Open Pedagogy: Alternatives to paying for books

Let’s face it. Buying textbooks sucks. Especially when a professor claims they are required, but never requires any actual reading, because everything on the test is on the powerpoint slides. Then at the end of the semester, you try to sell the book, only to get maybe $20 for your very expensive paperweight. As professors we have the power to bring down this terrible system by incorporating open pedagogy to our courses (for more on open pedagogy, listen to this great podcast).

Textbooks are one example of a barrier to an open inclusive pedagogy. The added financial burden of purchasing books can prevent low-income students from attending college. If our ideal is to make education available to everyone, what can we do about this?

One way to overcome this barrier is through text rental. I was fortunate in my undergrad at UW-Stevens Point to have this system. It was a university-wide system where students were charged a small fee, (something like $12/credit while I was there) and then they borrowed books from the bookstore and returned them at the end of the semester. This system had a lot of benefits. It was much cheaper than buying books out right, and since it was a fee, financial aid could cover it (thanks Student Loans, I can never repay you). Students were not stuck with textbooks from general education courses that they will never use again, but if they wanted to, they could pay for the book to keep it. Also, since it was across the entire university, it did not rely on individual professors’ willingness to adopt open pedagogy practices. This of course, is not the perfect solution to all pedagogical troubles. There are definitely some downsides. For one, there is still the issue of being able to remix content to fit an individual course. Students were still responsible for buying their own supplementary texts, which could really hurt students taking a lot of literature courses or courses with lab manuals. In about 99.9% of cases, students do not retain the textbooks, because it still cost about $200 to keep a heavily used, pre-highlighted textbook at the end of the semester. I’m sure there were also some restrictions on professors to prevent them from switching textbooks every other semester. Although it’s not perfect, it is still a cool system that you should consider advocating for at your institution.

Another solution is to use open textbooks which can be altered to fit a specific course, and students can keep access to them. For me, open textbooks seemed like the perfect solution to open pedagogy at first. There are some issues here to consider. First, taking open sources and revising and remixing them to suit a course takes a lot of effort on the part of the professor. It could be pretty overwhelming for a professor just beginning to build a new course, and even a veteran professor making the switch to open sources may take several semesters to get everything together. Additionally, for some disciplines like Soil Science, open textbooks are virtually non-existent (If any of you can find an open text for soil science or environmental microbiology, please let me know in the comments). This is particularly frustrating as there is only 1 decent intro Soil Science book that is used and every new edition gets more expensive. Another thing brought up in the podcast is that creating open resource material is a privilege not every professor can afford. We should be mindful of the human cost of “free” material.

A third alternative is to abandon textbooks altogether. Instead, using other open source materials, or sources that are freely available through the university to impart knowledge to students. These can be very effective by using various media to explain concepts. These can easily be customized to fit a specific course. In sciences, we can chose to make lab manuals we’ve designed available online and allow students to print them out, or pull them up online in class to avoid forcing them to pay exorbitant prices through the book store. The downsides are again that finding these sources can be time-consuming for professors, and in some cases, finding readings that are not too dense or involved can be tricky. Although, if part of the course is for students to develop various ways of explaining topics, either by videos, animations, slides, written descriptions, etc. that can be shared (with permission) to students in future semesters, this obstacle can be slowly overcome.

The best method to embrace open pedagogy depends on the professor and the course, and may change with time. However, if we truly desire education for all, we have to find ways to incorporate accessibility and inclusivity in the courses we design, and the materials we require.

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Mindful learning in the Sciences

Reading Ellen Langer’s works on mindful learning got me thinking about how science is taught, and specifically how soil science and microbiology are taught. For context, both soil science and microbiology are relatively new fields, and microbiology especially is a rapidly changing field. The work that I do now would have been entirely inconceivable 15 years ago, and possible but prohibitively expensive even 10 years ago. Even the software that I use to process my data is constantly in flux. Every year a new database with updated taxonomy for microbial organisms is released, and the changes between database versions are significant. “The basics” aren’t even a guaranteed thing as the development of technology allows for better analyses of the microscopic organisms.

How do you teach microbiology when what we think we know can change from one semester to the next? This is where mindful learning comes in. Prefacing every lesson with “This is what we currently think we know, but we may be completely wrong” seems like a good place to start. Is it enough though? Are there other ways to encourage mindful learning in the sciences? I occasionally feel disappointed that when I took Environmental Microbiology only 4 years ago, the lab portion of the class is completely outdated. We mostly worked by culturing organisms, which is relatively cheap and more fun, because students can see things under a microscope. However, to date, none of my research has come close to doing anything similar. We simply don’t work with cultures, because we now know (believe) that only about 10% of organisms can be grown in lab cultures. I still believe that lab classes are very important in the sciences to give hands-on learning and provide another way to teach information that is difficult to convey in a lecture. Is there a way that we can teach labs with mindful learning when we know the skills we are teaching will most likely be soon outdated?

What classrooms can learn from games

After reading Setting Students Minds on Fire and A New Culture of Learning, I reflected on my own experiences with gaming and how those principles could be translated into classroom learning. As a gamer, I tend to play either simulation games (The Sims) or peaceful-ish quest games (Pokemon, Mario,etc.). Several principles of game-learning from these games can apply easily to classrooms and improve learning and retention.

First is the way a game begins. Most games start with a little background, often in the form of a cut-scene, on why you are about to start the quest/mission. I like to be immersed in a good story, and an interesting introduction is important for setting up that story. Meanwhile, back in the classroom, if you ask any student why they are taking that class, most will just say “Because it is required for my major”. As far as motivation to finish the game, that’s pretty weak. Often, majors come with a list of required courses, but no explanation as to why those courses are necessary. I’m still not sure why I had to take an Economics course as a Soil Science major. Instructors can always see the majors of their students on the class roster, and can use the gaming strategy to start the course with a little background on what the goal is, and how accomplishing that goal can be beneficial to all players. If students can see how the objectives of the course can help them in their own long term goals, they will have a better motivation than a GPA or a piece of paper to work hard and learn the material.

Once a game has established the quest, the players have to figure out how to accomplish it. Many games have the major quest broken down into manageable pieces, and often use an expanding world system. For example, with Pokemon games, you start of in one small town, then the quest takes you to another town. After you accomplish the mini-quests there, you go on to another city, increasing your skills and the available resources as you go. Sometimes the quest takes you back to towns you’ve already visited, and sometimes you go back on your own to try to collect different types of pokemon that you may have missed. In classroom settings, some of this is already employed. A lot of lectures build on previous knowledge, and often a topic will get brought up multiples times in order to give context. However, many classrooms don’t do well with the manageable mini-quests. How many courses have you taken where most of your grade came from 1 or 2 midterms and a final? This model gives rise to the binge and purge for knowledge and very low retention. Very few games have only 1 or 2 boss battles. That would be stressful and not nearly as much fun. It would not allow players to build up their skills in an engaging manner, and most players would not stick with the game for very long.

I think the principle that most desperately needs to be brought into classrooms is the outcome of failure in games. For most classrooms, when students do poorly on a test, or don’t understand a concept, they just get a bad grade and move on to the next concept. This model does not facilitate good learning, and can be extremely detrimental to students who struggle with an early concept that later parts of the course are based on.  Whereas in a game like Pokemon, if you lose a battle, you don’t get to fail and move on. You are transported to the last town you were in, and your pokemon are healed. The worst consequence is that you lose a little in-game currency. But then you try again. Sometimes you spend a little time trying to level your pokemon up, or switch out your pokemon to try a new strategy, but then you face the gym leader again, and again, until you win. You don’t get thrown onto the next, harder quest, until your are strong enough to finish the current quest. The ability to try again and again without major consequences makes players more willing to take on a challenging game. This could easily be translated into the classroom. With writing assignments, an instructor could allow for multiple drafts. On other assessments (quizzes, tests, homework), an instructor could allow students to redo the assignment in some way that allows the student to grasp the concepts they had struggled with.

I argue that this last principle needs to so desperately come into classrooms based off my own experiences as an instructor. I have seen students, used to getting high grades, become so terrified of ruining their GPA, that the focus becomes entirely on the grade than the material. I’ve had students on writing assignments hound me with questions so relentlessly about so many minute things, it felt as though I may as well have written the assignment for them. These students were so worried about getting docked points for messing up that they were totally unwilling to take any initiative for themselves. I recognize that the more opportunities for re-doing assignments there are, the more work there is for instructors. However, I think a balance can be found that enables student learning with out paralyzing fear of failure and allows instructors to get the work done. The inordinately high level of grade stress is probably responsible for a lot of burn out and perhaps one of the reasons so many students who start college degrees do not finish them.

Networked Learning as a classroom tool

When I was an undergrad student, most of my classes followed the lecture model, wherein we showed up to a lecture, the professor told us all of the information we were expected to know, and most if not all, of our grade was based off tests on that information. While this approach may be acceptable for some classes, mainly introductory courses where the main goal is to develop a solid foundation of knowledge on which more advanced classes will build, it is definitely not the best model to help all students develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills. For many students, grades based solely on tests are not an accurate representation of the student’s knowledge and skills. Even for the students who are good test takers, this system of learning can encourage a binge and purge system where students will study hard to learn what they need to know for a test and then move on to the next subject without retaining much of the information they just learned.

Another issue is that when students are handed information via lectures, and are not required to search out information on their own, even in textbooks (I can’t even tell you how many classes I took where I never had to crack open the “required” book), they don’t learn important skills. Students don’t learn how to ask questions and find the answers outside of asking a professor. From my own personal experience as a TA, i have found that many college students don’t know how to word the questions they have, and if they can’t ask a question, it becomes very difficult to find an answer.

Perhaps a better classroom model might be to encourage the use of networked learning. As an example, I think back to the first R class I took. For those unfamiliar, R is an open-source software for statistical analysis and data plotting. Because R is open-sourced and code-based, anyone can develop a software package to do any type of analysis, and as a result, there are a number of right ways to do any one thing. However, code-based statistics can be frightfully confusing. In my first R class, the structure was something like “here is the basic code of how to do [analysis], now you try to do it with this other data”. In order to prevent us from simply copying and pasting the code and changing a name, we were also expected to figure out how to add a little something extra in our code, usually something to make our plots work better. The internet has an excellent network of people using R at any skill level asking and answering questions on forums and websites, so this was useful in teaching how to ask a question, or more accurately, how to Google a question and find an answer on the internet. We were also encouraged to work together on assignments to problem solve. This often worked well, as usually the same bit of code would cause everyone problems, and so we could all search for answers and share solutions.

The networked learning of that particular course could have been taken one step further. If the students developed their own websites, on which they could create R code tutorials for the parts they had struggled with, it would help them to understand what had caused the problem, and how to avoid it in the future. By having their sites publicly available, they would be helping build the public resources for other beginner R students. Plus, they would have the information there in the future, avoiding the post-semester purge. Versions of this model could be used in other classes to help students take ownership of their education, allow them to showcase their accomplishments, and help them develop skills that will help them outside a classroom.