Savor the Emotions

smell the flowersPaul Silvia’s article Knowledge Emotions may hold some clues for successfully integrating feature films into instruction, something that intrigues and fascinates me. I have a hunch that providing the class with a common emotional experience and a set of scenarios to frame learning later in the course is an effective way to foster deep learning, leading to knowledge transfer, but I do not have much guidance for designing lesson plans around multimedia instruction.

The article explains that interest is an intrinsic motivation for learning.  In other words, the class will want to watch an interesting movie for the pleasure derived from it rather than for a grade.  Interest will motivate exploration, which disposes the class toward reflection and deep engagement.  Adding a wrap-up or debriefing allows for this reflection and is also a change-up activity, as suggested in this week’s reading by Middendorf and Kalish.

Movies can be highly effective to motivate or facilitate learning when they induce a state of awe, which is something not typically provoked by traditional lecture. The movie sound track can be part of the awe-inspiring experience that opens one to further learning.  I have wanted to open the first day of class with the theme of 2001.

In The Slow Professor, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber speak to the “emotional” aspect of learning as they advocate for time for reflection, deliberation, and open-ended inquiry in pedagogical practices, for “cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience.”  [Berg 2016] Enjoying a movie together is a splendid way for a learning community to build pauses for reflection into its learning environment.

Not only are emotions key to disposing one toward learning; they tend to feel good, and thus may contribute to well-being in general.  This weekend, as I endured an incredibly painful medical condition no doubt brought on in part by the stress of an academic job, I spent an hour watching a satirical current events show with my daughter.  Laughing with Katherine made me conscious that the physical and psychological grip of the pain was weakened slightly during that hour.

With this week’s readings, I have a few more ideas about using movies and other multimedia content for instruction. While I’m exploring them, I’ll be sure to take the time to savor the enjoyment of the movies themselves and my satisfaction in creating a rich and pleasant learning environment.

For more information:

Kubrick, S., & Clarke, A. C. (2001). 2001:  A space odyssey. EUA, Reino Unido: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Berg, M., & Seeber, B. K. (2016). The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy. Toronto, [Ontario];Buffalo, [New York];London, [England]: University of Toronto Press.

Fork ABET

Is it time to kick ABET to the curb?

ABET’s proposed dilution of student outcome criteria, which will effectively reduce the breadth of engineering education, may be the death knell of ABET.

Various stakeholders are invested in decades of evolution in engineering education.   By all accounts, communication skills, teamwork skills, and an understanding of the engineering profession’s place in a larger society are important and necessary for engineering practitioners and sought by employers.  Here are some excerpts from several engineering schools’ mission or vision statements that describe their respective commitments to broad engineering education:

“Provide students with a broad and exceptional education that prepares them to excel in their professions and to become creative leaders and mentors in an increasingly complex world . . .”

Cornell University College of Engineering Mission Statement

“. . . the College nurtures the intellectual, professional, and personal development of its students. The College strives to prepare them for entry into the engineering profession, related fields and graduate programs, and for continuing development as highly competent professionals and responsible members of society.  A Bucknell engineering education is distinguished by . . . an emphasis on learning within a liberal arts university environment.”

“We believe it is essential to educate engineers who possess not only deep technical excellence, but the creativity, cultural awareness and entrepreneurial skills that come from exposure to the liberal arts, business, medicine and other disciplines that are an integral part of the Stanford experience.”

“WPI educates talented men and women in engineering, science, management, and humanities in preparation for careers of professional practice, civic contribution, and leadership, facilitated by active lifelong learning.”

“The WPI curriculum . . . has remained true to its original mission of fusing academic inquiry with social needs, of blending abstraction with immediacy, of linking new knowledge to applications.”

“We create a collaborative environment that embraces interdisciplinary thought, integrated entrepreneurship, cultural awareness, and social responsibility, and advances the translation of ideas into practical innovations.

“Provide engineering graduates who, through their excellent technical and leadership skills, cultural awareness, and social responsibility, will solve the challenges of the 21st century.”

Institutions that are committed to “nurturing” the development of its engineering students across multiple dimensions may find in ABET criteria a mismatch for their aims.  Engineering schools will not be alone in detecting a mismatch.  ABET’s own member societies claim to be deeply committed to the values that the new accreditation criteria will dilute.  For example, these are the published core values of ASME, which is the lead ABET member society for three disciplines:

  • Embrace integrity and ethical conduct
  • Embrace diversity and respect the dignity and culture of all people
  • Nurture and treasure the environment and our natural and man-made resources
  • Facilitate the development, dissemination and application of engineering knowledge
  • Promote the benefits of continuing education and of engineering education
  • Respect and document engineering history while continually embracing change
  • Promote the technical and societal contribution of engineers

When ABET’s member societies and the schools that seek accreditation become disenchanted with ABET’s move away from their core values and missions, they may collectively decide that ABET has outlived its usefulness. The obvious solution is to found a new accreditation body.  The pursuit of additional accreditation credentials will not void existing ABET accreditations. There is nothing to lose except the time and effort required, and this will be spent anyway in attempts to convince decision makers in ABET to retain language that is on the chopping block.

Eventually, the new body’s accreditation credential may become the preference of state engineering registration boards.  This may not be so far-fetched;  in Maryland, where ABET is headquartered, the statute governing professional engineering registration does not mention “ABET” or accreditation at all.  An engineer applying for registration must have graduated from a program “that the Board approves,” or alternatively, “that the Board has not approved,” with additional years of experience.  Without changing the law, a new accreditation can be adopted by the fact of the Board’s approval.  With or without an alternate accreditation credential, there is nothing in Maryland law barring the Board for Professional Engineers from ceasing to “approve” ABET-accredited programs that relax their liberal education components in accordance with the new criteria.

History is full of examples of mainstream institutions that ran their course, became outmoded, and were deposed into obsolescence:  bloodletting, primogeniture, segregation.  Let’s not turn back the clock on decades of evolution in the systems that must prepare graduate engineers for “engineering the solutions to the grand challenges of the 21st century.*”

*Purdue University College of Engineering Overview Statement

fork, in the engineering sense, means to create something new from something that already exists

Image credit: barbeque fork by Dave Carroll

Monica Mallini is a registered professional engineer in Maryland.

Reflections of Learning

Alfie Kohn makes the decades-old case against grades (and against tests, in his referenced posts) come alive by speaking to the very issues that trouble me and make me long for a different job.

I have spent years in pursuit of perfection in my grading, in designing tests that are more foolproof against cheating, and in crafting the perfect rubrics, the ones that make submissions easy for me to grade and put the blame on the student if they don’t like their grades.  Strangely, the ideal that drives this frenzy of constant activity is a quest for fairness and consistency.  I don’t like arbitrary assessments.  Being subjected to someone’s whim always made me angry, and I’m not going to do that to students.   So the rubric attempts to mute my opinion in the grading process and base the grades on a set of easily quantifiable and justifiable rules.   The rubric is an attempt to enforce consistency, but it cannot make grading fair.  The rubric is merely a proxy for whatever outcome is supposed to be assessed, much like grades are a proxy for the supposed degree of success or failure of students who took the course.  Grading with rubrics teaches students to follow rules.

The problem here is that following rules is only one thing that future engineers need to learn.  It’s a big, important thing, but it’s not the only thing.  Sometimes, it’s better not to follow rules.  At times, making up new rules is the way forward.  Maybe sentences need to run on from time to time, do you get my point?  The rubric is not a good way to measure creativity, insight, or persistence, and why would we want to measure those things anyway?  A measurement is something that confines.  I want my future engineers to make mistakes and let their own experience, not my measurements, guide them.  The assessment tries so hard to be fair and consistent that it is necessarily arbitrary because it is blind to the important things.

As Kohn points out, students who value grades highly will tend to make safe choices.  My experience bears this out.  Furthermore, some of the best design work comes from “B” students (which is why B students rock!)  As part of the design assignment, I asked the students to write a reflection piece about why they chose that particular design and what they learned from it, and to include their review of the design software and recommendations for other users.  The “B” students often chose ambitious design objectives, and evidence of the quality of their learning is captured in the reflection writing.

“I chose to make a guitar because I really want to learn to play the guitar. I made the base of the guitar, starting out with 7 points and then with the spline tool I connected the points. The spline tool is what [creates] the round edges of the guitar.  After that, I mirrored the spline line about the centerline to make the guitar symmetrical.  Finally, I extruded the sketch.  To make the base hollow, I used the shell tool. I also used the shell tool to make the guitar three millimeters thick.  After I finished the base of the guitar I added the accessories on top. First, I made the hole by sketching a circle and extruding the opposite way. After that I added the part that holds the strings and the squiggly design on top with the spline tool. Lastly, I made the second part with the line and extrusion tool.”

  • – Mariam

Oh my gosh!  The students don’t need me to grade them; they can express the quality of their learning most eloquently with their own voices.

“While making this design, I learned a lot about how to dimension because I had to make the [guitar] symmetrical.  I also learned how to use most of the features in Creo, thus I can call myself a professional at using Creo.”

The type -“A” students tended not to submit the reflection piece. I suspect that they thought that they had satisfied the aim of the assignment with the technical drawing.  Maybe they considered the “extras” unimportant or something that I added so that students who could not master the software would be able to get some points for the assignment.

The reflection writing expressed the students’ challenges and struggles, and their gratification with a job well done.  I recall that the best learning experience I ever had was not graded.  When I told my English teacher why I believed that Lewis Carroll’s “Butcher” character in The Hunting of the Snark was a self-portrait of the author, he did not reward me with a grade at that moment.  The reward was my teacher’s admiration of my profound insight, and my belief that I figured out something that nobody has ever known before, except maybe Lewis Carroll.

If I let students assess themselves, then perhaps the grading outcomes would stop being upside-down, and hardworking, ambitious “B” students would not be relegated to second place.

Alfie Kohn has convinced me of the need to abandon traditional grading.  I have not yet assigned any grades in my digital class this semester.  Maybe it’s not too late to change this crazy game now, and shift my attention to encouraging and supporting actual learning.

More hugs please

teddy bear, origin: Germany, 1954
My dual roles of teacher and learner help me be mindful that I am not just tasked with fostering an engaging, meaningful, significant, life-changing, experiential learning community for my students; I am a member of the learning community in my own right, accorded by my humanity.*

Intense demands of the job that force me–voluntarily–to put the priorities of the institution, department, and class ahead of my own have probably left an impression that I am always “on,” and that my sole purpose is to serve the other learners.  Now that I think about it, the idea of professor as server or servant seems familiar.  A few years ago, before I melded advising and other engagement activities into my daily work, my job was mostly just teaching, a priority that was made very clear in my first round of contract renewal.  It occurred to me at the time that a common student expectation was that I was there to “serve” up good grades to students (“and make it snappy!”), much like the server who dispensed our lunch at the fast food restaurant across the street.

As my teaching style evolved and I learned how to make the learning experience more purposeful and personal, my job also expanded to include mentoring and advising, leading field trips, working with clubs, and other forms of interaction with students outside of class.  If “student engagement” can be defined as school-related activities that students undertake other than attending class, then I would characterize my job expansion as increasing my level of “faculty engagement,” my participation in school-related activities outside of class.  The benefits of this evolution include an increase in the quantity of my interaction with students (my students and students in general), which improves the quality of interactions in and out of the classroom.   As our interactions improve, the students and I learn more from one another, thus the learning communities are strengthened by the broadening of my job, or at least its broadening in my mind.

Perhaps democratization of learning is one mechanism by which active learning is effective.   To be mindful in my thinking about teaching and learning, as suggested by Ellen Langer in this week’s reading (Mindful Learning), I should say that democratization  could be a mechanism of active learning, then let my imagination figure out how to make it so.  Being an active learner myself could be a way to model learning for students.

It seems ironic to me that the same efforts that have improved the quality of my learning communities seem to have re-cast me in the role of servant.  I wonder sometimes why I am doing this.  Will I ever get enough sleep?  Is there an easier way to do a good job for myself and my students?  What could the future hold, instead of a continuum of endless demand for my labor?  The thought that troubles me is that I am helping students prepare for a good future in our mutual chosen field, but my own future prospects are bleak if I wish for an occasional night of sleep to call my own.

*as suggested by Michael Wesch in Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance

Free Hugs: Today Only

After watching Dr. Michael Wesch’s video (again), it was obvious that I need to draw my inspiration from the usual source, my students.  So tonight in class, I am showing the video and providing this response prompt:

 

QUESTION 1

Please give me one adjective to describe how you feel about the near future, a time and place of:

•Ubiquitous computing
•Ubiquitous communication
•Ubiquitous information
•At unlimited speed
•About everything
•Everywhere
•All the time
•From anywhere
•On all kinds of devices

Answers:

optimistic, excited, excited, scared, uneasy, uncertain, exciting, advantageous, comfortable, confused

QUESTION 2

Please tell me, in one sentence, how your voice will be heard in this “conversation” when it is ridiculously easy to:

•Connect
•Organize
•Share
•Collect
•Collaborate
•Publish
•Inform
•Persuade

Answers:

“I will be instantly able to contact anyone who would be able to help me with whatever problem I might have.”

“It will start small but when I say the right thing in the right way at the right time it will radiate.”

“My voice will be heard through social media outlets that connect me to others with similar and different view points to open a conversation that will hopefully lead to a solution.”

“My voice will be heard only through electronic devices; there will barely be any real-life conversations (feeling emotions would be probably difficult).”

“I must set the stage to be heard, use the tools provided to stand out.”

“My voice will be heard through writing.”

“To make my voice to be heard, I will collaborate.”

“By using new technology and social media.”

“I don’t have an answer to this question but I am impressed with how hard it’s getting me thinking about it. ”

“I can converse with anyone at anytime through social media or in person.”

“My voice will be heard in this conversation  is share.”

“It depends on the meaning and the way I deliver my message.”

“It will be heard when I have something to add or when I am confused.”

QUESTION 3

In one paragraph, please tell me why you are here in programming class, and how this learning will help you:

•Find meaning
•Think critically
•Find your identity
•Go beyond critical thinking

“I am here to learn how to discover and develop skill I may not know I have. If I learn how to touch people’s lives through the medium of tech and the Internet in a more effective way than I currently know how I can change a lot. As seen in the video it only takes one idea one clear thought presented in a new way to start a movement. So I suppose I’m here to learn how to better communicate through technology. ”

“Thinking critically is a skill that is not only important it is mandatory in the world we live in today. With the freedom of information and the means to share and collaborate with others it is quite important for me to be able to sift through the non sense or the “commercials” and find what is truly relevant to me at this time. I believe i know who i am and i know what i want to do with my life, but perhaps this class will be a great reinforcement in the path that i have chosen. I know that this class will help me go beyond critical thinking by pushing me to think not just outside the box but redrawing the box all together.”

“. . . being closer to 30 than not, I have a different view of education than when I tried college the first time at 18. The idea of higher education is far more important to me than it once was. Going through the motions like I did when I was 18 and younger seems like a crime to me now. Every class I take in college is a new opportunity to experience new things. But I’m also realistic. Finding meaning and Identity is completely subjective. I could have found meaning as retail employee. I’m not looking for any of those things at a university and I can’t help but feel like challenging students to do so could be unnecessary pressure. And I’m not sure how one goes beyond critical thinking. Is having a global view the same thing?”

Thank you, ENEE 140 class!

Obviously, my words here are inspired by and borrowed from the ideas presented in Dr. Wesch’s video, which you can find on YouTube here:

TEDxKC – Michael Wesch – From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-Able

We are the spatula

Humans fear the unknown.

Recently, I invited a colleague, who is also a graduate student, to an informal professional society dinner gathering for women.  She confessed that she was anxious because she did not know what to expect.  My colleague explained that as an introvert, she is uneasy in social situations.  A short time into the event, she realized that the whole thing was not as scary as she had imagined, and she relaxed and had an enjoyable evening.

Communication in formal and informal settings is what propels the work of engineers.  At that same dinner meeting, women engineers discussed their resistance to joining management because they prefer “technical” work.  While an affinity for the “technical” is common to many engineers, “technical” engineering work certainly does not preclude interaction with other humans.  In every step of engineering design and problem solving, communication is a key component.  Nothing is done in isolation.  Increasingly, teams are multidisciplinary from the earliest stage of the project.  Young engineers must learn to talk to people with different backgrounds and interests.

In my first semester at Montgomery College, there was an opportunity for my class to host a distinguished lecture.  I showed the class how to plan a reception, and I explained that their duty as hosts was to “mingle” with guests before the lecture.

“You mean we have to talk to people that we don’t know?”

Uh huh.  Talk to them, offer them a glass of punch, find out about their interests that attracted them to the lecture, and introduce them to someone else.  Be the “spatula” and “scrape the bowl.” *

I have had some anxious moments in my past.  I registered for the fundamentals of engineering exam three times before I finally had the nerve to take the exam, only to find that my fears of being unprepared were unfounded.  Fear is paralyzing when it keeps us from our goals.

With students, fear of the unknown inhibits them from seeking advising.

This semester, I have pushed each of my students in class to make an advising appointment; as a result, I advised a number of students who had never seen a counselor or an advisor.  The majority of novice advisees asked me what happens in an advising session.  They came in wondering what I was going to do to them, and they left surprised that being advised is not painful or even unpleasant.  It’s simply a matter of receiving advice, as well as active assistance (in the form of referrals or overrides) to promote the student’s academic success.  I have seen the results of NOT being advised, and that can sometimes be painful:  taking the wrong class, losing financial aid, missed deadlines.  Advising is certainly a key to student success, but there is more that I can do for students.

The most important work that I do for students is the stuff that I do not get paid for.

It doesn’t matter much what I teach, as long as it includes communication skills, because the exact content of an engineering education is somewhat arbitrary.  What matters is the things that students will remember, that will help them overcome their fears and engage (as in perform acts of student engagement).  Taking them to lunch after the Kindergarten event; taking students to engineering banquets , conferences, and IEEE meetings; stopping to talk to someone when I am on the way out the door at the end of a long day; creating special awards to recognize students publicly for achievement when they do not expect it; taking my class to breakfast; mentoring clubs; leading out of town field trips; movie nights.  These are the things that really make a difference to the students and to me.  They are the things that call me to the professoriate.

*Spatula analogy for networking was a take-away from the VCCS New Horizons Conference in Roanoke, April 2011.  No published references.

What if we make them cry?

Pass the tissues . . .I maintain an Engineering Advising Office, of which I am currently the sole tenant, and I have deliberately maintained a visible presence there for two years, while upgrading the appearance of the room to be colorful and inviting. All of this to tempt students to seek advising, so as to improve their success. As an advisor, I need supplies in the room. I have glossy paper to print colorful flyers for the large bulletin board outside the door. I have a wooden candy bowl, always stocked with goodies for hungry students (or the Dean). I have small bags of organic animal crackers from Wegmans, and small bottles of Wegmans water, because students sometimes need comfort. They may come in having forgotten to eat and feel woozy. There are bright school folders, which I salvaged, in case I need to send a prospective student away with information tucked neatly inside with my business card. I have business cards! Hundreds of them, as I increasingly give advisees my card and ask them to email me if I can help.

The one supply that I am refused is facial tissues, although the room came with them. When the box ran out, I requested another.

“We don’t supply tissues.”

Well, what if we make them cry? It has happened. During movie nights, the poignancy of the heroes’ and heroines’ dilemmas can move the entire class to tears. I just pass the box of tissues.

If you have movie nights, tell everyone to bring their hanky.

Back to the future with self-service engineering education

It occurred to me the other day that the next evolution of education may be a return to self-service education. Early engineers and scientists, even those who were fortunate to have access to formal education, had to fill the gaps with self-study. Their biggest impediment was lack of access to learning resources. Today, we have open access resources and MOOCs readily available to most learners. The only thing missing in a self-serve education is a curriculum.   Perhaps this is not an impediment.  It seems that only the first two years of the engineering curriculum are universally prescribed; the advanced engineering course requirements vary so much from one institution to the next, even within the same engineering discipline, that the exact selection of courses is somewhat arbitrary.

Every engineering school has its own curriculum, generally a mix of core or general education, a science and math foundation, and a set of program requirements, about a year-and-a-half of upper-level engineering courses.  Each graduate is considered an engineer, although the exact mix of courses is left to the institution.  The accreditation organization for engineering programs worldwide, ABET, prescribes the standards very broadly.  The accreditation criteria are silent on the exact mix of required upper-level courses, while specifying that measurable student outcomes should address certain abilities, for example:

  • application of math and science
  • data analysis and experiment design
  • system design to meet desired objective
  • multidisciplinary teamwork
  • solving applied science problems
  • ethical responsibility
  • communication
  • understanding of global and societal context

ABET criteria cover evaluation of student performance, competent faculty, facilities, and institutional support.  With the advent of open resources, personal computing, and even labs-in-a-box, such as Virginia Tech’s “ANDY” board, designed to conduct take-home electric circuit experiments and projects at home, “facilities” and “institutional support” may take a different form than previously defined.  Can such resources be used to deliver the same quality of engineering education?  As ABET criteria call for student assessment, program evaluation, and continuous improvement, the question is potentially answerable for accredited programs.

Perhaps community colleges will be important in a transition to self-service learning.  Community colleges are well-equipped to provide the first two years of engineering curricula, including the broad core, science and math foundation, and introductory engineering courses. Community colleges are distributed throughout each state, making them accessible to the population. An accredited associate degree program could be (and should be!) universally transferable to a baccalaureate degree.  The choice of upper-level courses sees such variation between schools that it is conceivable that a student could self-select courses without any loss of rigor.  The resulting credential may be a general engineering degree, with certificates reflecting specialties that the student has earned.

In most states, professional engineering registration is not specific to a discipline; there is just one “PE” license, although the registrant must pass an exam in a specific engineering discipline. If a PE license is not tied to a discipline, the engineering degree could be general as well. The engineer could demonstrate competence in a discipline by passing that discipline’s principles and practice of engineering exam. Likewise, a graduate could be credentialed with certificates earned through a combination of coursework and experience.

Perhaps the master’s degree will be of importance for engineer’s advanced credentialing. A single engineering discipline is really too broad to be a meaningful label on its own. Mechanical engineering graduates could certify in engineering mechanics, materials science, or the thermal sciences, to name a few. Electrical engineering encompasses electronics (which itself is very broad), power, information science, communications, and many others. How about nanotechnology? Is this electrical? mechanical? chemical? materials? Such inherently multidisciplinary fields could be accommodated easily through certificates. In my case, I have bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and electrical engineering and a master’s degree in electrical engineering, with research in electric power and signal processing. A more focused credential for me would be a bachelor’s degree in engineering with a certificate in power (which is “electrical” and “mechanical”), followed by a master’s degree.

This may not be a new idea. My thinking was influenced by a banquet address given by Dr. William Kelly, P.E., Director of External Affairs for the American Society for Engineering Education. Dr. Kelly said that engineering licensure is not a path for all engineers, for a variety of reasons, and that certifications are becoming more numerous and important as credentials in many fields of endeavor.  I was so struck at the prospect of community colleges taking on an increased role in engineering credentialing that I wrote an article about Dr. Kelly’s talk, and you can see it here.

To gain practical problem-solving skills in the discipline, an internship can be an important component of engineering education.  Institutional support can take the form of matching students with internships, perhaps on a rotating basis, and integrating work experience with capstone courses.  With the flexibility of self-paced courses and freedom from constraints of the semester system, the program could potentially be completed in a shorter time, or a longer time, depending on the student’s needs.

For more information, look here:

ABET Accreditation Criteria for Engineering Programs

VT “ANDY” Board User Manual and Test Procedure

Certifications are the New Coin of the Realm (page 7)

Open access course materials

There is a movement toward open access course materials, and Montgomery College is on board.  Makes sense because community college is all about accessible education.  We have lower tuition than the universities that our students aspire to.  Our three campuses are located in the community where our students live.  We are a partially supported by the state, but more fundamentally, we are a county school.  In 1946, Montgomery County, Maryland realized a vision to open a college for the benefit of its citizens and society, and 70 years later, here we are, still making education accessible to the good citizens of Montgomery County, and surrounding counties, including those who come here from all over the globe just to attend our college.

The state mandates that we consider cost to the student when selecting textbooks.  Faculty are not required to select the least expensive option, but we are asked to default to choices that are less financially burdensome for students. unless a different choice has a clear value.

A state mandate to consider impact on the student is liberating because it gives me permission to consider alternatives.  The law does not address open access resources.  However, use of open access materials follows the spirit of the law.  Moreover, it allows the instructor a wonderful opportunity—even an excuse—to customize the learning experience and to incorporate content that supports active learning.

My experience with open access is the use of the OpenStax College Physics textbook for my non-calculus based physics class. The OpenStax book was adopted, or maybe it was just suggested, before I came to the course, and it made perfect sense to use a “free” textbook that is equivalent to a book that costs $200. I built my course with the open access textbook.  I thought that open access texts were similar to conventional textbooks in every respect except being free to the user.  But there is more to open access than free textbooks.

When I was researching open access journals, I discovered an open access repository at University of Nebraska – Lincoln (UNL) that is rich with a variety of materials, some of which I can use immediately as I put together classes for next semester.  Many or most of these materials were written by UNL faculty, and they reside at the UNL Digital Commons, free for public consumption.  This is only one repository at one university.  Imagine the vast resources collectively at one’s disposal in all the repositories worldwide!

The Digital Commons website at UNL has a real-time view of user activity in the form of a world map with pins showing users online now, and a dynamic display of content being downloaded.  It’s fascinating to see all the knowledge being disseminated freely:  native American burial mounds, introduction to quantum physics, pedagogy, wildlife management, and my selection, “Using Spreadsheets to Teach Problem Solving in a First Year Class.”  Voila!  The two volumes are a little dated (1993), but still quite useful.  Although the tools have changed, problem-solving is the same as it has always been.  A UNL faculty member has put great thought into developing spreadsheets as a teaching tool for engineers, and I can borrow his methods, concepts, and exercises and merge them into my course, with many other materials from many sources, including those that I develop.

Yes, we all develop our own course materials.  Seeing an open access repository in action leads me to know that as I create my own course materials, I should have a plan for disseminating them into the community.

Like recycling, it works better when we all do it.

For more information, try these:

SB 183: College Textbook Competititon and Affordability Act of 2009

Open Source Testimonial (video)

The Open Access Textbooks Project

Digital Commons at University of Nebraska – Lincoln

Open Doar – The Directory of Open Access Repositories