3D models of foundational mathematics concepts.

Student feedback on the new course material has been overwhelmingly positive, and students consistently rate the usefulness of the learning materials highly. “Extremely helpful and much more clear than my past experience,” shared one student.

Menz and Mulberry also developed over 90 concept videos that are embedded alongside examples in the text, allowing students to further deepen their understanding.

An adaptable format and savings of $440,000 annually

From the beginning, Menz was interested in creating a resource that would be free and that could be used by multiple instructors at SFU and beyond. 

The textbook was adopted by the mathematics department in Fall 2018. The average cost of a calculus textbook is $200; with 2,200 students per year in MATH 157 and 158, this open textbook saves SFU and FIC students approximately $440,000 annually.

Both Menz and Mulberry encourage their colleagues to explore options for open educational resources and emphasize the importance of building a network of support, including drawing on expertise from within the SFU Library and the Centre for Educational Excellence. 

They also see the value of their open textbook extending beyond SFU. 

“This format is so powerful in that way,” shared Mulberry. “We can put it out there, and other people can build on it.” 

An enriching experience for the collaborators

The collaboration was a positive experience for both Menz and Mulberry.

In addition to building her technical skills, Mulberry found the experience developing and scaffolding educational materials invaluable in preparing her to teach the material as a sessional instructor. 

Menz also found the experience rewarding. As teaching faculty, she rarely has opportunities to supervise graduate students. “Being able to guide and shape the learning of a graduate student and provide her with skills she can use for future employment is a satisfying experience for myself as a lecturer,” she said.

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Course and Curriculum Planning, Technology and Media