A Growing (But Controversial) Idea in Open-Access Textbooks: Let Students Help Write Them

A Growing (But Controversial) Idea in Open-Access Textbooks: Let Students Help Write Them

The textbook that Delmar Larsen assigned his students was full of errors, and he knew it. The professor felt like an accomplice.

It was 2007, and Larsen was teaching a physical chemistry for life sciences course at the University of California at Davis. The textbook, written by a well-known author, had cost each of his students $200.

“I was a little irritated and I figured, okay, maybe I can do a better job. I can write a physical chemistry for life sciences textbook,” says Larsen. But creating a textbook is expensive, and Larsen didn’t have millions of dollars to spare. So he decided to use something he did have: his students.

Nearly 10 years later, Larsen’s project—now called LibreText—is a sprawling, Wikipedia-like enterprise. Some of its content comes from existing open resources, and the rest is created by students, professors and outside experts from scratch. Since it began at UC Davis, it has expanded to involve participants at over 35 institutions, and now covers a range of disciplines beyond chemistry. Collectively, the free textbooks have around 200 million page views, and they have been read, for a combined total of over 500 years.

Like Wikipedia, LibreText is an experiment in crowdsourcing. Sometimes students will be assigned to write on a specific question in class, or to mimic a chapter of an existing textbook. Some students continue with the project as volunteers or paid developers.

But also like Wikipedia, one critique of crowdsourcing projects like LibreText is accuracy. Without a formal peer-review process, how is it possible to catch mistakes? Larsen says this is a common criticism of OER textbooks, particularly among the conventional textbook industry, and he argues that errors in conventional textbooks are also reasonably high—and after all, he adds, the errors in conventional textbooks were the reason he started LibreText in the first place.

While LibreText’s fact-checking process is informal, Larsen says that faculty members are looking at their pages constantly. Anyone with an editable account can fix mistakes instantly, and everyone else can point out mistakes through a feedback function at the bottom of the page. “Eighty percent of the concerns that people have, we fix within a half hour from the time we get the email,” Larsen says. “Once it’s fixed, it’s never a problem.” Sometimes, Larsen will assign students to review and improve particular pages, or offer extra credit for finding mistakes. “If you give students extra credit for finding errors,” he says, “it’s remarkable how persistent they can be.”

That’s how Sophia Muller, who graduated in 2014, started with the project. At the time, Larsen was still using LibreText to supplement a traditional textbook, and Muller liked the ability to see the material explained in a few different ways. She points to a study Larsen conducted in 2014: He taught two back-to-back chemistry classes—but one used a traditional textbook, while the other used LibreText. At the end of the term, he found that LibreText was not inferior to the traditional textbook. “If you're learning as well and you get to spend less, that sounds pretty cool to me,” Muller says. Now, she works for Larsen as a paid developer, fixing typos, images and broken links on existing pages.

“The truth of the matter is that no textbook or resource is going to be 100 percent accurate, ever,” says Daniel Williamson, managing director at OpenStax. Based out of Rice University, OpenStax produces free, open-source textbooks (some of which have been incorporated into LibreText). “Someone might tell you that their textbook is perfect”—but in reality, he says the perfect textbook is one that can be fixed instantly.

OpenStax textbooks are peer-reviewed—something Williamson believes is “essential for any content that’s really striving to go mainstream.” But at the same time, he’s optimistic about LibreText’s nontraditional, crowd-sourced review structure. “That’s another model,” he says, “but it’s still peer review.”

‘A Disruptive Approach’

In general, the open education world looks a lot different than it did nearly 10 years ago. Colleges and universities are showing slightly more support for open materials every year, according to the latest Campus Computing Survey—and 79 percent of top technology officers say that OER will be an important source of course content in five years.

But at UC Davis, “administrators could do a lot more in order to facilitate the adoption of OER projects,” Larsen says. “What I’m proposing here is a disruptive approach that does not jive with many conservative approaches that administrators oftentimes have.”

The ability for students to create course content is perhaps the most disruptive part of LibreText, and some professors—particularly those that are new to the project—aren’t ready to let their students loose on their materials. “On the one hand, it’s appealing to have the students be able to edit the content,” says Marc Facciotti, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at UC Davis. “On the other hand, I need to know from quarter to quarter what’s going to be there.”

Facciotti stopped using commercial textbooks several years ago, when his students complained that the readings didn’t align well with assignments and tests. He started using the OpenStax biology textbook, though he ended up rewriting the majority of the content himself. This year, he moved the content over to LibreText, which gives him the flexibility to add Javascript to his materials. By adding Javascript, he is able to use LibreText in conjunction with Note Bene, a program that allows students to make comments on their readings. And while he doesn’t allow students to edit the material yet, he’s toying with a new approach: Perhaps he could create two copies of his materials, and only allow students to edit one of them. That way, faculty members could gradually add student-created content into the original copy.

There are a handful of professors like Facciotti, who are motivated to try open-access textbooks for pedagogical reasons, and the cost becomes an added bonus. But for many others, as textbook prices rise—students pay $1,200 a year, according to the College Board—cost is a primary motivator.

Jessica Coppola is one of these professors. She teaches nutrition at Sacramento City College, where over 60 percent of students are low-income or below the poverty line. “I commonly have students who are homeless, students who have to choose between feeding their child and buying a textbook,” she says. “I had to find a way to get them a free resource.”

Coppola toyed with other open-access resources, but most were too advanced for her students. But when she contacted Larsen, he located existing content in her field and combined it, using LibreText, into a new resource. “Within 24 hours from me contacting him, he had a rough draft of what would end up being my ebook,” she says.

Now she does most of the editing herself, and she likes the ability to change the textbook in real time: For example, she teaches a chapter on food poisoning, and if there’s an outbreak in the news she can add it to the text. But for the most part, she opted to stick with a conventional structure. (“You have a chapter for carbs and fats and proteins and vitamins and minerals,” she says. “Vitamin C does what vitamin C does.”)

Still, she misses some of the resources traditional publishers offer. Before she switched to LibreText, her old textbook came with adaptive quizzes—which can help students identify what they need to spend more time studying—and she says they worked well. But at the same time, some of her students weren’t able to access those resources, because they weren’t able to purchase the textbook in the first place. “It’s sort of a catch-22,” she says. “It was improving student success—but only in those who could afford to buy it.”

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