‘Sparked’ – Chemistry prof writes her own textbooks to fit her courses

Dr. Ying Zheng; Keith Aiken; and Joerdis Weilandt

Dr. Ying Zheng was the first recipient  (Fall 2017) of the Open Access Learning Resource Fund the Teaching Centre now offers to all faculty who want to transition to openly licensed teaching materials. With the assistance of the mature student, Keith Aiken, Dr. Zheng adapted and published her first open course pack  within only a few months. After the course pack was ready, it had quickly been put to a test in the Spring term of 2018.

Teaching Centre: How did you get interested in writing an openly licensed textbook?

Ying Zheng: I have been entertaining the idea to write a second textbook since I had finished my first one for the first year-level Chemistry for the Life Sciences I course in 2008, but I could never really find the time. In the end, it is a major undertaking for one person to write a book of high quality. Last year, however, something unexpected and wonderful happened that made me revisit that idea to write a textbook for the second-year level course Chemistry for the Life Sciences II. When I went to the SPARK Teaching Symposium in April 2017, I saw a session run by Dr. Sean Fitzpatrick and I also stopped by the Open Educational Resources (OER) booth the Teaching Centre had set up. Both places helped me realize that writing my second book wouldn’t have to be too demanding.

Before SPARK, I didn’t know much about OER and the Open Education Movement around it. Had I known, I would have loved to contribute to it at an earlier point when I wrote my first book. Instead I was doing that all by myself back then. When I started teaching the Chemistry courses in 2004, I learned quickly how expensive the textbooks were to the students and how the high costs prevented some from buying the books for my classes. Those who bought them, however, had to carry around these ridiculously gigantic books I had assigned at the time. Despite their great weight, I wasn’t totally convinced of their content and from 2007 onwards as a solution to the aforementioned problems, I spent two of my summers writing my first book, a textbook tailor designed for my students at the U of L. When students responded with positive comments on my first publication, they also often combined it with the request for another resource for the second-year course I was teaching too. Despite my intentions, I have never gotten around to do it. When I learned at SPARK that the amount of openly licensed educational resources was growing, I was very excited because OER seemed to be the way to finally get my second book done. In that sense, the 2017 SPARK symposium really “sparked” me because I understood how OER could turn such a project into a feasible task for me.

In the following months I started planning for it in terms of time and I also payed closer attention to any events on campus relating to Open Education where I could learn what other faculty and instructors were doing.  At one of these events in August 2017, I learned about the Open Access Learning Resource Fund that the Teaching Centre offers to faculty and instructors who want to adopt or create OER for their courses.

TC: Was your decision to write your second textbook dependent on the Open Access Learning Resource Fund?

Ying Zheng: No, not really. Knowing that I had permission to draw from many high-quality resources, I had made up my mind to write that second book no matter what. In the end, I received two kinds of funding – the Teaching Centre OA Learning Resource Fund and the Teaching Development Fund. I was very happy about that because it meant getting closer to my second textbook even faster. Admittedly, the encouragement I got from other colleagues and the Teaching Centre as well as the smooth application process made the whole procedure very easy for me. The required paperwork was minimal and everything was accessible online. With the support from both funds, I could realize two projects simultaneously. I was able to hire two assistants; one is helping me with the creation of a Moodle homework question bank while the other was the driving force in my textbook project. Both of the resources are meant for the same course – the Chemistry 2120 I am teaching this Spring semester. Both resources have been in use this term and I can make the necessary changes as I am teaching the course.

TC: Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating the textbook and homework resources for your Chemistry for the Life Sciences II course?

Ying Zheng: I won’t need to tell you how handy my previous publishing experience was in that regard. In addition, I was fortunate to be able to hire Keith Aiken, a mature student whose experience in science and education greatly benefited our textbook project. Keith had previously taken both my Chemistry for the Life Sciences I and II courses and enjoyed them, so that when I mentioned the job opportunity to him, he was very excited to be involved. The first step he took was to review the sources for materials that we had gotten from the University Library and the Teaching Centre. The pre-selection helped him locate resources we wanted to incorporate in the textbook. I also provided him with all my lecture notes, the homework exercises and all exam papers so that he could synthesize them with the external resources in the next step. In that process my lecture notes built the framework for the textbook which I wanted to mirror that sequence of topics. Keith did a beautiful job with the synthesis and now we have a great textbook that includes all necessary text-based information in combination with informative graphs, tables and molecular illustrations.

Keith Aiken: The writing and assembly of the textbook was far less time consuming than the research and exploration among all the resources I was able to locate.  Having to find external resources that allowed for a Creative Commons license was merely the first step.  There are a lot of resources that have such a license now.  The more I explored all the sites that caught my eye, they issue became a matter of content coverage.  Many of these sites are still new so either I had a difficult time searching for content, or there simply isn’t much there to begin with.  As well, since there was a chance this could go to print, high-quality images were important too.  At times when I wasn’t able to find one I liked and could use, I was able to make my own since I’ve taken some New Media classes and ended up really getting into playing with images on my own.  I’m continuing on that over the next while to establish a more uniformed look, at least in comparison to our first version.  When it comes to organic chemistry, a clean and precise image can make all the difference in understanding what is being taught.

With this class being meant for people who are not majoring in Chemistry or Biochemistry (like someone planning on becoming a school teacher) but are looking for some decent coverage of content, the biggest challenge was trying to find, dissect, or readjust content. We need to strike just the right balance between content coverage and depth. Most external resources are either too light or too heavy for our purposes. What we have at the U of L is really a very unique package.

A critical resource was the content that was already developed for all the lectures.  Dr. Zheng has been teaching this class for sometime now; the order, pace, and balance of content felt very proper when I took the class as a student.  I didn’t want to stray far from the established experience in the classroom.  On top of that, this class has a lab component.  This meant making sure that content went alongside a timeline as well.

TC: What tools did you use to collaborate on both the projects?

Ying Zheng: First, I had set up a Dropbox before the project started so that I could communicate with both of my assistants throughout the duration of their contracts. That way, I would get immediate insights into their progress. As it turned out, our differing schedules prevented us from face-to-face-updates, but Dropbox was an efficient way to communicate.

With regards to the Online Homework project, we are also making extended use of Moodle, where my second student assistant, Eric Hill has been building the question bank for the course. Most of the questions he’s written are also based on my lecture notes on Moodle. I added Keith to my Moodle course too, so that he stays in the loop as well.

Third, we have access to a molecular drawing software that is licensed with the university. Luckily, both of my assistants are fluent computer users, so that they didn’t need any additional training before they got started. So all funding could go into their wages.

Keith Aiken:  This semester had me in first Education practicum on the other side of town and never on campus for the second half of the semester, so uploading my work as individual chapters, at first, was useful in keeping everyone in the loop and ensuring we had backups.

As for tools used to create the text, Microsoft Word was what I used primarily.  In hindsight, I think I would have preferred Apple’s Pages instead as I’m getting more and more familiar with the software.  Word allowed for the same visual text template that Dr. Zheng used for the Life Science I textbook, so it made sense to use it from that perspective.  The problem, however, was that the size of the textbook wouldn’t allow for Word to convert it to a PDF where the Table of Contents – or anything else – could be an active link when using the document.  (You can print to PDF, but that means there is no interactivity whatsoever.)  The solution I found to this was having to use my Adobe Creative Cloud account to convert through their own PDF/Word online conversion service.

TC: How far are you with the projects at this point (January 2018)?

Ying Zheng: We are very happy with the progress. Like I said earlier, I have been using both resources already. Keith has used up all his hours and we managed to complete the textbook before the start of the Spring term 2018. The homework question bank is still a work in progress and I am hoping to involve Eric in the proofreading stage as well. As things go with the homework project, we now understand the full dimensions of it better and think that we might apply for more funding to continue with it. Despite the increasing number of questions that can now be used to reinforce student learning, we understand that we really are only at a starting point. There is still a gap that we need to address because we would like to make our questions equivalent in appearance and function to commercial solutions that are available on the textbook market.

If the piloting for the CHEM 2120 resources goes well, I also want to build a homework alternative for the Chem 1110 course. So far both courses are only offered once a year to a total of about 160 students, but we have had many more students asking for more offerings of both these courses. A potential increase in course offerings could increase the impact of our educational resources. If both courses come with free textbooks and free homework question banks, they’d become even more attractive to students, which might in turn positively impact the enrollment.

TC: Were you thinking to extend the benefits to the students beyond our campus by sharing your resource on a broader scale?

Ying Zheng: Yes, I am planning to have my textbook included in the BC Campus Open Textbook repository in the nearer future. I have absolutely no reservations to sharing my materials with others, because they are publicly funded and should therefore be shared publicly. Once I have had the time to reflect on my own experiences and my student’s perception of the new materials, I am going to make the necessary alterations. Then I can confidently share my resources with other educators. Education is expensive as is and I am trying to do my little share to make it more affordable to my students.

TC: How did your student assistants like the projects they were working on?

Ying Zheng: Both are very excited to be part of the projects. Especially Keith has mentioned to me how much he’s enjoyed to apply his skills to building a teaching resource, an experience that will definitely be a prominent part in his teaching development portfolio.

Keith Aiken:  I really liked it and would love to keep doing this for this and other classes.  I’m continuing work on this class’s textbook this summer while I attend some summer classes as I near the end of my degrees here.  As a soon-to-be high school science teacher, it was a great experience for many reasons.  The selfish reason is that I get to add some bragging rights to my CV when I enter the job world; not many people can say they helped develop materials for a university course.  It also gives me a great way to involve my future students in a cross-curricular way by creating our own textbooks, allowing for deeper learning through a different form of engagement.  It also allows for the ability to be more up-to-date with content.  There are some schools that use textbooks which are nearing 20 years old.  Schools also pay a pretty penny for textbooks.

TC: Has working with your own custom course pack changed the way you are teaching somehow?

Ying Zheng: It has allowed me to incorporate more active learning modalities to my courses. It might not be so much my books, but more the opportunity to teach in a new learning space. This term I am teaching in the LEE classroom AH 177, where active learning seems to come naturally. My class of 34 students this term is ideal for this room, where 6-7 students can sit around a round table and make collaborative use of a shared screen and plenty of boards for drawing. There is also more than enough space for me to work with a variety of learning objects, worksheets, atomic models, and so on. The set-up of the room allows the students to work together on the tasks that I give them. The space as well as the materials let me plan for really playful sessions, during which we can openly discuss matters in groups or as a whole class. What I have noticed happening is that my students are making extensive use of my course pack because whenever I look they have the right pages open which indicates to me that they follow along as the class continues. Even my TAs commented that the course pack made an easy tool for them to refresh their knowledge before teaching the tutorials to the students.

I also surveyed my students about the textbook resources in the past and from these surveys I know that most students prefer a print copy in addition to the digital access. This has to do with the layout of the book which includes margins for handwritten notes and questions at the end of each section. For me that means I will need to contact the bookstore in due time before the start of the course to guarantee that students who wish to obtain a print copy have timely access. This is a better option to the print-on-demand service the bookstore offers them.

When I asked my students about my resources in the past, they told me that besides the low cost, they also liked their size, structure and design. The reason why I opted for a compact and lightweight format goes back to my student years in China, where all our course materials were tailored to match the goals of individual courses. If you compare my textbooks to the commercial alternatives, my course pack seems to be a much better fit for my students because the content matches the topics we study in. The space in the margins and the questions at the end of the units invite the students to use the course pack as a workbook as well, which they wouldn’t want to do with commercial textbooks for the hope of selling them to other students at the end of the term. For about 20 dollars, my students get a print resource that they will have worked with from start to finish.

TC: What do you recommend people with an interest in OER but little previous exposure?

Ying Zheng: I would tell them to connect with people who have experience in that regard and also go to workshops or meetings that the university offers on the topics of Open Educational Resources and Open Access. The Teaching Centre is definitely a good starting point to get help in locating either suitable resources, meeting people and/ or applying for funding.

I am sure that every educator is doing his or her job for the best interest of the students. If you think that Open Education is the right approach for your students, then do it! Through my own experience I know that with the assistance from OER champions, access to openly licensed resources in your discipline, and funding opportunities for adoption, any OER project can become reality.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Digital Teaching and Learning at the UofL Copyright © by Dr. Ying Zheng; Keith Aiken; and Joerdis Weilandt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book