As I reflect on Jen’s post about Virtual Bookshelves and Digital Textbooks and wonder what post might be appropriate to follow up with, I am reminded of a course I instruct. I am reminded of the shift in the course’s design toward multifaceted assessments and the ensuing journey to an open content design and increased information literacy. I am the first to admit that open content designs are not well suited for all subjects or instructors. Yet, with increasing high quality open content resources in production and online today, there is now more opportunity than ever before for a course to “go open” fully or as a supplement.
It was in 2003 that I first noticed a few learners each term were not purchasing the required textbook in a freshman online social science course. It was through their citations in assessments that I recognized a reliance on freely available resources, some of which were offered already as supplementary resources within the course. Starting that same year, the course design evolved from terminology and concept quizzing and high-stakes essay exams and term papers for assessment into asynchronous threaded discussions, journals, mini-essays, guided research papers, and media project-based assessments. No single assessment in the course can be completed at a desirable quality by solely referring to a single source, including a textbook.
Therefore, it was not a surprise that learners were able to do well in the course activities without the “textbook” and with, instead, the use of freely available resources online. The freely available resources range from online encyclopedias, knowledge base websites, open content journals, and tutorials all open to the public all with a few clicks and search online. When queried about the decision to use the open content resources, the learners noted the exorbitant cost of the text made it unattainable for them. Instead of working from a used older edition, as some chose to do, these learners were being highly resourceful with the open web.
In 2007, after relating this experience numerous times to colleagues, I was given the go ahead by administration to design a text-free course. I began that phase of the journey by figuring out which resources would be minimally necessary to excel in the course assessments and provide evidence of competency for the course objectives; it was a backwards design where the outcomes and assessments associated with the outcomes drove the decisions about formative activities and materials necessary.
Opportunely, because it is a freshman level survey course in a popular subject, a substantial number of resources were accessible, freely available, stable, and scholarly. I determined stability by the rather arbitrary measure that the resource had been consistently online for 3 or more years. I determined scholarly by the measure that the resource was funded by or otherwise created with research as its basis, had an author that could be easily identified and references, or specifically for the purpose of education as an open content resource. Over the course of two years, I collected and vetted with the assistance of colleagues numerous resources that could be used for the course that were available in ADA accessible formats and freely, with no charge beyond access to the web.
It was difficult to decide which resources to use because one of the design parameters I placed on the course was to keep each topic to a minimum of three resources. By limiting the number of resources to a manageable reading load, learners would, hypothetically, be more able to read and digest the materials. Additionally, the design plan included requiring learners to use at least one resource in addition to those provided with the course for the mini-essay assignments and discussions to receive the highest grade possible. The idea with this design element was to encourage learners to locate new resources online. Some learners struggled with finding scholarly sources even after tutorials about custom searching and evaluating sources.
Accordingly, a Google Custom Search Engine was created that searches websites deemed to have content of consistently stable and scholarly. The custom search engine provides an information literacy search tool that enables learners to see and learn about which types of materials are acceptable for scholarly work as compared to what they might find by their own devices with a basic or advanced search in any of the major online search engines.
In 2009, the open content of the course was offered. It was confusing for many learners at first that there was no book required. Some complained they “needed” a book because that was how they had been taught to learn and all this synthesizing and aggregation of sources and knowledge was just too much. The need to cite multiple sources caused some confusion as well. It was at that point I realized the open content design did require more synthesis across resources and a higher level of thinking to arrive at answers and products of learning otherwise for the assessments. It also necessitated more knowledge of citation techniques.
For me, this realization was satisfying as I argue this is exactly the kind of thinking we need in our freshman level courses. Nevertheless, in 2010, a recommended list of textbooks from leading authors was included in the course with the suggestion to learners who “needed” a book they purchase one of those listed. In 2011, the course currently runs with a majority of learners using the open content resources. Surveys for the course and reflections in the course show that learners come to appreciate the level of thinking required by using only open content resources. Most all report a satisfaction in being given a choice and choices in the resources from which they learn.
For some instructors, the course is difficult to teach because they are forced to read much more material than a single textbook and to be aware of ever changing resources available online. However, the merit of the design has kept the course running in its open content format, for now.
Questions I hope you will consider from what has been shared here include – Why wait until upper division courses or graduate school to teach learners to go beyond a single source of information (textbooks)? Why not instill in freshman level learners the ability to evaluate websites for scholarly merit by using open content? And, most of all, why not try open content design or supplements to your course?
Lisa Marie Johnson, Ph.D.
Academic Trainer & Consultant