Use of an Open Educational Resource (OER) Textbook for Online Classes
The use of open-access resources is a growing trend in education. Open Educational Resources (OER) include any teaching material (i.e. syllabi, lesson plans, worksheets, videos, games, readings, textbooks, applications, etc.) that is available free of charge to anyone with permission to reuse, revise or redistribute. I have been using an OER as the textbook in my General Psychology face-to-face classes for 5 years, and when I started teaching on-line just over a year ago, it seemed a natural fit to continue using the same resource. The textbook that I use is a part of Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI). It is an interactive textbook, which means it incorporates text, videos, experiential activities and comprehension questions. It is accessed through a web page, so students are required to have internet access to complete the assignments, but all students can access the textbook free of charge.
Teaching at a community college in Onondaga County (in Syracuse NY), I noticed that many of my students did not buy the required textbooks. Some did buy the books, but never read them. Either way, this affected their performance in the class. During the spring 2014 semester, I was asked by the college to use an Open Educational Resource on a trial basis as a part of the Kaleidoscope Project. I started using an OER on-line textbook for five sections of PSY 103 – General Psychology at Onondaga Community College. I completed an Assessment Fellowship project to consider the strengths and weaknesses of its use, and compare final grades, homework completion and test scores between that semester, and spring 2013, when I taught 5 sections of PSY 103 using a traditional paper textbook. Both formative and summative assessments were completed during the spring 2014 semester to investigate student satisfaction and performance with the on-line text. Sixty four percent of my students reported accessing the material through the website. For those students who don’t have internet access, or preferred not to read from a webpage, a downloadable or printable PDF version of the text was available, however; this included only the text and not the interactive components (31% of my students reported using the PDF version, 4% reported using both forms, and 1% said they did not use the text in any form). Access to all forms was free for all students.
During that first semester of use, my research noted several advantages to the OER text.
- By far, the biggest advantage of the OER materials is this cost – free. During the 2013 – 2014 school year, my students saved over $12,000 (and that is using a very conservative estimate of $50 per textbook). The potential cost savings over time is enormous. As a community college, we have a responsibility to use the most cost effective materials, as finances are a source of stress for many students at OCC. Here are some quotes from the student satisfaction survey:
“I am thankful it is free because the cost of books is unreasonable.”
“Awesome that it was free. All college books should be free.”
- Everyone has access to the material on the first day of class. Each semester, professors hear from students who do not have the textbook until their financial aid check comes in, or until the book is shipped. These students may try to borrow a text to keep up with the reading, but often they fall behind at the start of the semester, and struggle to catch up. Using OER materials allows all students to access the content immediately.
- Students are satisfied – 91% of my students thought the textbook helped them meet the course objectives and would recommended that other students take a class that used this kind of free textbook. Here are some quotes from my students:
“I think it’s great, there’s nothing I’d rather do than study that book.”
“It’s the best textbook I’ve ever read.”
“I love it. I’m not sure I have ever learned more effectively. I would implement this in every class.”
- Academically, it was equally effective to a traditional textbook. Several different areas of data were analyzed, comparing spring 2013 students (n=148) and spring 2014 students (n=148). First, homework completion was equal in both groups at 85% overall. Test scores and final exam score averages were within 1-2 percentage points. In spring 2014, using the OER text, slightly fewer students failed PSY 103, but last spring with a traditional text, a somewhat higher percentage had a grade of C or better (but within 5% on each).
As with any resource, challenges arose.
- Occasionally, students had trouble accessing the information due to technological issues – 16% reported having difficulty accessing the information, and cited such reasons as no or slow internet access, and website issues. Conversely, 84% of students reported no difficulty in accessing the information from the textbook.
- Websites do tend to change frequently – Because they are free, the websites may be grant-funded (and the funding may run out), or sold to a for-profit organization that will charge students for their use. In addition, many of the websites tend to have a lack of technical support.
- Some students reported a preference for reading a paper copy of the text. Some noted that reading on a screen made their eyes get tired or dry. Still other reported that because their reading was on-line, they sometimes thought of it as optional, or were more likely to get distracted by games or social media. A PDF version was provided for students, and they could print it out. In later semesters, the OCC bookstore offered a traditional textbook version of the information in the PDF (for less than $40). This continues to be a good option for students such as these:
“I’m old-fashioned; I would like a hard copy.”
“I prefer to have a paper text in front of me. I can’t look at a screen and try to learn as I am an up-close and personal learner.”
Since completing this assessment of the OER more than 3 years ago, I have continued to use it for all sections of General Psychology, both face-to-face and on-line. The experience using the open access textbook has been interesting and rewarding. I have helped numerous students overcome the challenges noted, and now feel confident that any student can learn to use this resource successfully. More and more, we are accessing information in an on-line or digital format. The trend for textbooks has been similar. In my opinion, although challenges exist in the use of on-line textbooks, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and therefore, I will continue using this free textbook for as long as possible. Open Educational Resources may not work for all students, professors or curricular content, but it seems to be working for my students in PSY 103- General Psychology. The vast majority of students had no difficulty accessing the material, it was equally effective to the traditional text in meeting the course objectives, and had the huge benefit of being free of charge to all students. As a professor, it requires some extra effort on my part, including providing students with multiple options (PDF and paper versions, if they choose), and keeping up with website changes. In my opinion, those efforts are worth it to save my students a significant amount of money over the course of my teaching career.
Kerry is a 2018 Open SUNY Online Teaching Ambassador.
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