Northwestern Digital Learning Podcast: Episode 14, Open Textbooks

Welcome to a special episode of the Northwestern Digital Learning podcast, where each episode highlights an example of innovative teaching and learning. This episode is guest hosted by Chris Diaz, a librarian and member of the Affordable Instructional Resources (AIR) initiative. 

March 2 kicks off Open Education Week, a global awareness campaign about the impact of open education on teaching and learning. This episode focuses on open textbooks, a type of open educational resource (OER) commonly used at colleges and universities as free alternatives to expensive textbooks. Here are some resources to help faculty get started with OER:

*Transcript edited for clarity

Liora Altman-Sagan (McCormick School of Engineering, Senior): Freshman fall, I think I spent almost a thousand dollars fall quarter. I texted my parents apologizing, saying, "I hope engineers make as much money as they say they're going to make." I felt like I need to read the textbooks, but some of the textbooks were also bad. I felt I needed to read them because I spent so much money on them, but then I kind of ended up wasting time. I would have been better off watching videos on Khan Academy or something, and that's free. 

Chris Diaz [CD]: This episode is about open textbooks. Open textbooks can be powerful alternatives to traditional textbooks because they are free, they are available online, and they are licensed in a way that allows the public to re-use and adapt the material for educational purposes without paying any fees.

Alpesh Chapagui (Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, Sophomore) [AC]: I didn't realize how expensive some textbooks would actually be. That just wasn't something that I considered before coming to college. Thankfully, I worked a decent bit the summer before coming to school. Then, with the money I had saved up, I realized it was really fortunate that I had some money saved up because when I went to buy a textbook or just even to rent the textbooks, it was like $120. It's kind of crazy because I didn't even know if these were classes that I wanted to stick with, or if these are classes that I would be interested in. But, I was already investing a good amount of money, and it would've been really troublesome for myself and my parents to do that if I hadn't just happened to save up beforehand. So, now I just try my best not to have to buy physical copies of books at all. During the quarter system, like because things are going so fast-paced, if you don't have a book or a textbook for like a week, it can cause problems. And it has for me as well. And I know it has for other people. My parents are paying quite a lot [for me] to go to this university, and it's just about as much as they can pay for me to go to school. So, even a couple hundred dollars here and there, that's a lot, right?

CD: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, college textbook prices rose over 180 percent, more than three times the rate of inflation, over the past 20 years. We spoke to students to hear about how these costs affect their education.

Ryan Bince (School of Communication, 1st-Year PhD student): The cost of textbooks has definitely caused me to drop a class. There were some courses that were more technical courses that I was really excited about. And when it came time to get the books for the course, when I got the syllabus, I was like, "I can't afford that." And I ended up dropping the class.

Charles Guthman (Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, Sophomore): There's this thing where they package the textbook with an online thing. I don't buy the textbooks. I'll buy them off eBay or Amazon if it's like $3. It's just cost-benefit. It's not worth it to pay $100 for something that maybe I'll open it, but most of the time I don't. 

CD: Unlike tuition, textbooks are out-of-pocket expenses that affect each student individually. For some students, this creates a real disadvantage, such as taking courses without having purchased the required textbook. National and state-wide surveys suggest that as many as 65 percent of students experience this problem at some point during their undergraduate career. Used textbooks, rental options, and library course reserves are popular ways for students to save money, but some Northwestern faculty have taken steps to eliminate the costs of textbooks entirely.

Jean Clipperton [JC]: I'm Jean Clipperton, and I'm an assistant professor of instruction in Political Science and Sociology. 

Jonathan Emery [JD]: My name is Jonathan Emery. I'm an assistant professor of instruction in the Materials Science Department at Northwestern University.

CD: Last year, both of these professors received grants from Northwestern's Affordable Instructional Resources initiative to create their own open textbooks. I asked professor Clipperton about her experiences with textbook costs as an undergraduate and why she was motivated to create her own.  

JC: I had to buy all my own books myself. My mom helped me a little, but I had a certain budget, and if I went over budget, then I had to pay for it. And, I was a philosophy major. I was philosophy and math. So, I had a lot of books on philosophy and then really expensive books for math, and so I really cared about that. I mean, students effectively are taking three semesters of classes. The term is shorter, but you still then have to buy books three times. That has to hurt even more. And, so that's always been something that I'm mindful of. I have taught this class for a few years now, and I just was really dissatisfied with the options out there. It's an introductory research methods course, effectively, and there's a ton of textbooks, but they're all varying in their approaches, and none of them were quite right for how I taught this class. A lot of introductory research method classes, they either go like one of two ways:

  1. They either have students do some type of project, and so it's more in-depth or
  2. It's working them into some type of research seminar, so they're either doing a project proposal theoretically, or they're doing actual research on their own data. Because this is the quarter system, 10 weeks is not enough time to be able to do that, and so we needed a book that covered all of the methods for the right audience that wasn't really expensive. Because they did find a really good book, but it was $150.

CD: Creating an open textbook is no small task, so I asked about how they approached their open textbook projects. 

JD: For introductory material science class, we use a text which is very good but doesn't completely align with what we want to do in the course. I've taught this class now for four or five years, and what I've found is that I continue to diverge away from what's offered in a text that I don't control. The way that we do this because we're starting essentially from scratch, is that we hire an undergraduate work-study student to come in and attend the lecture. Sometimes they're in the class. They take as good as notes as they can in the lecture. They often record or videotape the lectures so that they can come back later, and then they create what we call a skeleton chapter. And so each lecture is maybe a chapter or half a chapter in a book. And so they can outline using their notes what this chapter should look like. This helps authors that are working at a higher level or a content level quite a bit because now I can go in and see the structure that I gave my lecture in and start adding and fleshing out the contents. And so they would initialize a chapter, write something that is imperfect but helpful. And then I would tell them if they needed to make edits one way or another. And then I would jump in, and now, I'm at the level that I can really start making this look like a book chapter.

JC: So I thought if I could divide up the book into chapters and then have graduate students help write it, it would go a lot faster. They would do an amazing job, and we could end up with a book that we could all really be proud of. And I think it's a valuable experience for the students as well. I came up with an outline for each substantive chapter. So the way the book happens is there's three chapters of background: "what is social science" material. And then it really launches into a chapter on each of the methods. So for each of the methods, I developed an outline in a format, and then I had minimum requirements; for example, each chapter needs to have these segments. You need to mention at least this many articles covering this, at least this many sub-fields, and you need to have at least three or four review questions based on the chapter with answers provided. And so I gave that to the students and then that way I felt like we'd have some continuity because the other issues like with any type of edited book is the chapters read very differently because at one point, in an attempt to have a free textbook, I had taken chapters and papers from disparate sources. But then they were using different vocabulary differently, and it was hard, and students felt it was unnecessarily confusing, and I completely agreed, which is why I switched to a book. And so I felt like this would be able to address the challenges that I'd come up against when I was doing the piecemeal approach while enabling me to do something within like a reasonable timeline. So I did the introduction, the conclusion, and then I'm doing one of the substantive chapters.

CD: Open textbooks are the most popular kind of open educational resources used at Northwestern. Typically, open textbooks are published and distributed online as PDFs, but they don't need to be limited to that format. Other kinds of open educational resources could be websites, video tutorials, interactive homework exercises, or podcasts. I asked about the pedagogical advantages of multi-format course materials. Here's Jonathan Emery.

JD: It allows me to adapt and focus the material that I want to deliver to students for them to achieve their outcomes in the class. So it can be much more streamlined. It could be much more focused. And it can be tailored. So maybe previously, I was using a textbook from five years ago, but I read an article yesterday that exemplifies something that's relevant to the topic that day. That happens a lot. And so I can take that. I can actually insert it directly in or that example directly into the text if I wanted to the day before the lecture. So it would be completely up to date and concurrent with progress in the field. So right now, when we send out PDFs, a PDF is something that you look at, but you don't interact with. And so moving a lot of these type of texts to the web where you have the power of everything that the web can do. You can; you can have table graphics. You can have interactive figures. You can have movies. I could actually videotape myself working on a problem and just embed it directly into the chapter itself. This gives lots of different modalities for learning that students are hopefully going to appreciate. Hopefully, they'll say this is one the most helpful texts I've ever had. That's the goal, right?

JC: I'm really excited about it. I think it's a really good idea to think about how to do OER materials. I don't think I'll apply it in this next round, but I think I will apply in the future because I want to challenge myself in terms of how do we think about what types of information students are being presented with and how do they engage with that information, right? Because it's online like it could be interactive in a way that a regular textbook cannot be, and it doesn't necessarily have to be limited to that same type of format and structure. Currently, my brain is not able to sort of go beyond just yet. But I'm hopeful that I'll start thinking of other ways to kind of think through the delivery of information.

CD: I asked them to reflect on their projects and what advice they would have to anyone who's thinking about creating their own open textbook.  JD: It's not hard to learn how to do this, and once you do, it's really fun. One of the great experiences that I have is now I sit down every Friday for two hours with my work-study students and my graduate students, and we sit around a table, and then we can solve problems together. And that's fun. I think they feel like they're learning something that they can use in the future. You know, they might not publish OER texts for a living, but they're learning how to really communicate complex scientific ideas in efficient and effective ways. And so, I think this is not only helping create the OER resource itself, but it's also helping students develop professionally. So, yeah. So I think that's a benefit that can't really be understated. Yeah, I think they're having a good time, too. 

JC: I'm honestly, really happy. The keys for success, for me, was that I had a decently specific call. So everybody knew what was expected and so there were no surprises. So when people came on to the project, they knew exactly what they needed to do. And then, when I had the timeline, which again they knew in advance, it was very clear what they needed to do. And I checked in, and it was a nice enough timeline where it was a reasonable amount of time for them to get it done with enough time that if something came up, we had flexibility.

CD: A good question to ask is: if something is free and online, how would I know if it’s any good? Commercial textbooks have both established brands and price points that serve as quality indicators. Open textbooks have neither. That’s why the University of Minnesota’s Center for Open Education established the Open Textbook Library, a catalog of college-level open textbooks that meet certain criteria for inclusion. All textbooks in the Open Textbook library must be openly-licensed, original, complete, and used in courses at multiple higher education institutions or affiliated with scholarly society or professional organizations. Most of the textbooks you can find there have reviews submitted by faculty who have evaluated the textbook’s comprehensiveness, organization, accuracy, relevance, clarity, and consistency. This is a great starting point for anyone who's interested in finding open textbooks in their subject area. Here, again, is one of our students.

AC: I think it's an accepted reality of not just Northwestern college life but just college life in general. That textbooks are so expensive, but I don't know if many people actually ask the question: "why do we have to accept that this is the case?"

CD: We don't. The Affordable Instructional Resources initiative was created to increase student access to required course materials. Send us an email with your syllabus, and we'll get back to you with a few ideas on how to make your course materials more easily available to students. We'll also include a bibliography of open educational resources available in your subject area. You can reach us at Links and more information are available in the show notes.

Music Credits
All background music copyrighted by Lee Rosevere, licensed Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0): "We Don't Know How it Ends" and "Thought Bubbles" from Music For Podcasts 6 and "Small Steps" and "How I Used To See The Stars" from Music for Podcasts 4.