A New Open Ed Experiment

I have been teaching Introduction to Media and Cultural Studies (CM2770) for a long time and for a long time, I’ve been concerned about text book prices. This introductory course is standard at universities all over the world and so represents a lucrative market for text book publishers. The text books from different publishers all contain pretty much the same information, just presented with different emphases. The basic content changes pretty gradually although because the books are focused on media, the specific examples change pretty rapidly. Because of this, publishers update these text books every 18 months or so. This rapid development of new editions makes it challenging for students to use used copies of the books because page numbers and examples are different although the basic content remains largely the same from edition to edition. New versions of the books range in price from $95ish (the text I use) to $160ish.

The text books are also packed full of content so that it’s difficult (impossible?) to “cover” it all. I always end up using only about half the chapters so for the last few years, I have asked the publisher of the text that I use to create a custom edition with just the chapters I use. The publisher has done this but there is a minimum number of copies that the book store has to order to make it worthwhile for the publisher to create the custom edition. That can be challenging at a small school like PSU. This semester, my students paid $54 for the custom edition containing half the chapters of the original text. A few students have instead purchased used copies of earlier editions for much cheaper than $54 with the attendant problems of different page numbers and examples.

This past weekend, I was grading a set of my students’ submissions for an assignment called a Unit Overview. The assignment is to create an overview (summary) of a chapter in our text book using a variety of technologies. One group of students used Word to create an outline of the chapter. Another group wrote narrative blog entries to summarize the chapter. A third group tweeted about the chapter and then used Storify to glue their tweets together with explanations. The groups rotate through these 3 technologies to create overviews of each chapter so that everyone experiences each technology multiple times. This exercise and our discussion of the technologies helps the course fulfill the Technology in the Discipline connection requirement of the General Education program. The overviews also serve the purpose of providing study materials for the exams. Reading through this set of overviews, I was struck by how good they were in general. And then I thought that it is a shame that no one ever sees these overviews outside of the class. Even within the class, they don’t look at each other’s overviews very often.

You can probably guess where I’m heading with this discussion. I decided that I would talk to my two sections about changing the schedule for the rest of the semester so that we begin to create an open educational resource (OER) for courses like CM2770. Although there are OERs for Media Studies, there aren’t any that covers the content in the text books that I wrote about above. Both sections of the course were very excited about this prospect. We talked about copyright and that we couldn’t just summarize our current text book, that we would need to read and research more about each of the types of media. They were excited about that prospect as well.

I had an exercise planned that would have worked no matter what the students had said about the OER idea. The students worked in their groups on the exercise, talking excitedly about the material in our current text book. One group was discussing the historical development of print media and talked about how best to present this information in an open, online text book. They talked about which historical moments would need to be included and about using an interactive timeline to allow different levels of focus on the events. At the end of my second section, a woman who was in a group talking about the specific functions served by print media said that the level of investment shown in her group to really understand the content had gone up compared to previous discussions just because they knew they needed to be able to explain it to someone else.

And this is the hope of open education, right? When students feel that their work is meaningful and purposeful, they are more likely to be invested and take it seriously.

I will spend a chunk of this weekend rearranging the syllabus for the course to incorporate the creation of this OER. The challenge will be figuring out the right amount of work to expect from the students in the next 10 weeks. I’m sure the students won’t create a text this semester that is “complete” in the way that the professionally published text books are. But they will begin a project that students in future sections of the course at PSU can continue to work on. In fact, every university with a media studies program has a course like CM2770 so I’m hopeful that other classes will build on the work we do this semester.

Once you start thinking about open pedagogy and assignments that matter, it’s difficult to justify continuing to work in the same old way. The open ed movement has made me question everything I do in my teaching. That’s both scary and exciting, just like this new open ed experiment.

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