Four lessons learned from implementing Textbook Zero programs

“Everyone here will walk away knowing me as ‘that person who spoke with David Wiley,’” said Kim Thanos (to laughter from the crowd) at the Open Textbooks Summit in April, acknowledging the reputation of her co-presenter and business partner, David Wiley, as a giant in the OER world.

Open Textbook Summit Graphic Wall

There is a direct relationship between textbook costs and student success – and Thanos and Wiley of Lumen Learning have the data to demonstrate that relationship. In the United States, for instance, 31 per cent of students do not register for a course they’re interested in because of the textbook cost. That’s a loss for society as well as for that individual.

Open Textbooks can change higher education, and in fact “Textbook Zero” programs championed by Lumen Learning are becoming a reality.  A Textbook Zero program is an entire program of study with zero textbook costs; a student can get a credential by using openly-licensed, free learning materials, including all textbooks. Students registering in these programs are referring to these courses and programs as “Z-degrees.”

“Z-degree” programs see a ten per cent reduction in students who drop courses because of economic hardship, says Thanos. That can mean an economic bump for the institution, because those students’ tuition dollars stay.

The transition to open textbooks in entire programs is not particularly easy. Obstacles and challenges include curricula that are written around particular textbooks, meaning that whole courses or programs sometimes need to be redesigned. Faculty support materials, contracts, and funding models are often embedded with traditional textbooks, so change is understandably hard.

Lesson 1 – systemic change is required

“We’re not trying to plant a tree. We’re trying to change an ecosystem. Open textbooks are more systemic that we sometimes realize.” Institutions need to be informed, to identify those systemic issues, and to run the numbers and accumulate the data before making policy changes.

Lesson 2 – a senior level champion is vital

“There is no successful Z-degree program that is lacking senior level commitment.” Individual instructors can be champions, but an institution-level scale leads to better outcomes.

Lesson 3 – faculty require diverse lessons and supports

Faculty approaches to their own course material are varied, so build, adapt, and adopt OER around those various approaches. Sometimes that means developing new textbooks, sometimes that means no “textbook” at all. A small percentage of faculty members are interested in developing and aggregating new materials without assigning a recommended textbook; how can we help make that process easier?

Thanos tells the story of an institution with one loud, passionate, vibrant faculty champion who made the case for open resources again and again. She kept banging her head against a wall, and it wasn’t until she asked the question of the provost: “What would it take to get you on board?” that change started happening.

Lesson 4 – the community must own the connection

The word is slowly getting out about the endless possibilities around open licensing and open content. There is so much to be done, there’s no space in this field for turf battles. “Lumen is never going to have the capacity to work with every single jurisdiction or institution trying to implement Textbook Zero programs, we just want to see the work get done,” said Thanos.

David Wiley: “So what?”

In making the case for OER, Kim Thanos’ colleague David Wiley outlined several educational goals that can be done ONLY in the context of open.

Continuous quality improvement

Using open resources gives educators permission to make changes, but doesn’t tell them what needs changing. Traditional learning analytics can identify the weaker parts of a course, but don’t give permission to fix them – if the system is closed. Only an open resource can do that. Helping faculty see learning analytics as a way of improvement, of checking their perceptions against what’s actually happening in the class, is a big advantage of using OER.

“Disposable” assignments versus “valuable” assignments

Disposable assignments are artificial contrivances that for the most part have no relevance outside a close classroom. “Students hate doing them, teachers hate grading them, and therefore they’re a huge waste of time and energy.”

Valuable assignments are ones where students see value, teachers see value, and they actually add value to the world. In theory, there’s no reason why educational assignments shouldn’t result in valuable products or processes beyond the school environment.

Here’s an example. Rather than saying “go write a paper about wikis,” an instructor asked his students to “go create a video showing the difference between blogs and wikis.” Result: “Ask not what your wiki can do for you, but what you can do for your wiki.

After the Textbook Zero presentation this past April at the BCcampus Open Textbook Summit, a similar program here in B.C. may be closer than we think.

Notable quotes:

“Whatever coalition we have to build, we’ll do it, because there’s so much work to do.” – Kim Thanos

“We’re not trying to plant a tree. We’re trying to change an ecosystem. Open textbooks are more systemic that we sometimes realize.” – Kim Thanos

OER is “free plus permissions” not just “free.” – David Wiley

Are your classes better – not just cheaper – than before you started using OER? – David Wiley

Identifying the weaker parts of your course, together with permission to fix them, equals continuous quality improvement. – David Wiley

Further reading: