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Creating an OER Textbook: Steps Followed and Lessons Learned

Dr. Michelle Kruse-Crocker turned to open educational resources to swap a problematic textbook for a free, course-specific text. Here is what she learned.

Educator

Michelle Kruse-Crocker, PhD

Associate Teaching Professor, University of Denver University College

PhD in Higher Education Administration and Adult Learning, MS in Exercise and Sport Science – Wellness Management

Having gone through college on my own dime and with a high level of student loan debt, I am no stranger to the impact that the costs of textbooks and course materials can have on students. As an associate teaching professor at University of Denver University College, I can see that affordability remains a major concern for students today.

The cost of textbooks has risen at a faster rate than tuition over the past three decades. In fact, textbooks have increased 812% in the past 35 years. Requiring expensive textbooks or materials increases the financial barriers to student participation and success. Holy cow! Don’t you wish someone would have removed barriers for you in college? However, this is not the only challenge that inspired me and Nicolas Pares, an instructional support specialist at University College, to investigate the creation of an open educational resource textbook.

In particular, we needed a new textbook for our graduate-level course 4910 Research Practices and Applications, which is required for our programs in Strategic Human Resources, Environmental Policy and Management, Healthcare Management, and Global Community Engagement. The text that we had formerly adopted was difficult to obtain (let me tell yah!) from the publisher and cost each student $80. This particular course impacts roughly 240 students annually; thus, eliminating this cost would realize a cumulative savings of $19,200 for them. That is not small change.

What follows is an overview of the challenges we addressed, why an OER textbook seemed like the perfect solution, and the five-step process we followed, which any educator can use to do the same for any course.

Challenge

A need for relevant, engaging, low-cost course materials

University College is a private nonprofit institution that is the arm of the University of Denver that opens access more broadly to adult students. As such, we offer classes in the evening and online in a variety of professional graduate and undergraduate programs. As our programs are professionally relevant and not traditionally aligned with academic-only textbooks, a need arose to address content to fit our students’ needs as well as the course outcomes.

As a large portion of our students are online, we also needed to increase student engagement with the course materials in the Research Practices and Applications course—and pronto. Dull, boring, worthless knowledge for a professional, or a total slog are all descriptors that students shared with us about learning research practices and applying them to their professional fields. This confirmed the need for the creation of an interactive text to more holistically engage the students with professionally based examples, content, and applications.

Finally, we wanted to address inclusiveness and diversity with the content we chose. The textbook must reflect the students we teach.

Thus, the variety of programs the course needed to serve, the textbook availability issues, and the cost of the existing textbook created prompts for finding an appropriate off-the-shelf text for us to adopt.

Innovation

Entering the world of OER textbook creation

Fortunately, as Nicolas and I were reevaluating our textbook choice for this course, the state of Colorado was beginning to promote the use of open education resource (OER) materials throughout all levels of education. In fact, new legislation was passed in 2018 to help educators promote, understand, and use OER.

Therefore, we turned to the OER movement (because who likes to start from scratch?) to create our own textbook, which would be tailored specifically to meet our course learning outcomes and types of students while eliminating availability and boredom issues and decreasing student costs. And the whole time, we were thinking about what we had gotten ourselves into, as neither of us regards ourselves as the next Danielle Steel. So, there you have it: We decided that if we could be brave, it was worth sharing our process to decrease anyone else’s terror of writing an OER text.

See resources shared by Michelle Kruse-Crocker, PhD

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Our 5-step process for OER textbook creation

Entering the world of OER textbook creation meant that Nicolas and I had to create a system for creation, curation, content, and creative sharing of our OER book. What I am about to share is the process we took to develop our system for what goes in the text and how to share it with others.

Michelle Kruse-Crocker
Figure 1. Our process for choosing and sharing our text content
Step 1: Understanding and choosing licenses

The first step was to determine what type of license we needed to obtain through Creative Commons (CC), a nonprofit that supports legal sharing of creative and educational materials. Several long and nap-inducing research sessions were spent reviewing the different license options that tell users how they can credit, share, and use specific materials. (We were really worried that we would end up being armchair copyright lawyers after all the information that we consumed.) CC provides an informative guide that has been adapted by various institutions (see below). We ultimately chose the following types of CC licenses: Attribution (abbreviated BY), Share Alike (SA), No Derivative Works (ND), and Non-Commercial (NC).

Michelle Kruse-Crocker
Figure 2. Major types of CC licenses

By choosing the types of licenses first, we had a better guide for finding materials that we wanted to bring into our version of a research-course text. (For example, as you can see in Figure 2 above, materials found online carry symbols that signify how they can be used.)

Step 2: Identifying course outcomes and needs

The second step in our process was to look at the actual design of our course and the outcomes we need to meet course-wide, as well as for each of our 10 modules. Any good instructor will know their course inside and out, but as we have multiple sections, a review of the liberties that other instructors took—you know what I am talking about if you employ others to teach—was needed to see matches. This will save you loads of time if you already have this done. For this, we created a workbook that listed the items we needed to map content to and from our OER textbook. (We used Excel, but other workbook programs could do the same.)

This alignment map became the key piece for looking at what we needed to find, and it served as a guide to our gathering process.

Michelle Kruse-Crocker
Figure 3. Our guide for gathering materials
Step 3: Researching and gathering needed resources

At first, this step of finding actual materials to use felt a bit like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. But as you get to know the OER hot spots on the Internet, the search becomes much more manageable. I engaged with Nicolas all the way through, as well as with the university librarian overseeing OER materials. I also reached out to several faculty who teach our course to make sure that we had sifted through the haystack and forked the best choices of existing OER content and textbooks to match our “alignment map” of learning outcomes.

Step 4: Choosing an authoring tool

So now we had this set of content (repurposed materials from another OER text and the new materials we had created) that was starting to take shape, but the next question was, “How does one make a textbook online?” Well, that is where you need a wonderful person in your life who gets the technological side of creating these materials.

Nicolas served as the technical and Creative Commons advisor and looked at various means for creating web-based materials that the University of Denver would continue to house in the library for as long as we needed it. We also needed something that worked with our learning management system (which is Canvas), and we needed to ensure that our content was accessible and based on Universal Design principles.

In the end, we considered several authoring tools, but three rose to the top: Open Textbook Network, Pressbooks, and OER Commons. In the end, we chose Pressbooks for its provision of PDFs, accessibility, creation of H5P interactive content, functionality across platforms, and support for a multitude of media types.

Step 5: Archiving content

Pressbooks was our authoring tool, but we needed a means to archive the text for use in case Pressbooks were to go out of business or encounter technical glitches. Our librarian, Jenelys Cox, who is the institutional repository manager for the University of Denver, helped us choose Digital Commons as our repository because of its searchability, support for archiving, audience, creative content, scholarly content, and legality alignment. Your librarian gods and goddesses can help you understand the campus resources you may already have available.

Lessons learned: OER textbook creation

It takes time—a whole lotta time. As anyone knows who has ever written a textbook, digitally or “on paper,” the process takes at least 10% longer than you anticipate. (Ours, in fact, is still in edit mode and making its way toward its pilot trial with students.) That’s why it is best to connect with others who have already done OER text creation to get a sense of your task before diving in. I failed to do this early in the process and underestimated the creation and editing time it would take.

Which brings up another point: You cannot do these things alone. Your community is your savior. You don’t have to know technology or library processes or even how to write like a “textbook person.” You do need to know the people who have knowledge in those areas—and cajole, beg, bribe, or plead for them to jump onto your wagon.

One reassuring outcome of the process was the realization that multitudes of people want to be involved in creating materials that work in students’ favor and reduce the barriers to higher education. Once the energy was shared about what we were trying to accomplish, folks around campus offered many suggestions, volunteered to edit or play with our final interactives, and helped to edit the written pages.

The last questions that you probably want answered are related to the project’s worth and whether we would do it again. Heck, yeah! The cost-savings issue goes without saying—it has been totally worth it from a student standpoint. And, as our university is dedicated to the public good, we helped fulfill the mission. (Who can argue with actually hitting the university’s mission clearly?) Also, the team found the value to be huge in terms of matching content specifically to our highly diverse, professional, adult student population.

The creation of content that is directly aligned to learning outcomes continues to be the reason we intend to do more OER development at University College. Several other courses currently in the redesign or new design phase are being created with OER-only content.

So, I encourage you to join the movement. Go forth, and become an OER advocate and creator! You will be contributing to the public good.

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