UMass Amherst promotes the adoption of open textbooks through grants

Bonfire

Are grants the spark needed to ditch traditional textbooks? Credit: Kenneth Johnson C. on Flickr.

As reported on the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site, the University of Massachusetts Amherst announced a grant process to lower the cost of textbooks for students.

Eight faculty members were awarded a total of 10 grants, $1,000 per course, to adopt a new curricular resource strategy using easily identified digital resources. Under the program, faculty developed a variety of alternatives, from creating an online open access lab manual to utilizing e-books and streaming media available through the Libraries’ numerous databases.

I think this is a very smart idea, especially considering that it’s not simply a matter of adopting open textbooks, but to promote the use of materials already purchased by the library. Reducing the cost of learning materials is not only about going totally free, it’s about “aiming” for free, but doing it realistically.

This initiative should have an immediate impact for students.

During the 2011-2012 academic year, it is estimated this $10,000 investment will save 700 students more than $72,000 – money that would have been spent on commercial textbooks for these courses.

It seems to me that $1,000 is not a lot of money considering the work involved in exploring, curating, and developing learning materials. It’s probably more symbolic that anything else. But still, it could be a pretty cost effective low-hanging fruit approach that can nudge the institution in the right direction.

Any comment on this? Is money really required, are there other incentives you or colleagues would be interested in, or is “textbook affordability” a topic that stands for itself?

The Kindle Fire as a textbook reader?

I’m a gadget guy, I admit it. I also have to disclose that I’m generally not an Apple person (I hate iTunes), so I’ve been living a Google mobile experience for nearly two years (Android OS on my Motorola Droid2).

I had pretty high hopes when a brand new Kindle Fire showed up in my (physical) mailbox. Had someone finally answered my call for a low-cost tablet? Here are some of my thoughts after two weeks of use.

Pros:

  • $199, less than half the price of the cheapest iPad.
  • The 7-inch screen makes the device very portable, without sacrificing screen resolution. It fits in the pocket on my jacket.
  • The weight is not too bad either. It’s fairly comfortable to type with your thumbs in portrait or in landscape mode.
  • Apps included in the vetted Amazon App Store are available to be installed on the device.
  • The user interface is very intuitive. The most recent apps and content are a swipe away on the home screen.
  • If you’re already an Android user, this device will be very familiar to you.
  • If your content already lives on Amazon (Kindle books, Amazon MP3, video on demand), everything you ever bought will be available on your device.
  • Using a stylus and the Skitch app, you can get away with creating simple drawings.
  • Configuring the device for email was fairly easy, although I’ve heard people complain that the native email client doesn’t support Exchange accounts (but users can buy an app or use the web interface in those cases).

Cons:

  • No camera or microphone, so forget Skype.
  • No Bluetooth connectivity, limited accessories to choose from. I don’t think you can even have an external keyboard on this device.
  • No 3G option limits the connectivity of the device when not at home or at work (but then you save the data plan).
  • I haven’t found a way to take screenshots… yet.
  • Touchscreen woes: You really have to be steady when clicking, the slightest movement will be considered a swipe. This is particularly annoying on the home screen when browsing your recent content and when highlighting in Kindle books.
  • Some of the very basic apps most users have by default on their Android devices are missing (i.e., not available on the Amazon App Store), notably:
    • Gmail
    • Youtube
    • Twitter
    • Facebook
    • Dropbox.com
  • Sending files to the device is clunky. You need to either download files and images from the web browser, connect through USB, or send them as attachments to a “user@kindle.com” email address. EPUB and DRM files are not supported, but DOCs are. I was able to open a PDF on the device even though it’s not listed as a compliant file type (I installed Adobe Reader, but PDFs are read-only). See complete list >

The Kindle Fire as an e-textbook reader?

I don’t think the Kindle Fire offers much more than the e-ink based Kindle or the Kindle reader software for computers. Its biggest advantage is the fact that it’s in color, but you can get the same feeling from any other tablet with the Kindle app on it, and you get access to other types of files, such as documents, music, and videos.

It supports highlighting and notes, which are synchronized to all your devices supporting Kindle books. Copying and pasting from the Kindle software on a computer grabs a citation and page number at the same time, making the process a bit easier when quoting in an academic paper.

The Kindle Fire doesn’t claim to replace a laptop. It was not designed as a do-it-all device. In a recent Wired article titled Jeff Bezos Owns the Web in More Ways Than You Think, he explains the philosophy behind the Kindle family:

Bezos doesn’t consider the Fire a mere device, preferring to call it a “media service.” While he takes pride in the Fire, he really sees it as an advanced mobile portal to Amazon’s cloud universe. That’s how Amazon has always treated the Kindle: New models simply offer improved ways of buying and reading the content. Replacing the hardware is no more complicated or emotionally involved than changing a flashlight battery.

Overall, the Kindle Fire is a nice and affordable media consumption device that a student can use IN ADDITION to a laptop and a smartphone. But people will push to get it to behave like a laptop, and will probably partially succeed as time goes on.

The Saylor Foundation offers $20,000 for authors willing to “open” their textbooks

Credit: Logan Ingalls on Flickr

The Saylor Foundation, still pushing to develop a complete college-level free online curriculum, has announced a second round of its open textbook challenge today.

With this Challenge, we’re on the hunt for textbooks that correlate to the 200+ online college-level courses offered on Saylor.org. We’re offering $20,000 awards to each textbook author who submits an accepted text and agrees to relicense their work under a CC-BY license.

So the three conditions are for authors willing to submit their textbooks are…

  1. The current content cannot already be using a Creative Commons Attribution license. In other words, current open textbooks are not eligible.
  2. The textbook has to be associated with a course listed here. This course list is getting shorter as new books are accepted.
  3. If accepted, the book has to be relicensed under as Creative Commons Attribution, making it an open textbook that can be reused, redistributed, remixed, and revised by its users.

You don’t have to think of textbooks in a traditional way either. Alana Harrington, Director of the Saylor Foundation, states:

We encourage educators to utilize and restructure the products of their labor, including textbooks, course packs and lecture notes. Aggregated resources used in classes over a professor’s career could serve the same purpose as a textbook for any number of our courses.

If you’re a UD faculty and think you’re up for the challenge, let me know (mathieu at udel dot edu)!

Saylor.org provides OER-based vetted college experience

While keeping an eye on the Twitter stream (hashtag #opened11) coming out of the 2011 Open Education conference in Park City, Utah, this tweet caught my attention:

The Saylor Foundation is a non-profit that focuses on making higher education free for everyone.

The mission of the Saylor Foundation is to make education freely available to all. Guided by the belief that technology has the potential to circumvent barriers that prevent many individuals from participating in traditional schooling models, the Foundation is committed to developing and advancing inventive and effective ways of harnessing technology in order to drive the cost of education down to zero.

This 13-minute video explains the principles and the process involved in Saylor’s vision to collect, vet, and distribute open content.

In the video, Michael Saylor, Trustee of the Saylor Foundation, explains how networks are changing the game of learning.

We have reached an inflection point were it is now cheaper to learn to read on a tablet computer than it is learn to read on paper. More people can access mobile networks in the world that can get access to running water.

I believe this approach is pretty interesting. It definitely takes away the mistrust that some faculty members have regarding open educational resources. What do you think?

Recap of the 2011 Tech Fair

The second annual UD Tech Fair was held on October 19. This event showcased a vast array of IT products and services available to the UD community.

The booth I was assigned to was called Open Education. My main goal was to raise awareness about open educational resources (OER), open textbooks, college affordability, and the professional development potential of teaching in the open leveraging personal learning networks.

Most faculty and staff I had the chance of interacting with were very interested by the concept, and I was able to gather some names of people interested in giving open education a modest try. Out of all the conversations I had, two main points came up, and I’d like to use this post to direct readers to additional resources regarding those.

OER Repositories

Although everyone has a good idea that you con find almost anything on the Web, most attendees did not know about OER repositories. I have spent a significant amount of time simply navigation Connexions and Merlot, as well as discussing other state initiatives like the Open Course Library and the Orange Grove. Khan Academy also came up as a very promising STEM resource. I have created a page listing some of these resources on this blog, so feel free to explore at your own pace!

Copyright Licensing

Creative Commons' Three Layers of Licences.

Using David Wiley’s 4Rs of openness as a framework, I made a point to explain that making content available on the internet does not mean that it’s open. One of the ways to make sure you’re within your rights to use materials found on the web is to check if a copyright license has been applied to it, describing it authorized uses.

Creative Commons are the most widely used and understood copyright licensing processes. The creator decides which kind of license is assigned to work of his own, and with the chosen license comes attached all the legal uses (and legalese)  for that work. I have addressed Creative Commons in a guest post on the UNU-ViE Learning Hub.

An Invitation to Share

If you’re interested in using or publishing open educational resources or open textbooks, please get in touch with me by sharing a story as a comment to this post or by contacting me directly by email (mathieu at udel dot edu).