Project Ideas & Case Studies
Maxwell Nicholson’s interest in open textbooks started as a student leader at the University of Victoria Students’ Society.
He ran on a platform of open textbooks, and won (when we spoke with him he was just ending his post as director of campaigns and community relations). His involvement in an open textbook was one way of fulfilling a campaign promise to bring free textbooks into use at the university.
After the campaign, Nicholson met with about ten professors in exploratory meetings to find out about the barriers to adoption for open textbooks. These included Dr. Emma Hutchinson, who taught the ECON 103 course that Nicholson (and three of the other candidates) had been longtime lab instructors for.
“It’s not going to go anywhere if the professor’s not onboard, so we were fortunate enough for Dr. Hutchinson to be really excited about it too,” Nicholson says.
Post-election, Nicholson’s first step to operationalize the project was to apply for a $4,800 grant for the project from BC Campus, which served as a granting agency for open textbook projects that could prove a demand. Despite a few bumps along the way, the funds came through for the project.
This open textbook project was different in that rather than being primarily the work of an instructor with funding to write it or a class-assigned project for students, the grant funded lab instructors to do the heavy lifting of compiling the textbook. The professor reviewed it and made the changes they thought necessary from there. This was doable since Nicholson had direct experience with how the instructor taught the class.
Nicholson had assisted the microeconomics class three times and the macroeconomics course once. “I’ve been fortunate to be on the pedagogy side to some extent, obviously nothing compared to professors, but when writing the textbook, that was really really crucial for me to have that lens when I was contributing.”
The textbook started as an adaptation of Timothy Taylor’s open textbook, Principles of Microeconomics, from OpenStax. But in the process of adapting the text, they found there were a lot of components that had to be written.
Ultimately, the textbook comprised around 30 percent material that came from Timothy Taylor’s book and 70 percent new content the lab instructors developed from their notes and the professor’s slide decks.
“The reason this project was most appealing is because she had her slides over here which taught what she wanted [students] to know, and then the publisher’s textbook was completely different,” NIcholson says. “So from the start our goal was really to align those two things.”
Nicholson says the lab instructors thought a lot about how students were going to consume the material, and what components of the course the instructor really wanted to stress.
They hoped to save students the cost of buying a textbook they didn’t really use.
The book was structured into eight topics, then the lab instructors divided them and did the heavy lifting to compile the chapters. Dr. Hutchinson edited each of the chapters to make sure everything was accurate, thorough and clear.
The process, Nicholson says, helped “remove the biggest barrier for professors–the magnitude of work that goes into redesigning a textbook.”
Nicholson says he thinks large first-year courses such as ECON 103 (which has 800 students per year) make the best candidates for OER–and are also the most likely courses to have lab instructors that can be leveraged to compile the content. (He recognizes that most professors probably don’t want to spend their nights and weekends becoming book publishers.)
“What [professors] can do if they know that they’re going to do this project, is take one of their most christened lab instructors, get access to grant funding and pay the lab instructor to work on the textbook,” Nicholson says. “Then they can be confident that it’s someone who not only knows the course, but knows the course as the professor teaches it.”
For his part, Nicholson says he learned a lot from the project, including understanding the work that goes into designing a course, and gaining a greater appreciation for good textbooks and discernment of those that aren’t well-matched for the subject. Creating OER offers great opportunities to customize a textbook to a course, he says, observing that it must be challenging for traditional publishers to create one-size-fits-all content for teachers, who may teach subjects very differently.
“I would hope they’re doing a lot of getting students to read this book and connect on it,” he says. “A lot of times it feels like they don’t.”
Nicholson, who is studying business and economics, says, “If you’re trying to create a product, you’re always supposed to ask your end user ‘what do you think?’”
So even if you don’t want to have students write a textbook for your class, he says, you should have some of your top students read it and provide feedback.
Otherwise, he says, students will either buy the textbook and not use it, or tell future students not to buy it.
“With a publisher’s resource, if it’s not useful, the students are going to stop buying it,” Nicholson says.
Of course, some might object to students having as much involvement in a textbook’s writing as Nicholson and his fellow lab instructors experienced, but Nicholson says that after the instructors create the chapters, the professor is going to change and edit things, and ensure the quality meets their standard.
“If you’re a respected faculty and you have the experience teaching and you’ve put that stamp of approval, I’m really confident that the resource is going to be [Dr. Hutchinson’s] resource. It’s not just some resource that was written by students.”
For students involved in such projects, he encourages them to appreciate the potential impact they might have through their involvement.
“If you’re involved in this kind of project, you’re going to be on the back end of the course design, and you’re able to take all the components that you thought were really bad about other textbooks and avoid those and leave all the really good elements,” Nicholson says.
Students working on an open textbook for a class should realize the impact they’ll have on future students who take that class–whether it’s the only survey course they ever take on the subject, or the foundation of many in their majors. Plus, they’re participating in an innovative movement in education.
Even for those who may not participate on an open textbook project, Nicholson says they can play a role in the movement as advocates, speaking with professors and outlining the benefits of OER, telling them when their book is expensive and there’s an alternative open textbook in use by a peer institution.
“Creating the buzz about [open textbooks]–students can do that.”
- Engage with student governments, who may be able to spread the word about your project and help recruit interested and willing students.
- Involve TAs who have both taken the course and are assisting in teaching the course and leverage their experience as students.
- Review existing materials (slide presentations, lesson plans, assignments and more) to see if there are any that can be converted into content for the open textbook.
- Get student feedback on the completed book. It’s valuable! Be sure to implement fixes where appropriate for future editions.
- Look for internal and external funding opportunities that may pay for your professor to hire you to help them create OER.
- Clarify roles, expectations, workflow, and timelines.
- Timothy Taylor, Principles of Microeconomics (Houston, OpenStax: 2014), https://openstax.org/details/books/principles-microeconomics. ↵