Sunderland Workshop: 13 December 2017

For the penultimate open textbook workshop of 2017 I had the privilege of spending time with fantastic University of Sunderland colleagues to discuss how we can help increase access and participation in education through the use of openly licensed resources. This blog post summarises our discussion.

The workshop was organised by Andy Fraser, Senior Lecturer, who is responsible for integrating OER (including OpenStax content) into science and maths PGCE courses at Sunderland. University of Sunderland is one of the leading providers of the Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) qualification both face-to-face and at a distance. The cost of resources is particularly intensified for PGCE students as they need to purchase both materials relating to their discipline specialism and pedagogy and teacher training resources. It’s also important to provide teacher training resources that can be easily accessed both during and after trainee teachers’ studies. Courses that are offered internationally also need to ensure that students worldwide are able to access materials and the potential for OER to remove barriers in this respect was noted. I had the pleasure of interviewing Andy after the workshop so look out for the first of our UK Open Textbook case studies coming soon!

Sunderland has a large number of part-time and mature students. As elsewhere, the cost of textbooks is a critical one for students at Sunderland; many students struggle with textbook costs and don’t purchase set texts. Although the library has a range of digitised materials there are low levels of e-book use by students. Our discussion highlighted some extremely high textbook costs with one reading list reportedly including an out of print engineering book currently priced at £3000!  It was also noted that the Consumer Protection Act mandates that the cost of course materials is displayed as part of the cost of a course, yet few institutions appear to do so (this was of particular note and I’ve been investigating further… look out for a future blog post!)

A further discussion on reading lists and the possible lack of clarity for students when books are described as ‘essential’ or ‘required’ (for example) revealed that some lecturers were aligning their course reading so that resources are clearly aligned with specific tasks in a module. However, it was also noted that care had to be taken with which resources were cited and used in courses – on occasion “over specif[ying] a book” (even just citing it) resulted in high demand for the excerpt’s source as the majority of students wanted to access the material for in-depth analysis.  Developing students’ critical skills so they can independently evaluate material was noted as a key competency. One benefit of open textbooks and other open materials is that they have the potential to increase the range of materials students can access in addition to being instantly available for students to explore.

There was a concern among participants that students’ “expectations” and ways of studying were changing in response to the immediate availability of information and social media. Students were reportedly skimming material rather than exploring and developing their understanding of a subject more thoroughly. Which students had engaged with the wider reading was apparent to educators when they marked work. However, it was also acknowledged that access to materials in the first place was necessary in order that students develop deeper learning – how can we tell the difference between those students that are skimming material and those that want to explore course reading materials but are unable to access these for reasons such as cost?

Suggestions and strategies from students for combating textbook costs were also discussed. One cohort of social work students had formed their own study group to share resources and discuss their studies. Another student had suggested that the cost of tuition fees should rise slightly to include the cost of textbooks and therefore remove the need for upfront payment for resources.

Participants were keen to explore open textbooks and other openly licensed materials. The library is currently tagging its e-books to create collections and is also reviewing openly licensed materials with the aim of showcasing collections of content to both educators and students. A number of factors were highlighted as key to increasing the amount of OER used at Sunderland. Here, as elsewhere, librarians are extremely knowledgeable regarding open licensing and OER but raising academic awareness of open materials and getting faculty to “intrinsically us[e] open source” content required addressing a number of concerns. Quality and time implications, sharing easy and effective ways of using OER in addition to revealing the potential benefits (e.g. saving students money and educator time) were all highlighted as important. Institutional buy-in across the university was also deemed essential.

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