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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Forum Sees Open Textbooks on a Roll

“Open textbooks are really becoming an imperative. There’s no stopping this momentum.” That was the assessment of Gary Malkin, dean of continuing education, distance learning, and summer session, University of California Irvine, and host of UCI’s Open Textbook Forum on Jan. 26.

The 90-minute forum, captured on video, gave an overview of open course materials to an informal group of educators and administrators. According to Malkin, UCI began building its open courseware site in 2002 and now its academic senate actively encourages faculty to use open materials as much as possible. Some 50 faculty members have contributed so far.

Among the more interesting presentations came from one of those professors. Michael Dennin, who teaches physics, noted that the existence of an alternative to traditionally published textbooks has made faculty more sensitive to what students have to pay for books. And they’re also considering how students will actually use the assigned texts. “Are you going to charge $200 for basically a set of homework problems?” he asked.

In Dennin’s view, open courseware also forces “us to rethink our role as educators” and find ways to bring more value to the course. At the same time, there are considerable challenges—especially the time to assemble materials. Dennin noted he was supposed to turn in a book manuscript for a graduate-level physics book four years ago, and he’s still not done. He and a group of colleagues loved the idea of collaborating on a wiki book, but realized they simply wouldn’t have time.

On the other hand, a presentation by Stephen Carter from MIT’s famed open courseware program, emphasized the benefits to students go beyond reducing costs. Carter said the program has enabled MIT, which has no branch or satellite campuses, to engage with people around the world. Some 93% of MIT’s undergraduates and 85% of graduate students use the open materials.

Carter said it’s also been a great recruiting tool for MIT, (although presumably that advantage will wane as more universities build their own open-source libraries).

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