How an OER Rookie Dove Deep Into a Zero-Cost Textbook Degree Program

Digital Learning

How an OER Rookie Dove Deep Into a Zero-Cost Textbook Degree Program

By Sydney Johnson     Mar 28, 2018

How an OER Rookie Dove Deep Into a Zero-Cost Textbook Degree Program

This article is part of the guide: 6 Key Trends to 21st Century Teaching.

For years, Stephanie Anagnoson worked in academic publishing. But it wasn’t until her current gig, serving as an instructor for a course on water supply and demand in California, that she got her feet wet with open educational resources.

“Coming from educational publishing, there was a strict division between writing and editing and graphic-design work,” says Anagnoson. “Now it’s my job.”

Today, Anagnoson’s online course is embedded into a Water Systems Technology zero-cost textbook degree program, or Z-degree. The initiative intends to create degree pathways with courses that only use open educational resources, known as OER, so students don’t have to spend money on class materials.

College of the Canyons’ history with OER starts before Anagnonson’s dabble, however. The campus is home to several longtime advocates of open and free learning materials. Those professors’ individual efforts got a boost in 2016, when Gov. Jerry Brown passed a budget proposal that would distribute $5 million to selected community colleges in the state to create Z-degree programs, and require all developed materials to hold a Creative Commons license, which allow people anywhere to use and adapt the texts.

College of the Canyons was one of the first campuses to receive funds through the effort, and today it is one of 25 community colleges that the state is funding to implement Z-degrees.

The Water Systems Technology program, which consists of an associates degree or certificate, was an obvious choice for the Z-degree for several reasons, according to Regina Blasberg, department chair for Water Systems Technology.

“Water is a unique discipline, it’s not like math or history or communication studies were major publishers put out multitudes of textbooks on,” she says. Using OER in those courses, she added, “really started out of necessity.” And the program is especially topical at the college, which is situated south of the previously drought-stricken Central Valley and just north of Los Angeles, a hotbed of water rights history and challenges.

Anagnoson says she considered using OER before her course was lumped into the Z-degree. Previously, her syllabus relied on a series of pamphlets from the Water Education Foundation, a California-based non-profit. But those materials were not ideal. Some, Anagnoson says, did “not read at a deep level for students,” and others “assumed a lot of prior knowledge.”

There was also an issue of relevancy, and being able to offer students—many of whom are adults already working in the field—up-to-date examples and facts so they can prepare for tests required to maintain professional certifications. So when grant funds did become available, Anagnoson volunteered to write it on her own.

Despite having previously worked as a math editor for major textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin, Anagnoson says she approached the task withno experience in creating open educational resources. To get started, she used a technique a bit more familiar, and chalked up an outline.

The basic skeleton of the book was reviewed by other faculty in the department, who checked that the course and overall program objectives were covered. “We spent a lot of time making sure it was a solid outline,” she says. Then came a harder step: getting the first draft down.

Anagnoson produced most of the writing in the 84-page book herself, and faculty again reviewed the text for quality. Where she struggled, however, was around finding appropriate images to include without violating copyright law. The instructor found some luck from sources like the Bureau of Reclamation and other government websites, but some lessons were more challenging.

That’s where a team of paid part-time students and recent graduates came in. The group, funded by the grant, assists instructors with creating OER by taking care of some of the time-consuming and tedious tasks involved with writing a textbook, such as finding open-source graphics and spell-checking.

“The faculty member is the expert in this field, you don’t also have to be the expert in copy-editing,” says James Glapa-Grossklag, dean of educational technology, learning resources and distance learning at College of the Canyons. His office also oversees making sure content meets accessibility guidelines. Instructors also “don’t have to be the expert in [open source] licenses or Section 508 compliance,” he adds, referring to a federal law that mandates electronic teaching materials are accessible to people with disabilities.

Anagnoson received support from another unlikely source: her boss at the Santa Clarita Valley Water agency, where she also works full-time. Reviews for relevancy and accurateness “went beyond the community college in that sense,” the instructor says. While much of the peer-review process felt similar to the editing process she experienced at Houghton Mifflin, Anagnoson couldn’t recall any of the large textbooks she worked on for the company being passed on to industry. “I don't know if a geology book would go to geologist,” she says.

Not every OER project in the Z-degree has had the same success recruiting professionals to review materials, however. “There are a lot of industry folks who are excited about this as well, but we aren’t paying them much,” says Blasberg, the department chair. “It’s still a challenge, as much as they want to participate.”

Anagnoson says she shifted away from traditional publishing to into the water industry for a couple reasons: “I wanted to change careers and had always been interested in water.” It was also a good fit with her academic training. Anagnoson also holds a graduate degree from Harvard University, where she specialized in environmental ethics. “Water was a great place to apply my knowledge,” she says.

The instructor’s complete first version of the text took had its first spin with students in Fall 2017 and again in January for a five-week course. Teaching with the digital textbook, Anagnoson says, has so far been easier than creating or even updating it.

“[Teaching with OER] really didn't seem that much different than a standard textbook,” she says. But small kinks have cropped up. For example, she originally assigned readings based off of sections, and students requested that the instructor instead assign page numbers, which were easier to jump to in the digital textbook.

According to Blasberg, the biggest challenge she heard from other faculty in the Z-degree program also has had to do with developing supporting materials like quizzes and study guides—resources that big publishers often sell with textbooks—as well as storing and determining who has control over updates in the evolving text.

College of the Canyons’ Water Systems Technology degree has nearly made the switch to OER, though two courses have yet to transition according to Glapa-Grossklag. Blasberg says that students currently enrolled in the program likely will not have the full complete zero-cost experience while those courses are still in-progress, but she estimates that by next fall, the remaining courses should be prepared to round out the program.

That’s later than originally expected, she admits, and, like many other campuses experimenting with Z-degrees, the process of creating and implementing a fully open source pathway has been more challenging than anticipated. “It’s been a bigger undertaking, and my enthusiasm blinded me to that,” Blasberg says. Even with the grant, instructors and support staff are stretched thin. “It’s not adequate compensation for someone who is putting in the time and effort to fully develop all of these texts for all of the courses.”

Blasberg remains optimistic, though. And for others looking to take on OER, or launch a full-scale OER degree pathway, she has a simple line of advice: “Baby steps,” she says. “Don’t overwhelm yourself with it. It’s never ‘finished’—it’s only finished for now, so do what you can, and then build some more.”

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