Course Packs are analog OER

People have been trying to reduce student textbook cost for a lot longer than there has been a CC-based OER movement. I think it’s important to recognize this, when OER enthusiasts talk with other faculty. A lot of them are doing things that reduce student textbook cost every bit as much as adopting or authoring an OER – and that are related to these new activities in ways that can provide a bridge for instructors considering the new techniques and resources becoming available.

One of the ways faculty have traditionally provided lower-cost materials to students has been through course packs. When I was an undergrad in the ‘80s, I remember the “textbook annex” at UMass was filled with stacks of bundles containing articles or monograph chapters that professors had xeroxed from their own libraries. In some cases, even when there was a textbook, there would be an additional pack of readings that would be assigned over the course of the semester, for which the $5 price covered the copying cost. Nowadays, we generally scan these types of readings and post them in our LMS. The same principal of Fair Use applies to the material we post in these digital course packs; although there’s no longer a printing expense, so they can be completely free to the student.

Another source of low-cost material for students were study guides and handbooks written by faculty and printed in campus copy shops. My father wrote a writing guide called “A Short Handbook for Writing Essays in the Humanities” for UC Davis in the early ‘90s that he used in all his Comp. Lit. courses and that other faculty adopted and continued using even after his retirement. A couple of years ago he and I updated it and I added examples of writing for the Social Sciences, and it’s now available in the Open Textbook Library as a free ebook.

Many faculty over the years have reduced student cost by turning the material in textbooks into lectures, handouts, and assessments they have used in class rather than assigning textbook chapters. This may be especially effective in surveys and introductory courses, where there may be more emphasis on facts than on deeply nuanced interpretation. In my surveys, I have eliminated textbooks in favor of detailed lectures. Students can view the slides online and read my script, and can listen to a podcast or watch a video of the lecture to review. You may object that the textbook chapters I’m replacing, and which I base my lectures on, probably contain more information than I’m providing in the lecture. That’s probably true. I’ve built my lectures by focusing on the best information in several textbooks, so I may be passing over details from one or the other. But I’d counter that if the students aren’t assessed on the material, they don’t learn it. So the presence of additional information in a textbook that I don’t cover in class is largely irrelevant, in my opinion.

And then there are the newer ways that are becoming available to reduce reliance on expensive textbooks. There are OER textbooks like the ones listed in the Open Textbook Library. Some of these could be as credible a basis for a course as a commercial textbook – or are at least as good a starting point for customization. And unlike commercial textbooks, it is completely legitimate to customize, re-use, edit, and adapt an OER textbook as long as you abide by the Creative Commons license applied to it. Until recently, a lot of the emphasis in the OER world has been on authoring complete textbooks. I think that will change, as instructors realize they can re-use and remix open educational resources in a variety of ways other than just by authoring a full-on textbook.

One of the issues the OER community is dealing with that seems quite contentious is the practice of for-profit companies, bundling free OER textbooks with assessment and homework “solutions” that students are charged for. I think this is unfortunate: it not only encroaches on one of our roles as instructors (and an important opportunity to interact with our students), but it commoditizes student data. I’m not saying we should avoid automating quizzes to make time to focus on student writing and discussion – but the LMS does this for us already. I don’t think it necessarily needs to be outsourced. If you don’t have time to write quiz questions, have the students write them! As Rajiv has ably demonstrated, it’s a great way of engaging students and assessing how well they understood the material!

Long story short, I think we need to embrace all the ways instructors have been reducing student textbook expenses over the years, because that creates a sense of continuity that could be valuable in convincing faculty to engage. And I think a more incrementalist approach to adapting and remixing might allow instructors to embrace the challenge of building ancillaries around OER materials rather than outsourcing that task to publishers.

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