Easy update for Lithium!

One of the best things about OER texts is they’re easy to update. This week I’m teaching a unit in my American Environmental History course on mining, using an chapter from my text called “Treasures Underground“. It begins in Potosí where the Spanish Empire got much of its silver, talks about the gold and silver rushes in the western US, and then moves on to oil before returning to the effect of minerals on foreign policy in an increasingly globalized economy. The examples I used in the text (which I published last year) were oil in Iran and copper in Chile — and the two US-supported coups that toppled democratically-elected governments in those nations.

Today I added an additional example, as it seems dempocratic elections in Bolivia have been subverted this week in another coup. So ironically, the chapter now begins and ends in Bolivia. Evo Morales, the country’s immensely-popular indigenous president, has been forced to step down and has sought asylum in Mexico slightly over a week after pushing back on the rapid, foreign-controlled development of Bolivia’s lithium reserves.

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This is the slide of Morales and the Salar de Uyuni (Bolivian source of lithium) I’m adding to my lecture this week. I’ve also added these images to a new conclusion for my OER chapter.

Lithium is a key element (along with cobalt) in the rechargeable batteries that run cell phones, computers, and electric cars. The price of lithium has about tripled since 2015, and Bolivia has about 43% of world reserves (Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia between them control about 75%). Although advanced car companies like Tesla are rapidly reducing the quantity of lithium in each battery cell, other car companies that buy off-the-shelf battery solutions are likely to use much more. And everybody is trying to get into the electric car business right now.

One of my goals in this course (which is actually called “People of the Environment” and is a required “sustainability” course at Bemidji State) is to connect environmental history with the world my students face today. What better way to bring the story of mineral resources to the present than with breaking world news? It’s great that the OER tools I’m using enable me to react rapidly and incorporate this into my chapter. This is a strength of OER we should talk more about in our advocacy.


“Why OER?” video

I made a ten-minute video for my faculty colleagues at Bemidji State University, to answer the question many are asking as I begin advocating for open learning on campus. Incorporates some of the data from the latest Florida survey I wrote about yesterday, especially the part about required textbooks going unused.

2018 Florida textbook survey summary

In March 2019 Florida’s Office of Distance Learning and Student Services published a follow-up to the 2010, 2012, and 2016 student surveys which have been a valuable source for many OER advocates. The new survey was conducted in spring 2018 and involved over 21,000 respondents. The survey’s findings were that:


  • For the first time since the 2012 survey, overall textbook costs did not increase. Relative to 2016, only 43.8% of students reported costs of over $300 for the semester, with ten percent shifting from the “above $300” column to the “below $300”. This result doesn’t quantify the real savings, though, since it doesn’t specify whether students went from $305 to $295 or from $400 to $200 between the two surveys.Screen Shot 2019-09-03 at 9.34.58 AM.png
  • Students increased efforts to reduce their textbook costs by finding cheaper vendors for new textbooks and by buying used copies or renting print or digital textbooks. It is worth noting that buying or renting from cheaper online sources and buying used, which all increased since 2016, could be threatened by publishers’ “inclusive access” plans that require students to acquire their materials from a single source.
  • Students continued to report that they had not acquired required textbooks (64.2%), took fewer courses (42.8%), had avoided a course (40.5%), had earned a poorer grade (35.6%), or had dropped a course (22.9%) due to textbook expense.Screen Shot 2019-09-03 at 9.37.11 AM.png
  • More students reported that required textbooks were not used in classes. In 2012, students had reported that an average of 1.6 textbooks were not used in class. In 2016, 2.6 textbooks per student were unused. In 2018, students said 3.6 of the students they had been required to buy were not used. Over a sample of 21,000 students, that means over 75,000 textbooks were purchased and not used. If the average price was $100, $7,500,000 in student funds were wasted. The survey suggests that courses switching to digital resources may account for this change – if that’s the case, instructors should stop requiring the textbook as well as the ancillaries.Screen Shot 2019-09-03 at 9.38.14 AM.png
  • Students reported a much greater willingness to use digital textbooks. The question was worded around textbook renting (which also increased), but 41.4% indicated willingness to rent digital textbooks, which is a hopeful sign for digital OER acceptance. In addition, 57.2% of students said they used interactive practice questions and 44.8% used PowerPoint slide decks, suggesting that digital, interactive learning is making headway in both publisher and potentially OER formats.


Image source: All images from 2018 Florida Student Textbook & Course Material Survey, Donaldson, Opper, Shen, 2019. CC-BY.


This document by Dan Allosso, 2019, CC-BY-SA