From Open Source to Open Textbooks: Computing and Digital Technology at Birmingham City

Stephen Murphy, Associate Professor in the School of Computing and Digital Technology at Birmingham City University uses a range of openly licensed materials for his teaching, including open textbooks.

Steve has been “heavily involved” in open source initiatives for the past 15 years and current involvement includes developing examinations for Linux with the Linux Professional Institute (LPI) as well as teaching using a range of “open source technologies” using open educational resources (OER). Steve first became involved in open source software during his previous work in the software industry.  Having access to free GNU licensed textbooks rather than proprietary textbooks (which cost ca. £40 each), during this period ensured that when Steve joined Birmingham City he was keen to use OER in his own teaching:

“…when I moved into education, probably about 10, 11 years ago, there was a lot of expensive textbooks that were required. We had a few of them in the library, but demand for them always outstripped supply.

So when I started to come across some open-source textbooks, it sort of made sense to start using them as part of my teaching because it relieved the pressure on the library resource. And in fact, some of those textbooks are now being stocked on the electronic library, alongside commercially licensed textbooks.”

Steve’s takes a “flipped” approach to teaching and uses two openly licensed textbooks, which feature as part of “an electronic catalogue” or online reading list for the Open Systems module. This module reviews different types of open licensing, technologies and legal frameworks whilst utilising appropriate OER. The materials Steve chooses to utilise for this course both reflect its ‘open’ ethos but also showcases current industry standards and emphasises “practical, hands on skills” that students can easily demonstrate to employers. This, Steve noted, is one of the course’s “unique selling points.”

The first open textbook used as a “homework” source is the CC BY-NC-ND licensed The Linux Command Line by William Shotts. Chosen for its “clarity of explanation and understanding” and because it is not a “traditionally academic” book Steve refers students to specific sections of the book and associated online activities (such as a quiz) each week. Steve then allows time at the start of the next lab session for discussion about that week’s reading and activities. The second book is Introduction to Free Software which Steve uses as “a user friendly introduction to some of the concepts and ideas” as and when needed by students.

Although The Linux Command Line’s license type does not allow for remixing, Steve noted that he doesn’t remix material, largely because he uses the “flipped” approach but also because he prefers to “supplement” the OER he uses with materials he has created himself.  His decision to supplement in this way in part reflects Steve’s experiences with the standard of proprietary supplied teaching materials, which he has frequently found to be poorly designed from a pedagogical perspective, error ridden or with lots of addenda:

“I sort of drifted away from using material supplied by third parties … I just tended to use it really as …the basic offering … ‘This is what you need to know. Read this, and then we’ll talk about it and do more interesting things in the class with it.’”

The Benefits of Open

The use of openly licensed materials enable all students to start their studies on “a level playing field” but as Steve later noted, a number of other benefits of using openly licensed books were reported by students:

“They [the students] don’t exactly jump for joy, because it’s a textbook, but the feedback is generally positive. The feedback I got on … modular evaluations were, when I’d previously been using … normal textbooks from the library was “Books are great, but there’s only so many copies, and we can’t get hold of them.”      

So availability is one thing, but convenience is another. I can stick a PDF on Moodle (our VLE) and they just download it. They don’t have to go physically go to the library and take out a book. And even with the electronic library, they don’t have to log on to another system or use sometime clunky reader software that might not necessarily do what they’d want to do. If they want to copy and paste sections of the book into their notes, they can. I’ve certainly seen that, where a student has not just read it, but has copied and pasted sections and annotated it. Obviously, this would be difficult with a paper-based book. Even with the electronic books, that kind of ability to copy and paste is generally restricted.

I think it gives them more freedom to use the resource the way they want to use it, essentially, allowing them to tailor it to the way they learn.”

Easily available via multiple sources and in multiple formats, the open license also enables students to tailor material to their preferred learning style.  In addition to cost savings (as Steve noted “the number of students that buy textbooks now … is vanishingly rare”)  there are also accessibility concerns with regard to e-copies of proprietary materials. Licensing agreements can take time and libraries are subject to “very limited resource and budget[s]” for purchasing new, up-to-date resources. Moreover, particularly for fast-changing disciplines such as computing, having up-to-date editions of resources is essential.

Steve reflected that using OER in the Open Systems module was successful as students could always access the materials needed for their studies. However, assessing whether “student satisfaction” had increased was more difficult as the course materials necessarily reflected the ethos of the course content.

“Deep Digging”: The Challenge of Finding OER

Steve noted that the “free” aspect of open textbooks could be an issue for both students and colleagues as perceptions that this type of material is “second best” persist. However, in the instance of the open textbooks used for Open Systems these are peer reviewed and/or university produced. For Steve, when looking for OER it’s important to be “a lot more critical” whilst also taking time to look for relevant material when choosing resources as some “can be very variable in quality” or may not be immediately obvious:

“… [I] did look at a number of other resources and rejected them on quality grounds, so I think having the broad enough market, such that academics can ensure that the resource is of the right quality”

For Steve finding OER for Open Systems was occasionally serendipitous. It also required a bit of time to initially sift through different resources to find the most appropriate material for the course. Steve initially found about out Introduction to Free Software through a conversation with one of the authors. Produced as part of a European funded project, the funding had ended and the resource was not being publicised.  The resource was perfect for Steve’s needs but prior to this meeting he had begun to wonder if he would need to author something himself, particularly as the content covered was “quite niche” and not covered by any existing proprietary resource.

Next Steps 

Steve is currently authoring a book, which he intends to publish openly. He is also involved in the project team responsible for creating LPI open courseware for Linux.

Image Credits

Stephen Murphy (used with permission)
Gary Hamel… by is licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
Open Source Gifts for the Holidays by is licensed CC BY-SA 2.0


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