Rajiv Jhangiani, Ph.D.

Open Education, SoTL, Psychology

Tag: open textbooks

Trying something new: Sketchnoting my research

Inspired by George Veletsianos’ Research Shorts and a recent Sketching in Practice (SKiP) workshop I took with Amy Burvall, I am trying a new way of sharing my research: sketchnoting. In this first attempt, my co-author (and wife) Surita Jhangiani and I recorded a voice over summarizing our recent survey of the perceptions, use, and impact of open textbooks among post-secondary students in British Columbia. I then used the app Procreate to sketch on my iPad (exporting brief video clips with each additional segment) and finally used iMovie to stitch it all together.

While I hope to produce more sophisticated sketches over time, I didn’t want to shy away from sharing my first effort. So, with the hope that this is useful to those of you who would like a quick overview of our study, here it is:

“If you could tell a new open textbook author one thing, what would it be?”

Earlier this year, Linda Frederiksen (Head of Access Services, Washington State University Vancouver) reached out to me (along with several others) and posed this question. She has since done a wonderful job of synthesizing these suggestions into a chapter titled “Ten Tips for Authoring Success,” itself part of a new guide for Authoring Open Textbooks, edited by Melissa Falldin and Karen Lauritsen from the Open Textbook Network.

I encourage you to read all of the ten tips provided by brilliant colleagues such as Amanda Coolidge, Lauri Aesoph, Dianna Fisher, Quill West, Amy Hofer, Mike Caulfield, and others. Here is what I wrote:

To your question, “What Is The One Thing Every New Open Textbook Author Should Know?”, I would say that although constructing an open textbook is easier when you think about it in terms of a conventional textbook structure (e.g., sub sections within chapters that may also be grouped into sections), know that the most exciting elements of OER have to do with the greatest weaknesses of conventional textbooks. With an open textbook you have the ability to update content frequently, so write with this in mind (e.g., do not keep referring to one particular study as this may be replaced over time). Think about how you might take advantage of the digital platform by embedding interactive simulations, videos, and online activities. Consider how you can invite students into the process of OER creation, even if through personal application questions or small exercises. And finally, do not wait for your open textbook to be in some mythical “perfect” state before releasing it to the community. Pilot it, collect student feedback, and revise. Consider this an iterative process that you own. And if you are feeling a bit bolder, develop the textbook itself in the open, permitting and even inviting feedback from colleagues as you develop each sub-section. It may seem daunting to open yourself up to that level of scrutiny, but the resource will be far stronger for it. If you think about it, this is what the process of opening education is all about.

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.

Why have students answer questions when they can write them?

Questions by Alan Levine (CC-BY 2.0). Retrieved from https://flic.kr/p/mrQ1x1

Questions by Alan Levine (CC-BY 2.0). Retrieved from https://flic.kr/p/mrQ1x1

I recently trialled a new assignment in my Social Psychology class: During each of the 10 weeks when there was no scheduled exam I asked my students to write multiple-choice questions. That’s right, they wrote questions instead of merely answering them.

From a pedagogical perspective, I really wanted my students to achieve a deeper level of understanding (e.g., the level it takes in order to craft three plausible distractors). However, this assignment also served a pragmatic purpose in that the open textbook that I use for this course (and that I helped revise) does not yet have a readymade question bank.  By asking my students to craft and peer-review multiple-choice questions based on the concepts covered that week (and scaffolding this process over the semester), I considered I had a budding open pedagogy project on my hands.

Here’s how it went:

  1. The students were asked to write 4 questions each week, 2 factual (e.g., a definition or evidence-based prediction) and 2 applied (e.g., scenario-type).
  2. For the first two weeks they wrote just one plausible distractor (I provided the question stem, the correct answer, and 2 plausible distractors). They also peer reviewed questions written by 3 of their (randomly assigned) peers. This entire procedure was double blind and performed using Google forms for the submission and Google sheets for the peer review.
  3. For the next two weeks they wrote two plausible distractors (the rest of the procedure was the same).
  4. For the next two weeks they wrote all 3 plausible distractors (the rest of the procedure was the same).
  5. For the remainder of the semester they wrote the stem, the correct answer, and all the distractors.

I adapted existing guidelines about how to write effective multiple-choice distractors and how to provide constructive peer feedback and produced these two brief guides:

Guidelines for writing effective distractors for multiple-choice questions

Guidelines for providing constructive peer feedback

The result? My small class of 35 students wrote 1400 questions in the span of 10 weeks! And although I wouldn’t consider this a polished question bank ready for use by other instructors, I still consider this assignment to have been a success because the questions steadily improved over the semester (the experience of serving as peer reviewers was especially useful to the students when constructing their own questions). The students were also buoyed and motivated by my practice of including a few of their best questions on each of the three course exams. Looking forward, I plan to have my next cohort of Social Psychology students revise and add to this bank. I figure that it will take only a couple of semesters for us to provide the commons with a high-quality question bank, something that will enable even more instructors to adopt this open textbook.

If you have attempted something similar or would even like to collaborate with me on this assignment, please write a comment below or otherwise get in touch. Your feedback is very welcome.

Review, Revise, Adopt. Rinse and Repeat.

I am often asked about how I got involved with the open textbook movement. My red pill moment was when I first heard the term “OER” uttered by David Wiley in May 2013 at an annual workshop held at Thompson Rivers University for faculty in their Open Learning division. This is when I began to see the Matrix for what it was—an artificial, parasitic, publisher-driven system in which faculty are unwitting carriers. Continue reading

The Fellowship of the Open

Over the past year I have had the pleasure of working with the fine folk at BCcampus a fair bit – first as a reviewer of two open textbooks, then as an adopter of three, adapter of two, organizer of an open test bank sprint, and a co-presenter at professional development workshops at Capilano University and Kwantlen Polytechnic University. So when I saw another potential excuse to spend time with Mary, Amanda, and Clint, I couldn’t help but apply for one of three Faculty Fellow positions with their open education program.

Today was the first meeting of us fellows – Christina Hendricks (UBC Philosophy) and Jessie Key (VIU Chemistry) are the other two – at BCcampus headquarters in Victoria. We received a briefing about the status of the Open Textbook Project and discussed our roles over the next year (mainly research, advocacy, & feedback to the OT team). In some ways this will be a continuation of our efforts thus far but there are many new opportunities as well (e.g., outreach within our disciplines and to student groups, presenting at the next Open Textbook summit in Vancouver, research funding, etc.). I am especially pleased to lead the research initiative, including an online survey of BC faculty that Clint and I have been working on recently with Beck Pitt (OER Research Hub) that is almost ready for launch, and that fits very well within my own research agenda at KPU.

Christina and Jessie are already doing remarkable work in the open arena and I look forward to working closely with them. Our mandate is thrilling, we have great support at BCcampus, and I believe we will collectively be able to help tangibly advance the open education agenda here in BC.

The Future is Open (https://creativecommons.org/weblog/entry/43164) by Luke Surl under CC BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

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?