The Future is Now for OERs in History Courses

I began using Open Educational Resources for reasons not originally connected to the high cost of textbooks. I had used traditional textbooks in the past. I teach both American History courses and our Western Civilization courses, and used the Vango edition of American People (Seventh edition) by Gary B. Nash, et al, and the Western Heritage (Eleventh edition) by Donald Kagan. I wasn’t overly worried about high prices for those materials, as they were the cheapest, high quality textbooks I could find at the time. My Vango edition was a stripped down versions of the original and the European textbooks were customized and cut down to the barebones. I had videos and primary source documents and all sorts of other free resources for the students to learn from online. The administration had done a survey years ago about textbook costs and I was one of only two professors in the entire college whose textbooks were under the lowest threshold for affordability. So, while textbook affordability was high on my list, I actually felt like I had done about as well with that as I could.

Time for a Change

The impetus for change that led me into Open Educational Resources came from a different place. I was struggling with ways to improve the first week of class for my students. That first week of class can be completely overwhelming. Students have to navigate through a minefield of new terminology, schedules, learning how to read their teachers, finding out how to get to class, how to log on to the course website, and a million other things. Unfortunately, they also have to struggle with financial aid, and one of the most difficult things is using their financial aid to purchase textbooks. While Kirkwood has done a great job of streamlining and easing this process, there are still a sizable amount of students who get stuck in limbo waiting for their financial aid so they can get their textbooks. So, I went looking for a way to help my students remove this obstacle.

US History: Decision Making

I remembered going to a few meetings where Kate Hess had discussed Open Educational Resources and how there were numerous free textbooks available, and so I decided my first stop along this journey was to find Kate and see how she could help. She offered to meet over lunch, and in our first meeting she mentioned OpenStax. She showed me a brief demonstration of the US History textbook and I was hooked. I spent a few evenings looking over the content to make sure it was rigorous enough for my US History courses, both US History to 1877 and US History Since 1877, and very quickly made the decision to switch to this new textbook. There were a few weaker areas, but I could supplement those with other documents and videos I found online. And, it was free! The decision made, I went about adding the textbook into my course shell on Talon for the following semester.

The process was surprisingly seamless, but then I wasn’t asking too much of the book. I just needed the content to line up with assignments I had already created, and it had all I needed and more. I didn’t use the test bank, and had no use for many of the resources, as I had already created most of those in other places in the class. I had numerous primary source documents and videos, including Crash Course videos, but needed something to tie all of those resources together. This was perfect. I put the link for each chapter with the unit I needed it in so the students could just click on the link and go straight to what I needed them to know. I moved a few sections around to line up closer with the textbook (for example, I usually put the section on Manifest Destiny later in the semester, but this textbook moved it up and so I did as well) and was all ready to go.

US History: Implementation

The first semester I used the textbook proved I had made the right decision. My US History courses all started off without a hitch. Students in both my US History to 1877 and US History Since 1877 courses found the book engaging and useful. Everyone was able to get right in and get to work, allowing me to get to more material faster and go more in depth on important topics. I got many positive comments about the affordability of the book as well! And, as if to prove this was the direction I needed to head, I had student after student encounter difficulty in my Western Civilization courses getting their textbooks. It took one student three weeks to get her book due to financial aid issues. It slowed the class down and caused unnecessary stress on students and took up a lot of my time. Using an OER had been a hit in my US History courses, so I turned my attention to my Western Civilization courses.

Western Civilization: Decision Making

Unfortunately, Open Stax didn’t have an OER for the Western Civilization courses, and despite the efforts of myself, Kate Hess and Emily McWorthy, we were unable to find an OER that lived up to that standard. In fact, there was almost nothing out there at all. Eventually we found a book put out by the University System of Georgia called World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500. It didn’t have a test bank or any instructor tools, but as with my US History classes, I was just looking for a textbook with the content needed to connect the things I was hoping to accomplish within the course. For my Ancient Mediterranean World class, it was perfect. It covered all the needed history, and even included chapters on India and China that didn’t fit into my course but allowed curious students to venture off on their own into extra learning. For my Europe in the Age of Monarchy course, the textbook was excellent for the first half of the course, but ended shortly after the midway point in the semester. Most colleges cut their Western Civilization courses in half or thirds, but since Kirkwood cuts our courses in fourths, it has always been close to impossible to find a textbook for this class in particular that doesn’t include extra information or not enough. As such, I was more than prepared for this and had an extensive supply of primary sources and videos lined up to fill in the gaps. With the inclusion of some longer documentaries and perhaps an excessive supply of short clips of Shakespeare plays, I managed to get every topic covered in more than enough detail.

Western Civilization: Implementation

And so, the next semester I rolled out the OERs in my two Western Civilization classes, meaning that all six of my courses that semester were using OERs. I couldn’t have been happier with the results. My students were all able to jump right into the class and get started. I didn’t have to spend hours during the first week of the semester navigating through textbook purchasing issues, and my students didn’t have to include that worry amongst the thousands of others that a new semester brings. Interestingly enough, many of my students began asking for a print edition. With the OpenStax textbooks, there is always the option to buy a print version for $50. That still seemed a bit much for me, and so I worked with the Book Store to create a loose-leaf copy of the book for $20. I haven’t received nearly the same amount of interest in a hard copy of the World History text, but I plan on spending time over the summer working on putting together a copy of that the Book Store can sell students who ask for it. With the help of Kate Hess, we just cut the World History text into more manageable sections, as it was one giant pdf and she made it into numerous smaller ones to ease in opening up the text. The next time I teach the course I will use the sliced up version. I’m sure the students will enjoy that much better.

The Future

As others working with OpenStax can tell you, the only real problem with the text is that they are constantly updating them. While this is a wonderful problem to have, it means constantly looking over the website to ensure that everything is up to date. It isn’t as large a problem for me, as I don’t have multiple choice exams built around the book, but it’s still important to keep an eye on. My only other real concern is to keep searching for something for the second half of my Europe Age of Monarchy course. I’m sure eventually there will be more sources for Western Civilization courses, and I want to make sure I can look them over and perhaps choose a different option when it becomes available. Until then, though, I couldn’t be happier with the textbooks I’ve chosen. They are free, easily accessible, rigorous yet easy to read, and the students can access them on day one. Thanks to Kate Hess, Emily McWorthy, and for the teachers, administrators and those at the Book Store who helped me get to this point. I’m so glad I took this journey toward using OERs in my classes. It’s been a win for my students and for me!