‘The Magic Pill’ – The Dept of Physics and Astronomy go Openstax

Dr. Dan Furgason; Dr. Ken Vos; and Joerdis Weilandt

In the Spring 2017, I talked to the two Faculty Members from the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Dr. Kenneth Vos and Associate Chair Dr. Daniel Furgason, who were then just about to go fully open with the adoption of Open Textbooks for their PHYS and ASTR 1000 courses.  A natural continuation of that transition, the Department now employs Open Stax textbooks in several 1000, 2000, and 3000 level courses.

Teaching Center (TC): Where does your interest in using OER for your own courses originate from?

Dan Furgason:  It comes from a number of different directions. First and foremost is the exorbitant cost of textbooks; not only what students pay for a textbook, but the value the textbook returns to the student. Any time you teach a course, and I don’t think this is peculiar to any one discipline, you have the style of the instructor and what’s laid out in front of the student in terms of a textbook. Sometimes these two correlate reasonably well. Sometimes they don’t.

Often in introductory courses, you use a kind of standardized textbook – the one adopted by your department or your discipline. As you craft lectures to emphasize what you believe is important, there are times when the textbook gets in the way. Owing to that disconnect between my intellectual ambitions for the students and the foundational material I had available, I started looking for alternatives about two years ago. But there wasn’t much with respect to OER textbooks for introductory physics at the time. There was one book for introductory astronomy,  however, that I have half-adopted this semester and I fully intend to adopt in the next term. The price for that text is $0 for the online version and about $20 for a printed version. The bottom line for me is it to say: I believe it’s unfair for students to bear the financial cost of some of these textbooks, and I am looking for a way to fix that.

TC: What will be involved in the full adoption of the astronomy textbook?

Dan Furgason:  There are weaknesses in every textbook.  The OER astronomy textbook I am looking at right now is no exception. While I think on balance it’s pretty good, it does not do a couple of things that I think should be done. This means that when I adopt it for the upcoming summer session, the onus will be on me to fill in the blanks. You could think of it as an iterative process, in which I will be creating the sections of the textbook that aren’t there yet. It’s like writing your own textbook without starting from scratch.

TC: What exactly do you feel is still missing from the astronomy book?

Dan Furgason: In the book we’re using from the Openstax collection this summer I have seen a couple of spots where from my point of view certain topics still need to be part of the discussion. These are more technical items like, for instance, introductory celestial mechanics. Obviously, I will need to craft content for them before we get there.

TC: Do you anticipate making the modifications in the astronomy book to be a challenge in terms of time and effort?

Dan Furgason: I don’t think that’s truly the issue here. If one was going the other way, in effect saying if I were to create my own open source textbook, then time would certainly be an issue just because of the magnitude of the proposition.

This might be a little bit of an overstatement, but if I had to start a course next week that used that textbook I would still be in good shape just from what I know about the book. Because there are a few important spots missing, I will simply have to embellish those, but that won’t take too much of an effort, and from what I understand about the process, those embellishments could be incorporated into later editions of the book. The other thing I like about the OpenStax astronomy book is that it comes with a slide set , which is pretty good too and it means that when I am switching books, I am not starting from a large deficit.

TC: What is the reaction of the department to your planned Physics and Astronomy adoption pilots?

Dan Furgason: I have been vocal over the last few years in saying that we have held on to the current introductory physics textbook for too long. The problem is the publishers have developed their own kind of golden handcuffs to secure you with: online materials, slides, media stuff, test banks etc. Once you have all that set up, there is a greater inertia to change.  We haven’t officially adopted yet, but I have pitched my  department on the proposition that we move to an OER textbook for introductory physics next fall.  We will need to, either by default or by conversation, decide whether we’re going to do that as textbook orders will be due soon. I must say, I took a reasonably long look at the OpenStax physics text and I think it’s quite good.

Ken Vos:  I agree with you. The department has been using the same textbook since approximately 2009 and it is time for a change. In addition, the cost of $200 to $300 for a book many of our students will be using for only one semester is too high. It should be pointed out that Openstax began in 2012 and the calculus-based first-year University Physics text was published in September, 2016, as a three-volume set. Not only is the book free, but it was peer-reviewed and comes with student and instructor resources. I’ve also looked at a few of the chapters and I like what I have seen so far. I am excited to give this textbook a try in our first-year physics courses. Currently, OpenStax has OpenStax Tutor and OpenStax’s digital courseware in development. At present, there is a strong push for OER and I believe the department will be fully supportive of this change.

TC: What do you expect your students’ reaction to the astronomy OER textbook adoption will be like?

Dan Furgason: The first reaction will be – WOW – I don’t have to spend 200 dollars on an astronomy textbook, and for that alone they may love you forever. If the book we choose betrays them somehow, and I don’t actually know how to define that just yet, the matter might be quite different though. In the end, I think it’s incumbent upon the instructor to take some time to live with a book and pass judgement on whether it will be useful to students.

Ken Vos:  That’s why I think instructors sometimes have a hard time picking out good books. Because when we look at a book, we look at it from the other side of the fence. We are looking for an awesome reference book that will supplement the lectures instead of a great instructional tool for the students. The students are looking for something that will help them on the assignments and examinations. Also, some of the students want a text that provides a second opinion on the material presented by the instructor.

TC: Have you considered involving your students in the process of modifying your new textbooks in some way?

Dan Furgason: In a back-handed way I have been dabbling in that, but I’ve not taken a direct approach to it yet. It’s a good suggestion to ‘harness the students’ to help fulfill our own ambitions. I can definitely see the potential in our students contributing material to a class while at the same time being a student in that class. For the instructor that would clearly mean an oversight role to determine, as the material flows in, which bits will teach which specific principles. I suppose we could also include graduate students in the process as well. Their learning experience is still fresh and they are generationally and culturally so to speak closer to undergraduate students than instructors. Melding their perspective to our understanding of what’s important in terms of subtleties, historical context, etc. might very well provide students a more effective learning experience. It could inject a ‘connecting-the-dots’ kind of experience, which has greater resonance for students.

TC: What recommendations would you give an educator who’s had little exposure to OER, but wanted to learn more?

Ken Vos:  What I see as one of the things that slows down people from picking up OERs is the time and effort one needs to actually track down the resources and the material. With a standard publisher’s textbook, you just go to a publisher website and look at the courses and the material available. They have got reviews there, and there are reviews on Google as well. You can select a book and view the sample copies, and it’s very quick and easy; whereas with the OER – it’s sort of scattered all over the net and difficult to find. Also, most of the material is still very new such as the Physics textbook which was published last September. So, what I’d recommend is to talk with the Teaching Centre first. I would also start slow, maybe adopt a solid textbook first and then over time expand to other resources. There are so many resources in different formats out there, such as youtube clips of demonstrations or lectures like the reputed Feynman lectures, but it does take time to comb the internet to find these resources.

TC: Do you see a difference between teaching with an OER and the teaching with a traditional textbook?

Dan Furgason: As long as you’re satisfied that a book meets your purpose and you recognize its weaknesses, I don’t think there’s any difference with respect to the form it comes in. Perhaps the more important question to be asked instead is why students need us at all. There are so many great resources, like MOOCS or video lectures out there. That’s the piece of the puzzle that seems the most elusive – how do you take a wide range of students, with a wide range of abilities and ambitions, and give them an intellectual experience, so that they learn, they conquer and they’re satisfied? Rarely does reading a textbook accomplish that for a student.

We had a former VP academic who in my opinion had the answer to that question when he said, “we have to never forget that education is fundamentally a social experience.” Not to exclude the importance of the quality of a textbook completely, but what we are truly talking about here is the craftsmanship of the person who teaches the course, because ultimately the disparities between one book or the other get lost and/or emphasized in the context of the person who uses it. Not to sound too egocentric, but I consider myself the one who brings value to a course. If I don’t do my job then the student is left to read the textbook.  If I let up on my students by not giving them the experience and preparation they’re going to need for the next course coming down the line, then that’s on me – it’s not on them. How crucial the role of a textbook is in all of that is an interesting question; it certainly makes a margin, but in most cases, it’s the instructor who makes the crucial difference.

Ken Vos:  You are absolutely right. The magic pill here is people, especially in the sciences due to their experimental nature. You need the labs, you need that hands-on experience and you need to talk to the instructoris and your classmates, because that’s where you fix the misunderstandings and misconceptions that you might have about the material.

Dan Furgason: To come full circle then, there is what I would call the craftsmanship of instructors. In its essence, it means using our skills and professionalism to create an educational environment. That environment is both social and intellectual, and, has as its purpose the intellectual transformation our students. What do you remember most about your learning experience? For me the most vivid memories are the stories my instructors used that brought things into sharp focus for me. Sometimes those stories had little direct connection to the subject at hand, but simply served to hold my attention just a bit longer, or rivet a principle into my memory. Those stories often crystalized things for me. The textbook was important but the social experience was the difference. How much more influential might a textbook be if it were crafted as a natural place for those stories?


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Digital Teaching and Learning at the UofL Copyright © by Dr. Dan Furgason; Dr. Ken Vos; and Joerdis Weilandt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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