ASE 2018, Liverpool (3-6 January 2018)

The New Year saw Rob and I head to ASE 2018 at The University of Liverpool to showcase OpenStax STEM textbooks to science educators. A massive thanks to the dozens of participants who stopped by to talk to us during the event, both to find out more about open textbooks and OpenStax but also talk about their experiences and use of textbooks. We spoke to science educators from across all sectors and the event gave us a unique insight into the role and current use of textbooks in secondary, primary and further education (FE) teaching.

We showcased 4 OpenStax textbooks (Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Astronomy) and there were high levels of interest and positive feedback. Comments included:

  • Suitability of the textbooks for “stretching” more advanced A-level students (e.g. as a supplemental material) and to bridge the gap between A-level and University study;
  • Potential applicability and reuse of textbook content such as diagrams within the Key Stage 4 (GCSE) context;
  • Open textbooks could help to refresh or improve educator knowledge of specific subjects (e.g. Astronomy). The Astronomy book was similarly highlighted at other events as being particularly useful within this context;
  • Positive feedback on the design of the physical books and the layout of content;
  • Having physical copies of books available for students was an important factor for some educators;
  • One educator noted that the quality of current textbooks was not as good as 20 years ago. Finding enough copies of these older textbooks for classes was proving difficult and had led this educator to create their own GCSE textbook;
  • There was interest and enthusiasm for participation in creating UK curriculum aligned versions of the books showcased. As illustrated by the comments above, the current material is suitable for a range of students, from Key Stage 4 to first year undergraduates. However there were some concerns that the teaching style of the books and variance in content suitability for different levels might not currently align so well to the UK curriculum/context/practices.

I was also privileged to speak with an FE lecturer who explained the current situation in FE and around Access programmes, such as the Access to HE Diploma, which help students transition into university study. Speaking with her and other FE educators at the event highlighted the real need for materials at this level and the potential for OER to fill this gap:

“I’m an FE lecturer in physics and the FE industry has been hit rather hard by government cuts and we have no money. My head of department has told me that I can’t have any textbooks for the classroom unless I source them myself and then attempt to claim the money back. Which is less than ideal because I may not get my money back and sourcing textbooks is a very expensive thing, so I’m not prepared to do that. The OpenStax [textbooks] can really help with that so that’s interesting. I’m going to try to edit the books together to make them more relevant for my course, and then send them off to the reprographics department in my college and get them printed there. I can also potentially make them digitally available to the students.

In my other role, as an external verifier for an Access programme there aren’t textbooks for Access programmes because they are so niche. So publishers aren’t interested because they won’t get their money back. So what I can do as external verifier is mix and match the chapters I need, make it tailor made for the access course and then disseminate it around all of the FE colleges that deliver the access programme. Which would be very, very helpful because teaching access is very difficult, as there just aren’t the resources available. Sometimes the level of the material that’s being taught is on par with A-level and so you can use A-level textbooks, but often it’s beyond A-level and you need to use University textbooks, which again are not ideal because they are designed for a different audience and have different assumptions about subject knowledge. So students end up getting very confused and a little bit intimidated by some of the resources that you try to find for them so if you can potentially mix and match and potentially edit some things out then that’s much better.”

Mrs Bell, FE Lecturer. 4 January 2018 

We were also fortunate to meet a couple of educators from Norway and Iceland who are currently using OpenStax materials. In both instances the books were being used to help improve their students’ English language skills and either served as supplemental resources or because the quality of the books were deemed higher than existing textbooks.

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