Dr. Paul Nolting's Academic Success Press Blog: A Publication Dedicated to Math Success
Dr. Paul Nolting's Academic Success Press Blog: A Publication Dedicated to Math Success
Few in the world of college education wear more hats than Dr. Barbara Illowsky. A well-known educator based at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, Illowsky, in addition to her contributions to the national developmental mathematics redesign movement, has also spent years on the vanguard of using modern technology to improve student learning. In 2013, she won the OCW Consortium Educator Award for her decade-long effort to promote open education through her open textbook, Introductory Statistics.
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Illowsky. The first part of the interview involves the history of her open textbook and the future of the textbook industry. Part Two will focus on math redesigns. Enjoy!
ASP Blog: How did you get involved with the open textbook movement?
Illowsky: The reason I originally got involved with open education resources (OER) was because of the need to save students money. Not just to save them money for the sake of saving money, but because students are not always able to attend college, even when they get tuition waivers and financial aid, because the textbooks are so expensive. I had two incredible mentors in this: my chancellor, Dr. Martha Kanter, who became Undersecretary of Education; and Hal Plotkin, who was our board of trustees. At our district, he was the real force behind [OER] because of his own experiences of not being able to afford text books. Plotkin became senior policy analyst for the Obama administration in the department of education.
It really opened my eyes [working for these people], so I began to think, “What can I do to help students?” In California, we accept the top 100 percent of students who apply to college in the community college system. But the issue is, they come, but because financial aid might not come through for two to three weeks, they go two to three weeks without textbooks. Susan Dean, my coauthor, and I, began to wonder what we could do to make a big difference from our end. I couldn’t change financial aid, I couldn’t change tuition, I couldn’t change whether or not someone needs childcare, but what I could do was make sure students did not need to pay for a statistics textbook.
We were really in the right place at the right time. Our book became an open education resource. What this means is that even before day one, students can go online and get the whole textbook. They don’t have to wait two weeks. They don’t have to decide whether or not their children will go on a field trip versus the cost of a textbook. They don’t have to use their GI-bill funding for it. The book is free.
ASP Blog: What were your initial experiences with offering your book as an open education resource? It must have been scary relinquishing control over your work.
Illowsky: Freedom was behind all of this: access to the book from day one. What ended up happening over the years—I’ve been involved since 2005 or so—the book started getting better. The people who used it made suggestions. Through the Rice University Connexions platform, and now through OpenStax College, we were able to pick and choose what we wanted to incorporate into the book. Users could then customize the book. All they had to do was give us attribution for the first book. Or if it was something we thought might improve the textbook from our end, we could immediately make changes. We did this many times. A professor at another university even wrote a 1,000 question test bank to go along with it. Someone else created PowerPoints to go along with it—so we got this huge community of people around the country that wanted to share different parts.
This led to a much better textbook, and it also led to innovation. The for-profits became involved with this because it had a creative commons attribution license. This meant that for-profits did not have to pay to use the book. Publishers and bookstores could print the book without paying a fee.
Some people say, of course, “Why would you allow a company to make money off of your book when you don’t?” The first for-profit that I personally became involved with was WebAssign. I was at AMATYC and doing the very first presentation on open textbooks. The room was packed. It was greatly received, but several people said to me, “This would be great and I would use this, but all of the for-profits have homework grading systems with their books.” So I went down, and I was in the vendor area, and I met with WebAssign. I asked them if they had ever considered doing a homework system for an open textbook. They didn’t know what an open textbook was. They looked into it, and they decided to get into that market. Mine was their first open textbook; now they have a few others. They worked really well with me.
I thought I was doing this just as a way to get homework graded quickly. As it turned out, the more I used WebAssign, the more I found out it was helping students to increase their learning because it wasn’t just grading yes and no questions. It actually involved a learning system. Students do pay for this—about $30—but the book is free, and I give them the option. Almost all of the students do it though, because of the feedback potential.
Another example is that Apple made an iBook with it. This allows students to pay $4.99 for the book to use on their iPad or phone. They can highlight with their finger, and they can do assessment that doesn’t come to me. They can know if they are getting things right or wrong. This is an improvement of learning—and all of this does not require a student to pay, it just gives them more options.
ASP Blog: How are people using your book? I imagine by offering it for free and allowing users to adjust the text to their own needs, your book is used in radically different ways in radically different places.
Illowsky: A school in Sweden took one chapter and used it for their doctoral psychology program because it explains a concept that wasn’t in their other textbook. A dental school on the East Coast used the book in a similar way. Students in a dental program do not need to spend their money on an entire statistics textbook—especially when they only need one chapter. Once, a few high schools students in an AP statistics course wrote to me to tell me that they were using the open videos I made to go along with the textbook. Their teacher, who did not really know statistics, used the videos and learned along with the students. Because they were free and creative commons licensed, they were able to do that.
ASP Blog: I'm curious, how do you think open textbooks will affect the future of college learning? What you are describing here is a totally malleable and adaptable text. This is something that was not possible until the last ten years. In one way, then, open textbooks would seem to represent the future, in that you can create intellectual property that will organically evolve through collective use. But will we ever, as a collective culture, be able to get past the desire to make money off of educational texts?
Illowsky: What I can tell you is that we DID make money off of the original book. It started off as a for-profit book (though it was affordably priced). We sold it to the bookstores for $38 and they sold it for $50. As for the open book, a foundation bought the copyright from us and donated it to Rice University with the idea of us giving up all future royalties. We gave it all up, but we did receive a one-shot payment.
Still, this is different from the traditional model. I just read about a Harvard professor who made $42 million off an economic textbook in one year. He was defending that, and I’m not going to say anything about that one way or the other, but I really feel that getting paid for the work once is enough. I don’t need to get paid every year for work I did ten years ago.
The bigger and better part of this is that I feel really good. Students have come up to me and told me that they probably would have dropped a course without the book. We all get paid for our work. I get paid for teaching. I go around and speak at colleges and conventions. But the idea that we have established a collective community of sharing is [worth more than money]. The faculty who have made the test banks and PowerPoints see this as a part of their professional responsibility. I have not made money off of the book for more than ten years, but I still want to work on improving it because I think that it is important.
ASP Blog: Before we wrap up this first part of our talk, I'd like to ask you about any links between open textbooks and developmental education. Are there any open developmental math books?
Illowsky: Sure. There are a lot of open textbooks at the developmental education level. I have been working with faculty on adopting free and open developmental textbooks, and I also want to add low-cost, because there are some companies that have textbooks for $30 or so. This is fine; they are paying their employees to work after all. Free is ideal, but $30 or $40 is not the same as $250 for a one-semester course.
ASP Blog: This is all particularly interesting because the textbook industry is completely in flux right now. Publishers are having to come to terms with the changing expectations of students and changing university expectations—what people are willing to spend and what they are willing to spend it on. Many are struggling to adapt.
Illowsky: I think that publishers do a good service. But compare a mass market paperback book that costs $15.99—for which a whole series of people are getting paid to write, review, and edit—then compare this to a college textbook at $200. I would be thrilled if all of the major publishers were able to work out their business plans so that they could make money, and faculty could make money, but their costs were low enough that students could access them on day one, and not come out of school in debt or drop classes.
Click here to read Part Two of our conversation with Barbara Illowsky.
Dr. Nolting is a national expert in assessing math learning problems, developing effective student learning strategies, assessing institutional variables that affect math success and math study skills. He is also an expert in helping students with disabilities and Wounded Warriors become successful in math. He now assists colleges and universities in redesigning their math courses to meet new curriculum requirements. He is the author of two math study skills texts: Winning at Math and My Math Success Plan.
American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges presenter, Senior Lecturer-Modular