Ditching textbooks, and faculty collaboration

On Friday, I attended a talk that was part of the CUNY Open Access event at the Graduate Center. Kristina Baumli from Temple University presented a project she’s involved in that provides faculty with a small stipend to ditch their textbooks in favor of materials openly available on the web, or through the college’s electronic library holdings. Also check out what the Chronicle had to say about this textbook-ditching project.

A number of us in the English Department have tried this kind of approach, with varying degrees of success. One big difference seems to be access to technology. All of Baumli’s students had access to the readings both inside and outside of class because she requires them to all have some kind of computer: a laptop, netbook, or tablet. The cost of these devices can be less than the cost of one course’s books, and can be used in all courses for the entire college career and beyond. When I used all electronic texts for my ENG 1101 courses, students often wouldn’t bring the materials to class. They didn’t have portable devices, or they didn’t have wireless access if they brought laptops, and they often couldn’t get to the printers in the computer labs on campus to even print the short readings. Some brought up the materials on their phones, but this didn’t allow for them to mark them up in a way that is productive in an English Composition class.

Difficulties aside, I love the idea of asking students to invest in resources that they can get a maximum benefit from–a netbook, let’s say, and free course readings rather than two textbooks, for example–but even more, I love the idea of building up from a series of readings to a framed textbook with students. Why not make the students contribute to the questions one might ask at the end of each reading? They can identify unfamiliar words or expressions, frame issues for class discussion, even participate in drafting essay questions for further exploration. The students’ writing, then, can be included as samples for future students to see exemplary work.

Baumli spoke convincingly about the collaborative effort from faculty. If one professor can create a couple of modules in a semester, perhaps, then think of the volume that could be created when several instructors teaching the same course each develop modules. It wasn’t clear to me how faculty at Temple would share these modules, but in addition to the variety of options available, we have a solution for that here at City Tech–the OpenLab. We could certainly create projects that would house resources for different courses: links to texts, or even full-text options where copyright permits, suggestions for questions, vocabulary, activities, assignments, rubrics, connections to other texts. This model seems very doable in my field, English. The biggest limitation I can see would be for texts that are not available electronically. What would it look like in other disciplines? What would the obstacles be for other fields?

8 thoughts on “Ditching textbooks, and faculty collaboration”

  1. I teach ENG 1101 and the problem I have had in any course I’ve ever taught is that the students complain that the readings are boring. Now, I am very aware of the many processes involved for why students accuse these readings of being boring — they can’t relate, they may not have the critical thinking skills necessary to engage the text, they resist the text for any number or reasons, or they can’t engage the subject, and so on.

    Sometimes I have felt that ditching textbooks would allow for different types of reading, reading which can occur in different contexts, and can be flexible to include readings of current events or other things that change quickly that a traditional textbook can’t keep up with. I would like to be able to include readings from electronic locations that students are already visiting, or are about topics students are already engaged in. It would be great if it were even possible to have students suggest some of the texts; (I have tried this last approach and the results are not always great, but sometimes students suggest fantastic things).

    The bottom line is: textbooks, for many reasons have been stumbling blocks in my class. It may be my own personal limitations, or otherwise, but my classes seem to be strongest when we are _not_ working along with the book. I feel I am not alone on this…

  2. Thomas, thanks for your thoughts. I don’t know if you’re planning on attending the CUNY IT Conference this Thursday and Friday at John Jay College, but two of our City Tech colleagues, Johannah Rodgers and Maura Smale, are presenting on a panel that will address Open Access projects within CUNY. Scott Henkle blogged about it on The Open Road here. You might want to connect with them to talk more about what has been done to make free electronic materials the basis for your course. You might also want to look here for some great electronic resources that Johannah Rodgers collated from those that she and many of us in the English Department have used.

    It would be great to have more conversations about this subject, and I hope this site can become a forum for these discussions!

  3. Thanks for writing up the OA Week event, Jody! I was so interested to hear about the Temple project, and especially to learn about what Kristina saw to be the added benefits to the use of technology in her classroom even beyond students not having to pay for course materials.

    One of the things we’ll be discussing at the IT Conference on Friday is the lack of a CUNYwide platform on which to host open access curricular materials (if we’re rolling our own). I think the OpenLab could go a long way toward providing that platform at City Tech (and already has!).

  4. Sure! It was a great panel and a delight to participate in. I was cheered that we had a respectable audience of faculty from libraries and other departments as well as administrators present, and everyone seemed enthusiastic about the possibilities for open access course materials.

    There was also a presentation at the conference on plans for a CUNY institutional repository, and something like that could be used to host OA course materials for sure. Again, enthusiasm all round. I’m on a committee that’s working on plans for the repository and will share info here as I have it. Though again, we can absolutely use the OpenLab for open course materials.

    I’ve got many of the presentation materials from our speakers and will get them online soon. We’re planning to post them on the Open Access @ CUNY blog on the Academic Commons here: http://openaccess.commons.gc.cuny.edu

  5. I’m joining this discussion late. The idea of digital course materials without a traditional textbooks is one I’ve been considering for some time. In most architecture courses there is no one text which covers the subject matter. Or in the case of History of New York City Architecture, there is no text. For a new course in historic preservation, the readings are all web based. I’m interested in learning and discussing this topic. Any one?

  6. If there are digital materials available to students, they are often assumed to be interactive by default. It doesn’t always work out this way, but the course materials should be set up to be. The links within the digital materials would be part of the “scaffolding” in assignments and other course work. This idea ties in with some of what we’ve been doing in the WAC/WAI seminars.

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