Textbooks

Dear Ed Tech: This Is What You Don’t Understand About Higher Education

I am the kind of tired that makes you feel hollow inside, so maybe this isn’t the best time to be writing this, but then again, maybe it is. I just got back from my Monday-Tuesday teaching overnighter out of town. I’m a hired gun in the world of higher education- sometimes we’re called adjunct faculty, sometimes sessional lecturers, and a number of other terms that are beyond my ability to recall at the moment. But you know who we are.

The problem is that being able to learn about educational technologies is really a luxury for my lot. I’ve been able to take many free courses which I’ve enjoyed very much, but I was only able to take them because I could afford to not fill that time with paid work. Full-time faculty on campus who opt to attend a course are doing so during the work day, but hired guns do it on their own time. Many of my colleagues simply wouldn’t be able to take the time- I’m thinking of you, Elaine, with your 8 courses this term in at least three different communities. So the first thing you need to know, Ed Tech, is that a substantial number of the people teaching courses at universities are hired guns like me, and many of those are on the razor’s edge of being able to support their teaching habits.

Part of being a hired gun is not having job security. You should care about this, Ed Tech, because the many wonderful tools you offer require a lot of work up-front. It’s a big decision whether or not to use a technology when learning it and preparing materials happens on your own time. It’s an even bigger decision when access to a tool depends on your employment status, as it often does with institutional subscriptions to software.

My blog, for example, started out on a university WordPress service, but after the jarring experience of having my computing access cut off between contracts, and facing the loss of the materials I created, I moved it and absorbed the costs associated with making it ad-free.

The same university is working on updating their in-class response system. I’m using one now- Poll Everywhere, which also happens to be something I can afford out-of-pocket- and the chance that I would adopt the system they choose is zero. It doesn’t matter how good the system is. What matters is that it takes a lot of time to set up questions and to embed them into presentations. Is it worth spending the time if I only get to use those questions once, or, assuming I’m teaching a similar class elsewhere, am unable to access them? This more or less guarantees that whatever system the university chooses will be utilized far less than they would like.

I came face to face with this issue more recently when discussing a home for the open textbook adaptation I’m working on. First of all, I’ve spent 131 hours on this adaptation so far, according to the timer I use to track my various ill-advised activities. That doesn’t include the 65 hours I spent writing a chapter for the original version of the book (for which, I must add, I was compensated- something I appreciated as an acknowledgement of my work as much as for the income.).

My free Pressbooks account didn’t have enough space for the media library, so I upgraded at my own expense. I then learned that the university is setting up its own version of Pressbooks, but faced with the possibility of losing access to what now seems like a ridiculous amount of work, I would never consider using their account to work on my textbook. I would also be nervous about having my students use a version hosted on the university’s system because I’m not clear on whether I would have access to edit it once it got put there. (I have no idea how authors of print materials aren’t driven nuts by being unable to edit at will.)

In my present state of near-faceplant exhaustion, it appears that I’ve made a great many poor life-choices. I can justify this in my better moments as things that are important to do for my students, but on days like today, all I can think of is why oh why am I killing myself with this?

Ed Tech, you need to realize that many of the people teaching in higher education are not in a position to be as frivolous with their time as I have been. In the push to get instructors to adopt various kinds of educational technology, it isn’t just a matter of convincing them that it’s good for students. They very likely know that already. The challenge is convincing them that they should commit to a technology in spite of the personal and financial burden, not to mention being treated like the education version of a paper plate (it works, it’s cheap, it’s disposable, there are lots more where it came from) by the schools that would benefit from their labour.

The commitment you’re asking for isn’t the same as it would be for full-time faculty, and I don’t think you realize how frustrating- even insulting- it is when you discuss the problem of adoption in terms of instructors being resistant to change, too lazy to change, or just not getting it. Especially when you yourselves are comfortably ensconced in a full-time position. For hired guns like me, the only compensation is warm fuzzies. When you’re a dead-inside kind of tired, warm fuzzies are entirely inadequate.

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The open textbook arrives- For real this time!

Textbook coverApparently I’m not the only person who has seen a need for an open textbook for introductory physical geology. BCcampus has just released one, and I was lucky enough to get in at the tail end of the process and add a chapter on the origin of Earth and the solar system.

In case you haven’t heard of open before, these are resources which are free to use, and are available with non-restrictive or minimally restrictive licenses, or released to the public domain.  This particular book has a CC-BY license. That means anyone can use the book in any way they please, so long as they give the creator appropriate credit, and note whether any changes have been made.  Quite simply, it’s a free textbook.

A lot of work went into this book, and that is evident when you look through it. The author, Steven Earle, not only explained a wide range of topics in an enthusiastic and conversational style, but he also drew or adapted a great many figures. From my own experience, I can tell you that figure drawing takes up a lot more time than the actual writing. (But then again, I’m the sort to vacillate between shadow settings or tweak a font for 5 to 10 minutes before I’m happy with it.)

This textbook has a special focus on the geology of British Columbia.  That’s a Canadian focus that many commercially available physical geology textbooks have lacked until recently, judging by the regular shipment of freebies I get from the textbook companies.

The textbook is not only accessible as an online resource, but it can also be downloaded in a variety of electronic formats- you could put it on an e-reader, for example.

The online version of the book is built in Pressbooks, and I was immediately enamored of the aesthetics and ease of navigation… so much so I got my own Pressbooks account for experimentation. I’m finding it a bit slow, however my internet signal fails on really windy days (one of the perils of a rural home office), so maybe it’s not their fault.

The one feature of this textbook which has had the greatest impact on me is the fact that I can edit it- all by my lonesome, no permission required. In its current form, the book presents some of the topics differently than I do in my course, so I inquired about making the changes. The result? Amanda, a lovely lady from BCcampus, emailed me the latest version of the XML file, and I imported it into my Pressbooks account. It was that easy. (The XML file is one of the download options as well.)

I was pleasantly surprised at how straightforward it was to get something I could edit, but what surprised me most of all was the immense sense of relief I felt when I discovered that there were no barriers to making the textbook fit my needs. I’ve always been a bit of a control freak when it comes to my course materials- on a bad day that translates to downright resentment at not being able to fix things that need fixing- but I had no idea that I was so stressed out about not being able to control my textbooks.

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The open textbook arrives

Textbook coverDownload the pdf         Download the epub         Download for Kindle

The title for this post might be a little premature, but the fact is that I am now viewing a proof-of-concept version of my open textbook on my Kindle.

There were two main questions that I considered as I worked through this experiment.  One question was technology related: what is the best way to build and distribute the textbook?  The other question was design related: what content should go into the book, and how should it be presented?

The technological question was the easier of the two to answer.  I decided to take Booktype for a test drive.  This tool is free to download and use… if you have a server.  Otherwise it is $16 a month.  Booktype has a nice interface, and I think its two main strengths are the ease with which it can convert a document to different electronic formats (especially those for e-readers), and the tools for collaboration.  I published my book to the following formats: pdf, mobi (for Kindle), and epub (good for just about any reading device other than a Kindle).

The best results came from the epub format when viewed from Mac’s iBook reader.  The pdf didn’t work as well due to technical difficulties, but the problems weren’t anything I couldn’t fix if I generated my own pdf files directly out of Word.  Those files could then be distributed via Google Drive.  I’d need to do some “market research” to determine whether it would make sense to stay with pdfs (good for Mac devices, PCs, and Kindles), or whether there would be a lot of demand for the epub format.

The design question was more difficult to answer.  I experimented with the idea of using course design principles.  I came to the conclusion that this is probably the angle the publishers are using—for example, every introductory geology textbook on my shelf starts each chapter with a list of learning objectives, and ends each chapter with discussion questions.  I can do that too, but I can’t compete with the publishers’ ability to design and incorporate multimedia learning tools, or online self-assessment tools.  Here’s the thing, though—if the course is merely a textbook wrapper, then these things matter.  On the other hand, if the course is well designed then maybe it is ok for the textbook to be just a textbook.  Whether my course is well designed or not is another matter, but given that I will have to teach it, I think my time is better spent working on course design than on writing algorithms for dynamic assessment tools.

I will keep working on my textbook.  I’m going to focus on what I need it to be, and fill the gaps left by the other textbooks available to me.  Despite all of the bells and whistles that come with textbooks these days, there are indeed gaps.  It may be a while before I can rely entirely on my own book, but each bit of progress will improve what I can offer to my students.

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Open textbooks and cognitive load

While sketching out a plan for my open textbook, I’ve hit upon a design question:  how “printable” should it be?  A “printable” open textbook would contrast with one that is more akin to a series of webpages: if it were heavy on hyperlinks and multimedia then it would lose functionality when printed, because extra steps would be required for the user to access the online resources.

On one hand, being printable might seem to be about accommodating preferences—those arising from a learning history with print materials.  But what if there is a more basic reason for these preferences?  What if the act of learning is fundamentally different with electronic course materials?  Could that difference make it inherently more difficult to learn from electronic materials?

I think learning is different with electronic materials, and I think it is harder.  To explain why, I have to make a big leap from my comfy geology headspace into the alien terrain of cognitive psychology.  Please do excuse me if I land awkwardly…

The difference between Y, P, G, I, A, G, N, K, B, and PIGGY BANK

The concept of cognitive load describes a sort of mental balance sheet in which learning is associated with a cost, and the learner has only so much to spend in her mental piggy bank.  The learner will spend some of her mental budget on the learning task itself.  Some of the budget will be spent on organizing the knowledge into a meaningful whole.  Both of these expenditures are good investments for the learner.

But there is also a kind of learning “overhead,” the extraneous cognitive load.  It is the cost of setting up the operation in the first place, and the more the learner spends on overhead, the less she can spend on accumulating and organizing knowledge.

When comparing electronic and print materials, the expenditure on learning tasks and organizing can be identical, but the overhead is different.  There is more overhead associated with electronic materials, and that leaves less of the budget for learning and organizing.  Some of the overhead associated with electronic materials will diminish over time.  For example, if the learner must first figure out how to use a computer, that would count as overhead.  Over time, however, using a computer might become second nature, and the related overhead would decrease.

What won’t change is the way learners interact with electronic media.  For example, consider how a learner constructs a mental picture of where the information is that she is after.  In a book, this location is a physical thing within a linear arrangement—you flip ahead, or flip backward.  If your thumb is already in the right spot, then you just go there without even thinking about it.  In electronic learning materials, you might scroll down a page, but there might also be links, videos to watch, recordings to hear, and other pages to cross-reference… the structure is branching, and there is no convenient place to stick your thumb.

An open textbook must be available electronically if it is to solve the problems of cost, updating, and distribution inherent in the textbooks offered by publishers.  The challenge is finding a learning-friendly balance between what can be included and what should be.

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Open textbooks

The Sun: hotter than the bottom of the ocean (Credit: NASA/ European Space Agency)

The Sun: hotter than the bottom of the ocean (Credit: NASA/ European Space Agency)

A few weeks have gone by and I’m still thinking about textbooks. I’ve wondered before about the feasibility of creating an open textbook for introductory physical geology.  I got as far as sketching out some of the ideas and stopped when it became clear that a lot of work would be involved.

My most recent thinking about open textbooks was motivated by learning some startling facts from my students:  (1) At sea level, water boils at 1007°C.  (2) In areas on the ocean floor where new ocean crust is produced, water can be heated up to 10,007°C.

Setting aside for a moment the fact that that my students didn’t see anything wrong with water boiling at 1007°C, or with water on the ocean floor being a little shy of twice the sun’s surface temperature, what bothered me is that they encountered this information in their textbook.  I get that typos happen.  I’ve made some in my own course materials. The issue is that they are very hard to fix.  Ideally, I should be able to go into a document, change 1007°C to 100°C, and hit “update.”  Voila.  Problem solved.  Instead, I emailed the publisher’s salesperson for my region and told him about the error.  If he passes my email on to the right person, then in two years when the new edition comes out, water might once again boil at 100°C.

This is why writing my own textbook has a certain appeal.  Because no one is going to pay me to do it, I might as well make it freely available online.  It is free and relatively easy to make the textbook look pretty and to put it in places and formats that allow convenient student access.  The main difficulties are twofold:  First, I have to write it and find appropriate images that I am legally entitled to use.  Second, if done properly, I will have made use of online open education resources, and that means continually monitoring those resources to make sure they haven’t changed in unacceptable ways, or disappeared altogether.

When looking at a task requiring this much work, it is wise to see if someone else has already done the work for you, or is in the process of doing so.  Sadly, it appears no one has seen fit to build what I need.  It is also wise to see if others are interested in accomplishing the same task. Ideally, a project like this would involve a number of contributors with a wide range of expertise.  Perhaps a book sprint could be organized.  These are remarkable events during which a group of cloistered writers spends three to five days working on the book, facilitated by a company which organizes and feeds them.  At the end of five days a finished product is ready to upload… and apparently it is a good one.

Who knows—after years of writing fixes for course materials, I might have enough for a textbook anyway.

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Thank you very much John Wiley & Sons

Folded beds of Totoralillo Formation (Lower Cretaceous). Quebrada de Las Penas. Atacama Province, Chile. No date. (USGS)

Folded beds of Totoralillo Formation (Lower Cretaceous). Quebrada de Las Penas. Atacama Province, Chile. No date. (USGS)

This week’s post was supposed to be about using Twitter to teach geology, but work intervened.  One of the textbooks I use, Structural Geology of Rocks and Regions (Davis, Reynolds & Kluth), was updated as a third edition in 2012.  Unfortunately I didn’t become aware of this until two days ago when I received a copy in the mail and found that a course amendment document was urgently required for my structural geology course at Athabasca University.

This third edition was released for exactly the right reasons.  The authors have made substantial changes and, so far as I’ve been able to tell, many improvements.  For example, I’ve already found updates that cover material I wrote for the course in order to remedy gaps in the second edition.  The fact that the second edition was issued 12 years after the first, and the third edition 16 years after the second, suggests to me that the authors have a commitment to meaningful changes.  This is in contrast to the suspiciously frequent updates to introductory historical and physical geology textbooks.

In the past, I’ve had to modify course materials because of the release of new textbook editions.  This happened recently for one of my other distance education courses.  The process took part of an afternoon and consisted largely of changing out a few page numbers.

Not so this time.  I relied heavily on the textbook when designing the course (why ask students to buy it if they aren’t going to use it?), and incorporated readings and image references throughout the course materials I’d written.  I knew I was in trouble when I read the preface to the new edition and found the phrase “sea-change” more than once.

As I said earlier, the changes are not minor.  Readings I used from the second edition have been chopped up into little pieces and sprinkled throughout the chapter.  Figure 1.42, “(A) Geologic map and structure profile of a medium-sized pepperoni pizza.  (B) Kinematic model of the translation and rotation of the pepperoni,” has moved from page 33 to page 9, becoming Figure 1.9 with an additional “(C) Detail of displacement vectors.”  This means that words like “kinematic,” and “vectors” have come into play much sooner than I would like, and spoiled the gentle introduction to the subject that I had intended.  Whole chunks of the chapter on plate tectonics, including key images, have been excised.  This probably makes sense for this textbook, because the students who use it should have been introduced to the concepts in prerequisite courses, but my students tend to need the background.

My course amendment document is at 4 pages and I am only at the beginning of Unit 2 (of 7) in the theory section of the course.  I feel sorry for the students who will have to use this document to navigate the course until the necessary revisions are implemented.

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