Rajiv Jhangiani, Ph.D.

Open Education, SoTL, Psychology

Category: Academia

Just how inclusive are “inclusive access” e-textbook programs?

As is now well documented and understood, unrelenting increases in the prices of university textbooks (typically between 3 and 4 times the rate of inflation) have not been matched by increases in student spending. Whereas the U.S. College Board and the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada respectively advise students to budget US$1300 and CA$1000 per year for textbooks and other course materials, data collected by the National Association of College Stores (NACS) show that actual student spending on course materials has dropped to less than half that amount. The result is an increasingly strong relationship between the affordability of course materials and course performance, with a majority of post-secondary students across the continent (from Florida to British Columbia to Massachusetts) having to forgo purchasing required textbooks, and a growing number of others adopting alternative, sub-optimal (and sometimes illegal) methods to obtain required course materials.

Plummeting sales of new hardbound print copies of commercial textbooks (accompanied by precipitous drops in revenue and share price) have, in turn, accelerated the pivot of commercial textbook publishers towards digital delivery models. With no printing or distribution costs, the attractiveness of permanently extinguishing the used book market (where a single copy may be resold six times during the lifecycle of each edition), and the ability to guarantee high and predictable revenue via institutional licensing contracts, it is little wonder (although rather amusing) that the large commercial publishers have sought to repaint themselves as the saviours of those suffering at the hands of their own business model.

In its latest incarnation, digital delivery has been cleverly branded as “inclusive access,” a model wherein every student pays a mandatory course materials fee that represents an arbitrary discount off the (arbitrary) price of a new hardcover textbook (often more than the average student currently spends). In exchange, the students lease digital-only access to their required textbooks within the publisher’s digital delivery platform. In some (but not all) cases, students are given the option to opt-out of this system, usually under restrictive terms that are not always obvious to them, such as by locating, completing, and submitting a form within 10 days. Of course, for students who prefer to work with a print copy (and possibly resell it later to recover some of its cost), the ability to opt out is especially important. Yet, as you might surmise, the publishers have a vested interest in keeping the number of students who may opt-out to a minimum. This is why at institutions like Post University the opt-out terms are more than restrictive; they are punitive, as students who manage to opt-out in time are are informed that “they will not be eligible for an extension on course assignments while they await arrival of their course materials” (which they must purchase elsewhere). Just what you picture when you think of the word “inclusive,” right?

In Canada, the “inclusive access” model has been pioneered by Algonquin College, where the marketing slogan is “100% of the students with 100% of their resources 100% of the time.” This sounds really great until you begin to tally the compromises that are being made on the side of student agency, academic freedom, and textbook format. For example, even if you sidestep the fact that students, far from being “digital natives,” still overwhelmingly prefer print textbooks, you should realize that the argument that “e-Texts are portable and can be used anywhere” is only an advantage if you ignore digital redlining or are confident that every student will perpetually own a portable device that can host an eText. Nonetheless, given the growing interest on the part of university administrators in tackling the problem of exorbitant textbook costs, inclusive access (especially when accompanied with the sweetener of a pilot semester with free textbooks) can come across as a quick (if not terribly easy) fix, one that can reasonably be expected to yield improvements in mean student outcomes (access being the essential ingredient).

Open or Closed by Alan Levine (CC-BY 2.0), retrieved from https://flic.kr/p/dwEfLb

Of course, “inclusive access” is not the only viable approach to tackling textbook unaffordability, as steadily growing adoptions of open textbooks and other open educational resources (OER) have mirrored (and possibly accelerated) the commercial publishers’ pivot away from print. Funded by groups as diverse as universities, governments, philanthropic organizations, and professional societies, OERs are resources that empower users with the freedoms to reuse, retain, redistribute, and even revise or remix. They are available in a variety of digital formats (free of cost and free from digital rights management) as well as in print format (at the cost of printing). Crucially, OER broadens access in a way that is actually inclusive. Whereas the commercial publishers’ approach to “inclusive access” continues to pass the burden of cost on to academia’s most vulnerable constituents in order to serve shareholders, the OER approach enhances access and agency in a manner that serves social justice and inspires pedagogical innovation.

According to the NACS, 32% of faculty currently assign OER. The corresponding estimate from the Independent College Bookstore Association is roughly half that amount, at 15%. But even if you prefer to trust the more conservative estimates, it is noteworthy that the commercial publisher Cengage itself predicts that the use of OER as primary course material will triple within five years, a forecast that is reflected by the 33% of faculty (surveyed by the NACS) who believe OER will replace commercial textbooks in general education courses.

What is more, a growing body of research attests to the positive impact of OER adoption on educational outcomes that include exam performance, course enrolment, course persistence, and program completion. In fact, the OER efficacy literature is so compelling that the commercial publishers have begun to attempt to co-opt it. See, for example, this 2016 brochure from Pearson Education that deceptively cites four OER efficacy studies in support of their digital delivery platform (see below for a preview). Of course, this is a deliberate effort to muddy the waters, something that has been compounded by the publishers seeking to import open textbooks (including those that carry a NonCommercial open license) into their paywalled platforms. The strategy thus appears to be “if you can’t beat ‘em, co-opt ‘em.”

Annotated screenshot of the references in a brochure for Pearson’s digital delivery model

But of course faculty are free to assign OER directly (e.g., through open textbook repositories such as those in British Columbia, Ontario, or Minnesota), without their institution forcing its students to lease e-textbooks every semester. Without supporting openwashing. So while there remain courses for which OER are not yet available and open textbooks which are not yet supported with ancillary resources, institutions ought to think very carefully before signing agreements that restrict faculty choice to the textbooks available within a given platform and that impose an opt-out model on students while granting only temporary digital access.

Remember that the true power of open comes not from a resource being free of cost but rather from the freedoms to reuse, retain, redistribute, revise, and remix content. These freedoms empower both students and faculty while widening access and supporting the democratization of education. On the other hand, “inclusive access” programs trade away both free and freedom in exchange for an arbitrary discount and restricted access (not to mention increased surveillance). A sly attempt at defining-by-naming, “inclusive access” programs strip away agency and represent a major step towards the corporatization of higher education. The contrast could hardly be greater.

Principles vs. Publishers

This is been an interesting week. Yesterday I made the decision to formally withdraw a chapter from an edited volume about themes for teaching Introductory Psychology. It was not an easy decision because I had put a lot of thought and energy into the chapter, made the necessary revisions, and even saw it accepted by the editors more than a year ago (a change in editorial staff at Cengage prompted the massive delay). So you can imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when I received a very curious email from a “Product Manager” at Cengage. Continue reading

The opposite of open is broken

The opposite of open is not closed; the opposite of open is broken. The more I think about it, the more this cogent observation, made by John Wilbanks, resonates with me. Continue reading

Pilot testing open pedagogy

This summer, as has become usual practice for me, I adopted open textbooks for my Introductory Psychology and Social Psychology sections (produced by NOBA and the BC Open Textbook Project, respectively); however, my desire to enjoy a semester entirely free from traditional textbooks was challenged by the absence of a high quality open textbook for Cognitive Psychology. Continue reading

Tunnelling up: Announcing a new book project

A measure of salvation by cujoquan. Retrieved from https://flic.kr/p/Lnp6f CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

The open education community is multidisciplinary and consists of passionate and intrinsically motivated leaders. In inspiring one another, we serve as caretakers of our mutual flame. We are the core. Continue reading

Textbooks? Where we’re going we don’t need textbooks!

Back to the future time machine

As many of you will remember, 2015 is the “future” year in the beloved 1985 film “Back to the Future.” Although this may make you chuckle, I believe that Doc Brown had it right and that at least part of the future is here.

Consider this: In a now-famous blog post, David Wiley argued that “using OER the same way we used commercial textbooks misses the point. It’s like driving an airplane down the road. Yes, the airplane has wheels and is capable of driving down on the road (provided the road is wide enough). But the point of an airplane is to fly at hundreds of miles per hour – not to drive. Driving an airplane around, simply because driving is how we always traveled in the past, squanders the huge potential of the airplane.”

As always, David makes an important point in a persuasive fashion. But let me add what I believe is the perfect meme to his argument with a slightly amended version of the famous final scene of the iconic film:Doc Brown meme

From believer to dOER

It was in May of 2013 that I first heard David Wiley speak about open textbooks. That experience catalyzed my involvement with reviewing, adopting, and adapting open educational resources (OER). In May of 2014 I heard David speak once again (as the keynote speaker at last year’s Open Textbook Summit). Since then I have been immersed in research projects on the impact and efficacy of OER, advocacy as a Faculty Fellow with BCcampus (including a number of workshops at universities in BC), and a second open textbook revision. Of course all of this means that it has been rather too long since my last post and that I have a number of open education-related updates to share:

1. I recently concluded the data collection phase of a major survey of BC faculty who have adopted open educational resources (OER) in the classroom. The online survey was a collaboration with BCcampus, with whom I work as a Faculty Fellow (along with Christina Hendricks and Jessie Key), and Beck Pitt of the UK-based OER Research Hub. We are currently in the process of analyzing these data but the preliminary results look very promising. Among other things, the responses to the survey will shed more light on the types of OER that faculty have been using, their motivations for using OER, barriers, enablers, and a host of other contextual information that will help us to develop roadmaps for OER adoption and adaptation within the BC post-secondary context.

2. I just launched a major survey of BC students aimed at assessing the impact of open textbook adoption on their personal and educational outcomes, including cost savings, employment status, course performance, and program completion rates.

3. I am collaborating with my colleagues Farhad Dastur and Richard Le Grand in carrying out a quasi-experimental investigation of the impact of open textbook adoption on students taking introductory psychology at KPU.

4. Also with Farhad Dastur, I developed a course on Research Methods in Psychology for Thompson Rivers University’s Open Learning Division and the OERu. The course is unique in that it has been constructed entirely with OER and resides in Wikieducator.

5. I am putting the finishing touches to a chapter I wrote titled “Unleashing openness in the teaching of introductory psychology.” The chapter will be published later this year in a book about Thematic Approaches to Teaching Introductory Psychology. As soon as it is ready I will post a copy on this site. [Update (May 24, 2015): A pre-publication copy is now available online].

6. I co-facilitated a webinar during Open Education week titled “Distinguishing the dOERs” during which Beck Pitt and I shared some data from our research on faculty adopters and adapters of OER.

7. Over the next few months I will give a number of presentations about open textbooks, open educational resources, and open pedagogy at a variety of meetings and conferences, including the following:

  • “Using open pedagogy to promote critical skill development” at the Teaching Introductory Psychology – North West Conference
  • “Giving psychology away: The impact of open textbook adoption on psychology students” at the 2015 Psychology Articulation Meeting.
  • “An openness to openness: The terrifying and liberating process of disrupting higher education” – the keynote address at the 2015 Open Textbook Summit. Vancouver, Canada
  • “Academic librarians and OER: Access, advocacy, and activism” at the 2015 BC Library Conference, Vancouver, Canada.

I am looking forward to each of these but was especially honoured to be invited to deliver the keynote address at the Open Textbook Summit. I am not yet certain that I am deserving of following in David’s footsteps but will do my darndest to deliver a memorable experience.

8. Finally, I should say that it has been wonderful to see the Open Education movement get so much local press lately. Given that awareness of OER is still a major barrier, I have been delighted to see press releases from the Ministry of Advanced Education, an interview with CBC Radio, and articles in the Surrey Now, Indo-Canadian Voice, Chilliwack Times, and The Link feature our work. This coverage really helps raise awareness and build momentum which, together with a supportive institutional culture, will create more many more believers and, I daresay, a few more dOERs.

The Great Psychology Testbank Sprint

Well, we did it. Seventeen psychology faculty from six post-secondary institutions in British Columbia came together on July 18 & 19 and worked intensively for two days to create a testbank designed to accompany open textbooks for introductory psychology. As I have previously written about, the absence of ancillary materials (a testbank most of all) presents a significant challenge to instructors who wish to adopt an open textbook. Although some observers will turn their noses up at the thought of faculty not writing every single one of the questions on their exams, the reality is that many (overworked) instructors of large, multi-section survey courses do start working from the publisher-supplied testbank, writing, revising, and editing as necessary over time. The need for this crutch becomes even more pronounced for new faculty that do not have years of classroom and assessment experience to draw on, sessional faculty assigned to a course only weeks ahead of the first class meeting, and large sections with limited teaching assistant support. For those of us that advocate for the adoption of open educational resources in the classroom, ignoring or criticizing this reality is self-defeating.

Fast forward to this May when, following a series of productive conversations with Mary Burgess (Director of Open Education at BC Campus) and Peter Lindberg (NOBA Project), I was able to secure the financial support of both organizations to coordinate a “testbank sprint.” Modelled on the efforts of textbook sprints that, for example, bring together a number of faculty members for a few days to write a textbook from scratch, the idea was to invite faculty from a number of psychology departments in BC to come together for two days for a retreat-style sprint.

At the best of times, writing questions is not enjoyable work, so I knew that in order to recruit enough participants and to create a productive environment the sprint would have to be interspersed with opportunities for socializing and rejuvenation. Another goal was to gather sprinters from a variety of institutions (the wider the representation, the more natural the sense of ownership and buy-in). Finally, the challenge of producing a resource like this for Introductory Psychology is the sheer number of topic areas (15) that need coverage. Thus we would have to find a way of collecting data about potential participants’ areas of expertise and mapping these onto the topic areas in order to ensure adequate coverage.

Enter the Organizing Team

Following a couple of discussions with members of my department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, three wonderful souls in Dianne Crisp, Cory Pedersen, and Levente Orban stepped forward to offer their assistance with organizing the sprint. Together we dealt with the questions of when to hold the sprint (mid-July, in time for Fall adoptions), where to hold it (the Cheam Golf Course in Chilliwack with accommodations at the nearby Coast Chilliwack hotel – central enough for those travelling from Victoria or Kamloops but far enough away to feel like a retreat), how to recruit faculty (the Articulation listserve + direct emails to those with past involvement in open education projects), how to map availability & areas of relative expertise onto the 15 topic areas of Introductory Psychology (enter the technical wizardry of Levente with custom online forms and formulae-laden Excel worksheets), and how to structure the event (see below).

Nineteen faculty signed up and, although two dropped out just 48 hours before the sprint was to begin, seventeen faculty representing the psychology departments at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Thompson Rivers University, Camosun College, Northern Lights College, Capilano University, and the University of the Fraser Valley met in Chilliwack on July 18. The amazing Clint Lalonde from BC Campus was also on hand to provide logistical and technical support for both days of the sprint.

The Cheam Mountain Golf Centre welcomes us

The Cheam Mountain Golf Centre welcomes us

The logo for our sprint (yes, I got carried away with my role)

The logo for our sprint (yes, I got carried away with my role)

Sprint Structure

The sprint was structured around 3 90-minute working sessions each day for two days, interspersed with breakfast, coffee breaks, and lunch. Following an early breakfast we began on both days with an orientation at 8:30am. The working sessions ran from 9-10:30am, 11am-12:30pm, and 1:30-3pm, with a final progress update & wrap up from 3-3:30pm. Dragon boating and a hosted dinner were scheduled for the afternoon/evening of July 18 while the sprinters were free to play 18 holes of golf on the afternoon of the 19th.

The seventeen faculty were assigned to one of 7 working groups of 2-3 faculty for each session, with each group responsible for writing questions for a specific topic area. The composition of the groups and the topics changed every session such that by the end of the second session on Day 2 of the sprint each faculty member had participated in 5 working groups and each topic area had been visited by two working groups. From an organizational point of view this was a bit like playing with a Rubik’s cube with 17 squares and 15 sides. Only the squares had feelings and the saturation of the colours was not always the same.

The target for each working group during their 90 minute session was to write an average of 10 high-quality multiple-choice questions per group member (~20-30 questions per topic per session and ~50 questions per topic or ~750 questions in total by the end of the sprint). To help with this we circulated the topic assignments and a document outlining some best practices for good multiple-choice questions ahead of the sprint (the sprinters were encouraged to think about or even write questions ahead of time and to bring their own laptops).

The final session on Day 2 was devoted to the vetting and categorization (Applied, Conceptual, or Factual) of questions. I assigned one faculty member to go through and vet all of the questions written for one topic area in which they had intermediate-to-high expertise. Minor problems could be fixed immediately but larger problems had to be flagged. Flagging a question meant that another faculty member with overlapping expertise would have to be consulted to see if the question could be resuscitated or whether it had to be deleted (deletion was always a two-person decision). I should note here that we did not have an easy template to follow for any of this so the structure and rules of the sprint really resulted from my sense of what would work well. Mercifully it all went to plan and when I solicited feedback and suggestions at the end of the first day the group appeared very happy with how things were going.

Battle stations

Battle stations

Vetting questions

Vetting questions

The Finish Line

So how did we do? By the end of the fifth session we had collectively written 870 questions across the 15 topic areas (comfortably surpassing my initial target of 750 questions). Following the vetting process in the final session on Day 2, we finished with 851 questions (296 Applied, 219 Conceptual, & 336 Factual). Very soon this entire testbank will be made available by BC Campus to any recognized psychology faculty, in a format that can imported into any LMS. In other words, mission accomplished, under budget and on schedule.

Perhaps most importantly though, we truly enjoyed ourselves. Both process and outcome, journey and destination, were gold.

Happy Sprinters

Happy Sprinters

Some Observations

  • Although some working groups began writing questions collaboratively, most found that they worked more productively when they divided the learning objectives/sub-topics and worked in parallel. Having said this, some truly enjoyed writing questions collaboratively.
  • The target of 10 questions per faculty member per 90 minute session was found to be reasonable and well-calibrated.
  • Although we had installed testbank creation software on a KPU-issued laptop at each of the seven stations Clint and I decided ahead of the sprint that it would be easier and a time-saver to have everyone enter questions (using the correct format) into a more familiar tool (MS Word) instead. The software permitted the easy import of questions from Word.
  • Our hosts at the golf course remarked several times at how quiet we were while working. This was generally true as the soundtrack of each session was a steady chorus of fingers on keyboards punctuated with laughter (one of the sources of laughter was the amusement we spontaneously derived from embedding one another’s first names into many of the applied questions!).
  • Given the nature of the work we were there to perform I remain amazed by the level of enjoyment we derived. The dominant and universal theme in the feedback I have received since the end of the sprint has been how much fun it was.
  • As noted by someone during our dinner at the end of Day 1, dragon boating on Harrison Lake on the first evening proved to be the ideal metaphor for the sprint. We were in it together, we had to coordinate our efforts well, we had one person (me) providing continual feedback to the group while staying mindful of our pace and progress, we rested in between sessions of hard work, we laughed a lot, truly cherished one another’s company, and experienced a rather unforgettable adventure.

The Heroes of the Sprint

My thanks to my organizing team (Dianne Crisp, Cory Pedersen, & Levente Orban from Kwantlen Polytechnic University), other fellow sprinters (Betty Rideout, Carla Maclean, David Froc, Farhad Dastur, John Marasigan, Kurt Penner, Kyle Matsuba, and Richard LeGrand from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Jacqueline Kampman from Thompson Rivers University, Randal Tonks from Camosun College, Istvan Geczy from Northern Lights College, Hammond Tarry from Capilano University, Wayne Podrouzek from the University of the Fraser Valley, and  Clint Lalonde from BC Campus), ed-tech whiz Meg Goodine from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and project sponsors (Mary Burgess from BC Campus and Peter Lindberg from the NOBA Project). Thanks also to the Mavericks Dragon Boat Team for hosting us on the evening of July 18.

See Also

Clint’s blog post from Day 1 of the sprint

Press coverage of our work by the Chilliwack Times

A Faculty Perspective on Open Textbooks

Recently I have found myself at many meetings and events (e.g., the Open Textbook summit) centered on Open Education. Despite my non-representativeness due to self-selection, I am often called upon at these meetings to represent the “faculty perspective.”

As much as I would love to do this, in my experience, there is no single faculty perspective on open education in general and open textbooks in particular. Some, like myself, are early adopters. Others are willing to go along if their concerns are addressed. Still others remain skeptical and resistant. And there are many views in between, many of which contain a mixture of curiousity, interest, and concern. And this is not a bad thing. Academic freedom is sacred. And, at least in my experience, a faculty members’ teaching philosophy is often intimately connected with their openness to openness.

Most faculty I know consider the cost to students when assigning a textbook for their courses. For them, shifting to an open textbook (assuming one is available) provides a clear advantage. Students can download and use a digital copy of the textbook for free or even print a physical copy at a fraction of the cost of a traditional textbook. At a time when a growing number of students are attempting to hold down full-time jobs while pursuing their post-secondary educational ambitions, this is a tangible benefit with a human face. Every semester I notice students in my classes who elect not to purchase the course textbook (despite cautionary notes from me) due to financial constraints. My colleagues report the same. In the battle between groceries and a textbook, the textbook loses every time.

This is especially true given the increase in the price of a traditional textbook over the past decade. We cannot fault our students for questioning the value of their (forced) purchase. As an example, the textbook I previously assigned for Research Methods in Psychology (which just happens to be the most popular textbook for this course in BC) is a softcover book printed in black ink that runs 416 pages long and retails for $114.95 + taxes & shipping. I should say that it is a great book and well written. But, in contrast, the Canadian edition of the open textbook for Research Methods in Psychology that I revised includes colour graphics throughout, runs 378 pages long and costs my students nothing. If they wish to order a print copy of the book it will cost them $13.06 + taxes & shipping. At least on price, there is no contest.

So why are faculty not yet adopting open textbooks more widely?

1. Quite simply, for many disciplines and courses, there is no open textbook available. So other than putting together a set of existing open educational resources, the nontraditional options are limited. I should say here that cost-saving alternatives like e-textbooks put forward by the big publishers are often a terrible option for students because they come with a time-limited license and have no resale value, which means that they often end up costing the students the same (or even more) in the long run, as compared with biting the bullet and buying the assigned traditional textbook.

2. In my experience, reason #2 has to do with concerns about quality (e.g., comprehensiveness, clarity, currency, etc.). Some faculty are instantly skeptical of open textbooks and hold them to a higher standard than traditional textbooks. This is fair, because traditional textbooks typically have several sets of eyes on them through their development and are later sent to many other faculty for their review. Although some open textbook initiatives (such as the BC Campus Open Textbook Project) collect and post comprehensive faculty reviews for the books in their repository, others do not. Where available, open textbooks or chapters written by leading scholars (e.g., the NOBA project) are especially helpful in countering doubts about quality.

3. But let’s imagine that a high quality open textbook is available for a particular course. Sometimes these are entirely text-based – no illustrations, charts, or graphics to aid comprehension. No questions or critical thinking exercises embedded. No online learning management system available that students can rely on for formative feedback. And, crucially for many faculty, no testbank, which means that the instructor is then obligated to write every question for every assessment for their course. Considering the amount of time it takes to write good test questions that are reliably able to distinguish between different levels of understanding, this is a tall order.

4. The choice of textbook is sometimes not an individual one. Especially for large, multi-section introductory courses (sometimes offered in two halves), in order to facilitate student mobility, academic departments often mandate that faculty adopt the same textbook across all sections. This reality often makes switching to an open textbook a less nimble decision.

One of the myths I often try to dispel is that faculty are the enemy and have some great stake in upholding the traditional textbook model. To be clear – assuming they are not the author, faculty do not receive any benefit when they assign a particular publisher’s textbook. Faculty are, however, deeply concerned about student learning. For this reason I believe that if faculty are presented with an open textbook alternative that has been favourably reviewed by other faculty, embeds good pedagogical features, and has an available testbank, it would be more difficult for the majority to continue upholding the status quo.

Beyond merely speaking to the legitimate concerns of faculty, however, I find it more refreshing to speak to the additional advantages that open textbooks bring to faculty:

1. Faculty have the ability to adapt and remix the textbook to suit their needs. They may choose to delete specific chapters or sections or even write and insert sections for their open textbook, making it possible to incorporate recent developments in research and theory much faster than the traditional textbook’s five-year review cycle permits. In other words, an increase in academic freedom!

2. There is some evidence to suggest that when an open textbook is carefully adapted to suit a particular program, student performance and retention is actually enhanced.

3. The ideal textbook does not exist. My colleague Takashi Sato at Kwantlen Polytechnic University recently made this excellent point. There are always tradeoffs that faculty make when adopting a textbook. Often it is a question of whether the content is “good enough,” assuming that several other resources are in place. For the reasons listed above, open textbooks are very often better than “good enough.”

4. As soppy as this sounds, the looks on your students’ faces when you tell them that you have adopted an open textbook. You have them at hello.

5. Although this post is about open textbooks, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the open research movement is a natural and strong ally, particularly when addressing faculty. Open access journals like PLOS ONE have become mainstream as researchers have come to appreciate the need for the fruit of their labour (and public tax coffers) to be shared with the public. In many ways, open textbooks are merely an extension of this same philosophy and permit faculty to live more closely in concert with their values.

Of course there are many remaining issues to work on before open textbooks can go mainstream. The sustainability of who will continue to revise and update the open textbooks is one such question. Government support and resource sharing agreements help a great deal. But ultimately I believe that it is institutional culture that will need to shift. A university’s strategic priorities need to include moving towards open education. From the president’s office down, open education initiatives need to be supported for these to develop and mature. This includes time releases for faculty adapting/adopting open textbooks, institutional recognition of this work, practical and regularly offered professional development workshops, and the consideration of the development of open educational resources in the files of those on the tenure-track.

I recently met a student from the University of Regina who spoke eloquently about why we should avoid pitting different stakeholders (e.g., faculty and students) against one another. I believe she is correct. There is not just one reason to consider adopting open textbooks. The benefits to students are obvious, the benefits to faculty can be highlighted, and the benefits to the institution (e.g., with recruitment) may need to be spelled out. Open textbooks represent a rare win-win-win scenario, the kind we do not see very often in post-secondary education.

To finish, I ask you to engage in a useful thought exercise: Imagine a world in which open textbooks, open research, open pedagogy, and open educational resources are the norm. In this future world, imagine that a representative from a for-profit publishing house approaches a faculty member in order to persuade them to adopt one of their textbooks. What would their pitch look like? And what could they possibly say that would convince faculty to adopt their product?

Asking for a Letter of Reference

I often get approached by students asking for a letter of reference. To be honest, merely being asked is often a wonderful validation of how the student in question perceives you. And writing a letter of reference (an art in itself) is a joyful exercise when you know the individual well and believe in their abilities. But too often the student is simply one name amid a class of 200. They might have done well enough in terms of their grades in the course, but often they have never visited my office hours, hung around after class for a chat, or even participated actively enough in class to stick out in my memory. What to do then?

In these cases I typically advise the student that, given our limited personal contact, any letter I write could only really discuss their performance in the course (interpreted via formal, summative assessments). Of course, I could include information also listed in their cv, but none of this amounts to the kind of reference they really need (or are hoping for). I believe the ethical approach here is to be open and honest with the student and then let them decide. A letter from someone who knows them well enough to comment on their character and performance over a longer period of time is far more valuable (having been on the receiving end of many letters of reference I can also attest that a lukewarm letter of reference is often rather damning). In short, the question they should ask me is not “would you please write me a letter of reference?” but instead “do you feel you could write me a strong letter of reference?”