The UnTextbook: An OER Interview

I am so glad that the OER Factotum at my school, Stacy Zemke, wrote and asked me to participate in her interview series about alternative textbooks! I am not even quite sure how to go about explaining the UnTextbook here in this blog, but answering these questions from Stacy will surely be a good way to start. Meanwhile, you can also see the other faculty she has interviewed here: Alternative Textbooks at the University of Oklahoma.

1. In what areas do you teach and in what course are you using an open textbook?

I teach two fully online courses — MLLL-3043 Mythology and Folklore and MLLL-4993 Indian Epics: Ramayana and Mahabharata — which are both part of the General Education: Humanities track.

MLLL-3043 Mythology and Folklore: The Myth-Folklore is a survey course, and I've always used public domain texts for teaching the class; I've never had a textbook or any kind of printed book for this course since I began teaching it online in 2002.

MLLL-4993 Indian Epics: Ramayana and Mahabharata: In Indian Epics, I am more constrained by the course topic; there are not public domain translations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that meet my needs, so in that class I use a combination of inexpensive paperbacks supplemented with open resources.

2. Why did you decide to switch to an open textbook solution for your course?

For me the UnTextbook was not a switch; I've always used online reading materials for the Myth-Folklore course, and I am very lucky that the public domain materials for mythology and folklore are excellent and abundant. Here are the main reasons I have preferred the open solution for that class:

1. Keep costs down for students. I believe this is especially important given that students are already assessed an extra fee just for taking a course online.

2. Cover a wide range of texts. I've never seen a commercial textbook that appealed to me as much as the wide range of public domain resources I can find online.

3. Allow student choice. The course becomes a richer experience for everyone if students are choosing their own reading topics and sharing what they like best with the other students.

4. Adapt the materials. By adapting public domain materials (abridging, editing, illustrating, etc.), I can adjust the materials to suit my students' interests and needs.

5. Share what I love. Many of these books are the same books I read and loved as an undergraduate and graduate student. And now I can put them in my students' hands for free: it's magic!

3. What is the open textbook source or sources you are using for your class (ex. a complete single open textbook solution, a modified/customized open book, a set of open resources that you have organized into a “book” resource for your students). What publisher book/s did you replace with the open textbook you adopted?

The UnTextbook is definitely a set of open resources that have been organized into a "book" — it is a book in some sense, yes, but also not a book. For one thing, it is paperless. No one, not even me, would ever print it out. In fact, I did not print a single piece of paper in the process of creating it. Before I try to explain more about the UnTextbook here, I'd urge you just to go take a look for yourself first: Mythology and Folklore UnTextbook.

As you can see the sidebar navigation, the UnTextbook consists of 100 different reading units. There are also links in the sidebar to the public domain books that I used to create those units. As you can see from this book inventory, most of the books came from Hathi Trust, Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, and Sacred Texts Archive, along with some other online public domain book repositories. (And let me add: I am so glad that OU is a member of Hathi Trust; what a fantastic resource it is!)

The students obviously do not read all 100 units. Instead, they choose each week one unit to read. Given the magic of mathematical combinations, there are literally trillions of possible paths to follow through the UnTextbook. By the end of the semester, each student will have made their own textbook!

I had used this same choice-driven approach at my old course website, but the reading was much more limited in scope. That website consisted of 28 reading units, with the students having a choice of two units each week. Although I have greatly expanded the amount of content, the more important feature of the UnTextbook is that it is very easy to update and maintain. Over time, my very old website had become unsustainable. It was never easy to update to start with, and it became harder and harder to maintain over the years. When I had a brainstorm last spring about how I could use Blogger to publish the reading units quickly and easily, I decided to give it a try. It might seem strange to be using a blogging platform for content management on this scale, but it is working wonderfully! For people interested in the nitty-gritty details, I have documented the entire process at my OU Digital Tools blog.

4. What was your process for selecting/creating this open book?

Over the years, I have kept extensive lists of public domain books for my students to use in researching their class projects. As a result, I already had literally hundreds of books to choose from. So, the real challenge was organizational, figuring out the best way to arrange the materials week by week. I created folders in GoogleDocs for my topic areas: Classical, Biblical, Middle Eastern, Indian, Asian, African, Native American, British Isles, and European. Then, I created a document for each likely book in those categories. I rated books as likely candidates based on a variety of factors: books that I personally love, books that students had used enthusiastically for their class projects, books with a free Kindle version, books with a free audiobook version at LibriVox, books with illustrations, etc. Lots of factors. I was especially glad to see the large number of books at LibriVox. Being able to offer free audiobooks to my students like that is really exciting!

Then, once I had identified the best possible books, I set about extracting the content I would use from each book, copying-and-pasting text from the digitized book into the document. Each reading unit needed to be approximately 15,000 words long (give or take 1000 words). For some books, coming up with this extract was easy, while for other books it was harder, and I even had to discard some otherwise desirable books because I just could not find a good way to extract a self-contained reading unit of the right length.

Meanwhile, at the same time that I was processing the books and turning them into reading units, I was also busy creating the actual blog posts: transferring content from the GoogleDoc document to the blog pages, adding illustrations, building the navigation, proofreading, annotating, etc. By working on content identification and content publication in tandem, I was able to complete the entire process in one summer and be ready to go for the fall semester. The content identification process was something that required a lot of focus and attention, but the publication process was something much more mechanical. I watched a lot of Netflix while performing some of those more mindless tasks!

5. What are/were the challenges in changing to the open textbook – is it similar to adopting a new “traditional’ textbook for a course – or are there other issues?

At no point in this process did I consider adopting a traditional textbook. The real challenge for me was finding the right publishing platform, the right formatting for the content, and the time to get it done. I was very lucky that the choices I made about platform and format worked out really well, and I was able to benefit from my many years of using Blogger for other blog-based projects. (For example, I had used Blogger to support my previous two open book projects as you can see here: Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop's Fables in Latin and Brevissima: 1001 Tiny Poems in Latin.)

6. How have your students responded to this open textbook?

The response has been very positive! I'm gathering feedback from the students every week with a Google Form and writing up the result in a weekly blog post. You can see those reports here: Weekly UnTextbook Reports.

7. Will you continue to use this current open solution?

Absolutely! There is still lots of work to do in terms of annotating the reading units to make them more valuable for the students, and there are also more units that I want to add. As I mentioned, one of the biggest drawbacks to my old website was that it was very hard to update. This blog-based solution is extremely easy to update, and I could add another 50 or even 100 reading units without running into organizational difficulties. For example, I already know that I need to add a unit on Vergil's Aeneid because one student was very disappointed that there was no Trojan Horse in Homer's Iliad (as I learned from a comment shared via the Google Form mentioned above).

8. Would you consider using an open source for other courses that you teach?

Yes! In fact, I've made one of the books in my Indian Epics class optional so that students can choose to replace that book with India-related content from the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook. I am really curious how many students in that class will choose the UnTextbook option; I'll find out in Week 12 of this semester! One of the reasons I made the India section of the UnTextbook class larger than the other sections was because I anticipated being able to use those Indian reading units for my Indian Epics class.

9. What advice do you have for other faculty thinking of adoption an alternative textbook?

I would urge everyone to keep up with available open resources in their field, regardless of whether they are considering an open textbook option. For me, blogs and bookmarking tools (like Diigo) have been a really good way to share resources with my students, and their use of those resources thus allows me to gauge what content they find most valuable.

I would also urge everyone to gather feedback from their students at each stage of the process. I gathered a lot of preliminary feedback from students last year before I built the UnTextbook, and I'm also getting extremely useful feedback from the students now as I deploy the UnTextbook for the first time.

Finally, I would urge everyone to find an online learning network where they can learn from what others are doing with open resources and in general with their teaching. I'm a member of a very active online learning community at Google+ where I'm constantly exposed to new ideas and new resources that I never would have discovered on my own.

Books: the children of the brain.

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