Open education resources (OER) are gathering more and more interest in higher education as the high cost of textbooks has led a significant percentage of students to simply forgo textbook purchases (Reddon, 2011). OER provide a free alternative to expensive textbooks. But the number of OER textbooks is limited, which has hampered their adoption.
One option is for faculty to create their own textbooks by gathering library-licensed digital resources along with supplemental content—such as commentary, videos, and self-tests—into their own open textbooks in a common format that can be read on nearly any mobile device. But some instructors might wonder whether this had advantages over just loading those resources into their school’s learning management system (LMS). There are in fact advantages to creating an electronic textbook that is separate from the LMS, and the process is easier than faculty might think.
First, how does an OER textbook differ from an LMS? The major difference is that OER are, well, open, meaning that they are (a) free, (b) available to anyone, and (c) generally modifiable by their users in a way that benefits all users. By contrast, LMS content is available only to students who are taking the class, not students in other courses or the public at large.
But why should an instructor, department, or institution worry about access to resources outside of a class? One reason is that resources advance the fundamental mandate of higher education to serve the public good. State-supported institutions roll out the various ways they serve the public each year during budget negotiations, and these homemade OER examples will support that effort.
Another reason is that because OER are generally open to modification, other faculty at the institution or at other institutions who use the resources can modify them once they are released. Nearly all faculty customize any outside content they assign to a class. At the very least, instructors add context to the readings through introductions and other directions on how to read them. They also create assessments and other teaching material to supplement the resource. Thus a physics professor at another institution who created animations for their class to illustrate some principle in the textbook can add those to the work. Instead of one faculty member designing course resources, an open textbook can benefit from the combined contributions of many faculty. It is remarkable how faculty even within a department generally do not collaborate on educational resources. But the internet fosters a spirit of sharing, and it is in the interest of every faculty member who uses an open resource to contribute content to foster a community that mutually benefits.
Another feature of OER is that they are designed to be portable. While most LMSs have a mobile function, it is more of an afterthought, shoehorning content designed for a desktop computer into a tablet or cell phone format. OER textbooks are designed for mobile from the get-go. This makes the content easier to navigate on a mobile device, which is a significant part of how students access course content and resources today. Students can download an open textbook in PDF or EPUB format to a tablet and open it in an instant. They can then view it between classes or on a bus without the hassle of internet connectivity and passwords or the clutter of administrative controls, such as grade books and assignment Dropboxes, slowing down navigation.
A fundamental principle of the neurology of learning is that engagement with information is a key to retention. Reading long articles without a break or listening to lectures without breaks for reflection leads to very low retention. Open resources are designed to be integrated with interactive features, such as videos, podcasts, links to websites, pop-ups that define technical terms, and self-tests. These interactions allow faculty to chunk an article into blocks with short interactions after each block to improve retention.
Moreover, the freedom e-book software affords allows faculty to think more broadly about the elements and interactions that can be added to their content. For instance, faculty designing an open textbook can start with interactions rather than content. This is precisely what the backward design model of course design encourages. Instead of creating content and then thinking about how to assess student learning of that contact, the backward design model has faculty start by determining the competencies that they want students to develop, then the assessments that will measure or apply those competencies, and finally the course content at the end. An art instructor might want students to be able to identify the artistic styles of different paintings or sculptures. Then the instructor would find a way to measure that skill, such as a multiple-choice test with images, and finally pick the content to teach the skill. Ungraded self-tests would help students develop the skill.
Open textbooks are also easier than LMS content to annotate. Free e-readers, such as Kindle, have built-in functions for highlighting passages or adding comments to an e-book. Active reading with annotations is important for learning, but students are often hesitant to mark up a print textbook because it lowers the book’s resale value. Plus, LMS content is not generally built to be annotated.
Creating an open textbook might seem daunting, but free or cheap software makes it surprisingly easy. In fact, institutions with online degree programs can use the course development structure they already have in place to create open textbooks. Most institutions have a faculty content expert send content to an instructional designer to load into an LMS. Instead, the instructional designer can load that content into an open textbook. The process is no more difficult than uploading to an LMS, and instructional designers usually like to tackle projects that take them out of loading course shells every day.
There are a variety of good e-book creation systems for developing open textbooks. Lucidpress is one of the most feature-rich and flexible systems available. It has a large number of templates and a drag-and-drop design method that makes it easy to create a wide variety of e-books. It also has features and pricing specific to education. Kindle Create (formerly Kindle Textbook Creator) is a free download from Amazon that allows educators to create multimedia textbooks in formats that can be played on any device. Book Creator is a system designed to be so simple that its intent is to allow young children to develop e-books. It also is designed for collaborative e-book development, editing, and sharing. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention iBooks Author, an Apple app that will appeal to those into graphic design. It is the most feature-rich system, and thus the most complex, but certainly well within the scope of the average instructional designer’s abilities.
Most institutions have some course development funds that faculty can tap into to create open textbooks. The results will not only lessen the financial burden on students but also increase student use of textbooks and allow for collaborative development of educational resources. Do-it-yourself open textbooks are a win for all.
Redden, M. (2011, August 23). 7 in 10 students have skipped buying a textbook because of its cost, survey finds. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/7-in-10-Students-Have-Skipped/128785