Open Educational Resources

How to Go Textbook Free

The University of Maryland University College is the largest institution in the country to go "commando" on textbooks. As of this academic year undergraduates don't have to lug them around or spend a dime on them — and the benefits don't end there. Here's how UMUC achieved an amazing goal.

If you're waiting for the day when open educational resources (OER) have truly arrived on campus in a big way, you're late to class. As of fall 2015, the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) no longer expects any undergraduate to spend money on textbooks. By next fall, the same will be true for its graduate students. The conservative estimate of savings for the university's 84,000 students is somewhere north of $10 million per year. And more importantly, the university has reason to believe that student learning is improving under the new strategy.

Figuring out how to develop the curriculum for use in more than 700 individual courses wasn't as simple as taking existing OER textbooks with Creative Commons licenses and "chopping" them into pieces, said Matt Prineas, vice provost and dean of the Undergraduate School. Because no model really existed for what the university was undertaking, it had to figure out its own process.

Course Outcomes and Objectives

Although the widespread shift to free curriculum officially started in 2013, the groundwork was laid three years earlier when the mostly online university revised its undergraduate programs to be "outcomes-based," according to Prineas. In all of its courses, the school first identified program-level outcomes and then the objectives that mapped to those outcomes.

As Prineas explained, that "curricular transformation" encompassed not just the curriculum but also the length of the term, which shrank from 16 weeks to eight weeks. As a result faculty couldn't think about this shift as taking a "certain body of content" and "jamming it into eight weeks." They had to reconsider their courses in terms of the learning objectives for each. A natural outcome was a re-examination of the content, projects and assessments would best allow them to teach the learning objectives.

What the university didn't realize at the time was that the work begun in 2010 "set us up perfectly for our task in 2013," noted Prineas. "When you don't have a textbook, what do you do? If you have defined learning objectives for every course, that gives you a framework for making choices about materials."

The Work Team Approach

The faculty model at UMUC is to maintain a very small full-time faculty ("a little over a hundred," Prineas said) and a sizable group of adjunct faculty ("several thousand"), people with both academic backgrounds and experience in the fields they're teaching — "scholar practitioners" in UMUC parlance. While individual courses are sometimes taught by the full-timers, for the most part their responsibility is to "manage and design and do quality control" of the programs.

The curriculum transition exploited that model. To find and prepare digital content that would mesh with learning objectives for each course, UMUC typically used a team approach with four roles: instructional designers, librarians, a subject-matter expert (one of those scholar-practitioners) and a program chair or full-time faculty member who understood how the course fit into the program as a whole.

Prepping the Curriculum

The content development process would begin with a discovery phase, wherein librarians helped identify "a whole suite of possible materials" for each learning objective. "That was challenge at the beginning," noted Prineas. "In some disciplines it's a natural fit because there are so many resources out there and it's dynamic. In others there was a sense of, where do you even begin?"

Then the subject-matter expert would work with the materials and make decisions about what was appropriate for the course.

Inevitably, gaps would surface where the available OER didn't fully address the learning objectives of a given course. When that happened, non-OER resources were considered.

"Our project was from the beginning about making the materials available at no cost to the students. That doesn't mean no cost to us," Prineas admitted. Sometimes the gap could be closed with the use of proprietary databases that the library subscribes to. In other cases repurposed material was used. "We were working with the online courses that we had already created, and so for all 31 of our undergraduate programs, they're all available fully online. There was a lot of content there that could be repackaged for this OER effort," he said.

Sometimes, the school created new materials. An example of that, Prineas offered, would be a survey history course covering the Civil War. "You can find all kinds of fantastic archival stuff — databases, really sophisticated kinds of resources on the Internet. But one of the things that a textbook does is give context to those materials, especially at the lower levels. There was some of that writing and framing that our faculty needed to do."

Sometimes, there was no choice but to license content, such as novels still under copyright for certain English classes. In other cases, such as with university's course "Model Digital Forensics Analysis and Application," the students are given access to digital materials as well as industry-caliber software they use through virtual desktops.

Preparing for Student Consumption

Once the content was compiled for a given course, it was put through an approval process to address copyright permissions and accessibility issues. That could be "fairly complicated," Prineas suggested. In the simplest scenario, the librarians would establish whether the material could be downloaded and used in the courses under Creative Common licensing. Other times the determination would be "escalated" to the university's legal department.

The last phase was to package the content so that it made sense for the "flow of learning" to be followed by students week after week. While textbooks do a great job of providing "just the right bite-sized pieces for individual lessons or units," that doesn't just happen when the resources are coming from multiple places, said Prineas.

Also, figuring out the appropriate form for the content was an evolving process. "It doesn't help if you've found these wonderful materials but then all the student sees is a list of links." Besides, he added, the use of a link list is problematic because it requires quite a bit of maintenance. Storing the complete materials in a database and linking to them from within the university learning management system proved to be more stable. That practice required less maintenance and students had an easier time downloading content.

Throughout the various stages, faculty who may or may not have been working on the teams would have an opportunity to weigh in on the resources for particular courses. That became a lesson learned for project planning, Prineas explained. "It took time to understand that it has to be an iterative process. Occasionally you get lucky and there's an open textbook with a Creative Commons license, and you can slice it and dice it however you want for that course. But most of the time that's not the case. You really have to build in time for that conversation, taking into account the need for that iterative, evolving nature of putting these bundles together."

Those who were advocates and practitioners of the digital content approach became the early leaders and champions of the initiative, and that's where UMUC started the conversion work.

Then, as the multi-staged approach became more refined, "we could tackle the areas where there was maybe a little more hesitation or questions about, 'Is this even possible in my area?'" said Prineas. By the time the university had gotten to some of those more challenging areas where it was less obvious what the OER would be, "we had really honed our process and we could support those folks in helping them to develop the OER bundles."

Share the Goods

The university quickly understood a couple of limitations to its OER approach. First, once the course was over, students would lose access to those materials unless they'd had the foresight to download everything. Second, content was maintained in "silos" by individual courses, which hinders its discovery or reuse in other courses.

So the next phase of the work is to build a repository to serve as a library of resources. The graduate school, which is still developing its course content, will be the first to take advantage of the repository. That will require tagging content, making it more searchable.

Eventually, that library of content will enable UMUC to make as much of the content as possible openly available to everybody, current or former student, faculty member or anybody else.

Impact on Learning

As the project picked up steam, those involved came to appreciate an aspect of their work that wouldn't be readily apparent at the beginning: Learning improved.

As courses were taught with the new resources, feedback would come in and the content would be tweaked. Likewise, the materials used by the course could change as rapidly as a given subject changes. And faculty members and students would uncover new content nobody knew about before, which could be incorporated into the next iteration of the course.

Collegiate Associate Professor Valorie King, a member of the cybersecurity degree program and author of a textbook, said that while she would have the opportunity to update her traditional textbook "maybe once every two years," under the UMUC model, "I get a chance to fix things three times a year. That's our standard schedule."

"Especially in the IT field where things change so rapidly, we need that ability to constantly make changes and updates to the course material," added Jeff Tjiputra, academic director for the cybersecurity program.

"We're able to link to what students are actually doing and learning in the course in a more targeted way. What we realized more and more was that this model has real benefits in terms of improving student learning," said Prineas. "We have a new tool for matching content to student learning, and it's more dynamic. Although it's more work, it also opens up new avenues for making selections for the best pieces of content for whatever learning you're trying to achieve."

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