Open Textbooks: Math
In honor of Open Access week, we’re highlighting some open projects on campus. Faculty members in the Whitman College Mathematics and Computer Science Department are producing Open Educational Resources (OER): textbooks that are freely available online for use and for reuse, usually with a Creative Commons license that makes those terms clear. Professor David Guichard has written an open Calculus textbook in several versions; Associate Professor Albert Schueller made his Programming with Robots book available with an open license, and has contributed to Guichard’s Calculus book as well (as has Associate Professor Barry Balof).
Licensing is important for OER because it allows the materials to be adapted for later use. Both books use the CC BY-NC-SA license, which means that they can be adapted and incorporated into further educational materials with attribution, for non-commercial purposes, and that the resulting materials also need to be licensed in the same way. Parts of Guichard’s text were adapted with permission from notes by Neal Koblitz at the University of Washington, and also drew upon CC-licensed exercises in another Calculus text. Guichard’s text in turn has been used as the basis for other texts and for a MOOC (called MOOCulus) at Ohio State University.
Guichard’s Calculus textbook is available on several Open Textbook websites, and has been adopted at other institutions. Guichard hears from individual users with feedback (especially corrections of typos). He says, “My favorite is the sailor who wrote to tell me he was bored on board a navy ship and was using it to learn calculus, with a goal of going on to other subjects.” Guichard’s Calculus book is available as a PDF, as a bound book (through the service lulu.com, for a small fee of around $10), or online. His students have used all of these forms, although the web version may be the most popular – recently, students have even used it on their phones.
The Math Department has adopted open textbooks in a number of classes. Guichard and Schueller have assigned their textbooks in their own classes. In addition, Guichard has assigned an open textbook for Linear Algebra, and a new book that he wrote for Combinatorics and Graph Theory, which Barry Balof also has used for that course. Schueller uses open source or inexpensive texts whenever possible, including the Calculus sequence, Linear Algebra, and programming; for his Engineering Math class he is switching from a $200 book to a $10 book. If an open textbook doesn’t exist as such, professors may assign extensive notes that they have authored (a proto-textbook), which is free to students, although not necessarily made openly available online. This has been the case for the Introduction to Higher Mathematics class, for which various professors have adapted longstanding notes by Professor Pat Keef.
There are advantages to using open textbooks beyond the cost savings to students. Professors can modify explanations, examples, and problems to fit their exact teaching goals. Schueller sees one potential disadvantage of OERs – the fact that they are often more bare-bones than commercial textbooks and their ancillary workbooks, online exercises, and so forth – as a potential advantage as well: “I also believe, in the case of Guichard’s text and others, that less is more. Modern calc texts are thick with examples covering every possible permutation of a particular concept. Doing homework for students using these texts is largely an exercise of finding the example that most closely resembles the exercise they’re working on and adapting it. Most open texts are necessarily less “feature-rich.” Students are left to fill in gaps. Not sure if that’s best for all student populations, but for Whitman students that challenges them and that’s for the better.” Guichard finds that the lack of extra features for his textbook may be a disincentive to its adoption on a broad scale, but he is happy to use his textbook in his own classroom, and sees additional adoptions as a “gratifying bonus” rather than a defining motivation.
Is there anything about mathematics specifically that makes this discipline a hospitable home for OER? Schueller finds that the large number of students taking courses like introductory calculus and the relatively stable content make up one factor. Another is the DIY attitude of mathematicians to creating systems (often open-source systems) that work for their needs – such as the typesetting and document preparation systems TeX and LaTeX, which are designed to optimize the display of mathematical equations. Both Guichard and Schueller trace their interest in OER to their use of and appreciation for open source software; open textbooks seemed like a logical extension of that model. Schueller has been active in recruiting adopters of open math textbooks to review the textbooks in traditional mathematics journals, in the hope of raising awareness more broadly of the existence and the advantages of these resources. He also shares more general information about open educational resources (emphasis: mathematics) on his blog.
Both Guichard and Schueller would encourage faculty members to investigate options in OER and to make contributions to existing projects that could fit their needs. For those considering adopting an existing OER, Schueller recommends talking to a colleague who has used it in a class. He and a colleague recently published a best practices guide on writing an open text, which would be relevant for a range of disciplinary areas. [Ironically, the journal requires a subscription – sign in with your Whitman ID to read the article.] More information on OERs and on Open Access more generally is also available on our Open Access LibGuide. If you have questions, or want to let us know about your own Open Educational Resources or Open Access activities, please contact Amy Blau.