Open Educational Resources in Developmental Mathematics

Tired of your students paying over $100 for a textbook?  Frustrated by the cost of getting access to the online homework system that goes with the book?  It’s no news that “OER” is a general movement in colleges & universities.  At some institutions, including mine, there is a direct push for faculty to consider Open Educational Resources (OER) in an effort to save students money.

One concern with OER is that the materials available are almost always (perhaps always) designed for traditional courses, so that OER is a force opposing change in our curriculum.  For example, the “Open Stax” information (https://openstax.org/) information includes this:

“All textbooks meet standard scope and sequence requirements, making them seamlessly adaptable into existing courses.”  [in “About Our Textbooks”]

I’ve not seen any OER materials for Mathematical Literacy, nor for a modern pre-calculus course.  It is easy to understand why OER is traditional in orientation … the resources are judged by how many uses are tracked, and that can be done most easily by fitting materials to old courses.  What might not be as easily seen is the fact that OER is missing an element in the publishing business — the developmental editor, where ‘developmental’ refers to the creation of new textbooks for changing or new markets.  People say that OER is driven by users (faculty); that is not entirely true … I think OER is more driven by carrying on tradition in the name of saving students some money.

Of course, I know that some individual authors deliberately go someplace new.  For example,   see Schremmer’s work at http://www.freemathtexts.org/ where you’ll find nothing traditional.  The problem with this approach is that the materials … as interesting and high quality as they might be … remain on the fringes of the profession.  Perhaps the long-term benefit of these textbooks from the underground is more in the maturation of the profession, more than the particular materials themselves.

Within my college, “OER” even includes generic resources like the Khan Academy and Purple Math.  This inclusion is a bit humorous … math teachers have a strong tradition of connecting their students to such resources, but it has little to do with textbooks.  These free resources also represent a force which encourages us to maintain a traditional curriculum.

If our profession were content with the status quo, then there are few reasons to avoid using OER materials — you might get a traditional ‘book’ complete with online homework system for a lot less than a typical commercial textbook at full-retail price.  Faculty can even modify some of the material to represent their own well-founded (and not well-founded) views … like “never mention PEMDAS, because it’s an awful approach to mathematics”.

Almost everybody teaching developmental mathematics as part of their full-time load has been in contact with representatives of the main commercial publishers.  The publishers are sophisticated, in general, and know that they need to “do something” to keep our business in the face of the OER push, not to mention the presence of Amazon in the used-book market.  I’ve had conversations with field reps & editors from the big 3 (Pearson, McGraw Hill, Cengage); you can get a deal from the companies, though the discount rate appears to be inversely proportional to the company’s current market share.

With these discount deals, you can get a commercial textbook (as an e-book) with the online homework system for $50 to $80 per student.  The question might be:

Is the small savings ($10 to $40 less for OER with homework, compared to commercial book) a significant factor for students?

I think that the difference in cost between OER and commercial materials is relatively small now, and will tend to stay small.

So, I return to a prior statement, paraphrased:

OER materials tend to perpetuate the traditional math curriculum in colleges.

If you find OER materials that you are happy with, you might be able to save your current students some money (depending on how well your department can negotiate with publishers).  However, using OER will generally take you out of the process of basic improvements to your curriculum.  In my view, we should avoid using OER in both developmental mathematics and college mathematics so that we can maintain our focus on improving the curriculum first.

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4 Comments

  • By schremmer, July 18, 2016 @ 4:42 pm

    Re.

    The problem with this approach is that the materials … as interesting and high quality as they might be … remain on the fringes of the profession.

    The real problem is that, in the many years that I have worked on the stuff and made it available for free use, for free modifications, for discussion, even just for looking at, for whatever, the profession has had ZERO interest—including in my own department.

    Re.

    With these discount deals, you can get a commercial textbook (as an e-book) with the online homework system for $50 to $80 per student.

    A printed copy, from Lulu.com, of Reasonable Basic Algebra is $8.40 and of Reasonable Algebraic Functions, $9.57. (Plus about $3.50 shipping.) Note, by the way that for both titles all the necessary ancillaries can also be downloaded for free use, for free modifications, for discussion, even just for looking at, for whatever.

    Re.

    However, using OER will generally take you out of the process of basic improvements to your curriculum.

    The question here is whether the latter is at all possible? I am willing to argue NOT. In any case, this kind of “discussion” has been going on for the past forty years with no discernable result.

    Conclusion? The only problem is that the profession can’t be bothered. But it’s a fatal one.

  • By Bruce Yoshiwara, July 18, 2016 @ 5:49 pm

    The American Institute of Mathematics http://auis.edu.krd/library-index/aim-american-institute-mathematics-open-textbook-initiative is promoting the improvement of OER. Its editorial board is compiling lists of acceptable math texts that are freely available, but AIM is also encouraging open SOURCE materials. That is, they want more than a PDF of a book, they want the source material, often TeX documents, so that a user can make small or large changes to the textbook and have students use the improved version.

    Rob Beezer’s Mathbook XML project http://mathbook.pugetsound.edu/ is a promising tool for developing open source textbooks: If you author in MBX, you can then essentially push a button and you get an html version of the book that is designed for reading on a computer screen or mobile device (built-in adjustments for small screens), with relevant hyperlinks and attention to accessibility issues. Or with a different button, you can produce a commercial quality pdf (and LaTeX) version of the book. The early adopters of MBX are already incorporating the open source Sage computer algebra system and/or the open source WebWorK homework system.

    I agree that existing OER dev math materials are not (yet) of high quality. But if competent authors begin to work on open source textbooks, there is hope.

  • By schremmer, July 20, 2016 @ 11:47 pm

    @Yoshiwara I just looked at A Modeling Approach to Calculus by D. Brian Walton. Exactly how do this differ from any paper version?

    -“Animation” is one of many ways to take advantage of the web (For one example of “animation”, see my own extremely clumsy attempt at )

    -Another advantage of the web is indeed the ease of cross-reference. (For one example of cross-referenced pdf see my own work in progress at )

    I didn’t see Walton doing either.

    But the “format” is far from being all. In fact, it is powerless unless the following (at least) is taken into consideration:

    -The structuring of the contents? (See )

    -The reading ability of the students? (As distinguished from their thinking ability.)

    -The fact that, for adults, learning involves unlearning. (See )

    Finally, and to return to the point I made earlier, “open source” is great but only with a profession that gives a damn.

  • By schremmer, July 20, 2016 @ 11:58 pm

    Sorry about the “See “: I am not used to this style of html. So, just go to the site given by Rotman and go to:

    For the animation, Animation/Cubic/Local Graph.

    For the cross reference: In Progress/Algebraic Functions,

    For Structuring of the contents: Home/Psychology/Hestenes,

    For adult having to “unlearn”: Home/Psychology/ Atherton,

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