By Conrad van Dyk, Associate Professor of English
A sabbatical is a period of time when a professor doesn’t have to teach but can work on a specific research project. Professors can apply for a sabbatical about once every seven years. Last year I was fortunate enough to receive a sabbatical (in my case, a six-month study leave), and I used it to create an OER, or: Online Educational Resource. In what follows, I would like to share some thoughts about my own project, as well as about how OERs (particularly online textbooks) can help students succeed in university.
A few years ago I realized that every time I taught a first-year English course, some students needed much more practice with learning, say, parts of speech or punctuation. They just did not understand the point of an apostrophe or the difference between an adjective and an adverb; however, I didn’t have time to go over every concept multiple times. The textbook did not help much either. It did not even come with exercises and the explanations were dry and boring. That’s when I decided I would create my own textbook.
So, during my sabbatical, I did the lion’s share of the work of creating a website on writing–www.natureofwriting.com: a website that could not only replace the standard textbook but do much more. The Nature of Writing website now has over a hundred pages, almost 150 videos, and well over a hundred exercises. It aims to cover all the writing instruction you would receive in first-year English but in a way that’s more engaging than your standard textbook. Each lesson contains video instruction as well as a text-based explanation. The content is the same, but the examples are different. This kind of duplication is in keeping with a set of educational principles called the Universal Design for Learning (UDL)–the idea is that each student has a unique learning style. By providing different means of representation we can create a richer educational experience.
The Nature of Writing website is also free. In fact, that’s one reason why online textbooks are the future of education. Students either pay very little or (in most cases) they don’t have to pay a dime, but there are other benefits as well:
- Students always have access to the text, even if the course is over.
- Students can learn at their own pace.
- Students can get additional instruction, or repeat a lesson they didn’t understand.
- Students in poor countries have access to quality education.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how OERs can revolutionize education. Too often, I hear of students who cannot afford to buy their textbooks, or who have to wait for student loans to come in first. With an online textbook, these problems are gone. Everyone has equal access.
Another benefit of OERs is that they are more easily tailored to the needs of students. An OER is considered “open” because it typically has a Creative Commons license. Usually, this means that instructors are free to copy and share the resource as long as they provide attribution (some mention of the original source). Instructors can thus easily share those sections of the OER that they find most valuable. This also prevents what might be called “content creep,” where publishers keep adding more and more chapters to textbooks to the point where it’s impossible to cover all the material in a single semester. With online textbooks, instructors can feel much more free to select those sections that matter. They might even combine parts of multiple textbooks, and, if they find that a particular resource contains errors, it can be updated immediately.
The good news is that governments and institutions are increasingly supporting and funding the creation of online textbooks. In North America, it has been the government of British Columbia that has led the way with the creation of BC Campus: a repository of online educational resources. In the last few years, Alberta has launched its own “OER Initiative,” and you may want to check out the relevant websites (http://albertaoer.com/ and https://bccampus.ca/). In fact, you might be surprised to find one of your own textbooks available for free.
Yet there is one drawback to these repositories. Most of the textbooks they provide are not entirely tailored for the web. They might have some hyperlinks, and navigating them might be easier, but they are ultimately not that much different from PDFs. That’s why the real challenge moving forward is to turn each textbook into its own website. Educators need to use the web as it’s meant to be used—as a dynamic platform where content is organized using a clear navigational structure and individual web pages. An OER should be more than a dry textbook. Students should have access to videos and exercises that provide something of the in-class experience. Educational resources should be as engaging as any other website.
I hope that this introduction to OERs will inspire students to become more vocal advocates for the creation and adoption of online textbooks. Concordia as an institution places a high value on quality instruction, and I believe is moving in the right direction by encouraging the use of OERs, not only through providing research grants for projects like mine but also by supporting instructors who wish to pilot an online textbook. The more students and instructors encourage each other to explore the use of OERs, the better off we’ll all be. Could you imagine coming to school without a backpack full of books? I sure can.
 Full disclosure: I also went to New Zealand with my family and had a fantastic time learning more about other cultures.
 Please note that if you are hip enough to have a Mac laptop, you’ll have to read the FAQ section on the website to use the exercises.