Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Open Educational Resources Part One: Cost Free Digital Textbook

In 1978 Maricopa County Community College District Chancellor Paul Elsner recognized a need for a non-traditional approach to non-traditional students to make education accessible despite common obstacles such as distance, time and cost. 

When the Governing Board established Rio Salado College, they designed it to be responsive to advances in education technology and the quickly evolving workforce, not to mention changes in the dynamics of the American lifestyle. 

More than thirty-three years later, Rio Salado is still breaking down barriers to education.  The cost-free Early American Literature textbook project, initiated by Rio Salado College Instructional Designer Michael Medlock is a great example of Rio’s agility in implementing new ideas. 

Medlock said the idea came to him while attending a presentation on open educational resources. Because his Early American Literature course (ENH241) deals with works published prior to 1923, there is no copyright on any of the required readings. 

“All text selections are in the public domain and we also found a source through our library database for author biographies,” Medlock said. “Originally we were going to have faculty and adjunct faculty write the author bio’s, but we were able to use an existing resource by the Gale Research Company that’s already available for free to all Rio students.”

According to Medlock, the project went from concept to completion in record time, thanks to the passion of his team.

By using the Gale biography database instead of crowdsourcing the biographical content, Medlock was able to provide a more consistent experience to students while significantly reducing the amount of time needed to finish the project.

“I was thinking it would take 6 months to a year to complete,” said Medlock. “But it only took three months which includes several layers of review within the department.”

According to Medlock, Rio Salado Library Instructional Coordinator Kirstin Thomas and now retired Course Support Administrative Assistant Laura Buzin were key contributors to the project. 

“I was very happy with their enthusiasm,” Medlock said. “Kirstin handled the crucial task of creating permanent links to the Gale Biographies so that students could access them from within the RioLearn interface and Laura Buzin spent hours upon hours converting all of the hard copy materials to digital format.  Scanning, and in some cases, hand typing documents.”

English Department Faculty Chair Kathleen Dunley was also enthusiastic about the project.

“I was more than happy to support this project for our American Lit class. The open source textbook is an example of what can be done when educators break away from tradition and look for alternatives. I really think the willingness to learn a new process and the ability to then turn around and share what we’ve learned with the world is what makes this project so exciting."

Not only has the project allowed Rio Salado to eliminate the textbook cost for students in the ENH241 course, but by publishing the text in digital format under a creative commons license, it becomes publicly available to anyone who would like to use it.  Any other college could adapt the text to their own course and reduce costs for their students as well.

“Rio adds value by adding instruction and packaging the materials into an online course for college credit, but anyone in the world can access the text and use it free of charge,” Medlock said.

According to Associate Dean of Instruction Michael Cottam, the aim is not just to lower the cost of education for Rio students, but also to provide an educational service to the community. 

“It’s the primary purpose for which the community colleges and state universities were created. We’re here to educate people and to help them to reach their goals,” Cottam said. “There are cost barriers for our students, and if we can reduce the cost of going to school by knocking $100 off the price of the textbook, then we’re doing a service to the community."