I struggle with textbooks, yet I need a form of context that students understand intuitively. In my rejection of traditional texts, I have been exploring both the new online pathways-though-text offered by publishers like Cengage and Pearson. My experiment with Pearson went badly, and reminded me that the answer is still open resources, free if possible.
Right now all my classes have these elements:
- Textbook or context reading, sometimes with quiz questions (about 15% of student time)
- Lectures I’ve written and recorded, with quiz questions I wrote (about 20% of student time)
- Primary sources inside those lecture, and that used to be in my printed workbook (about 10% if they read them)
- Constructivist primary source collection creation and writing (about 40%)
- Writing on those collected primary sources (about 15%)
The main challenge is how to balance the textbook reading, and any accountability via quizzes, with the rest of the workload, particularly the primary sources inside the lecture.
US History II
Open Education Resources include history textbooks, but there are very few. After much searching, I have discovered one I like for US History II, even though it is left-leaning (a whole chapter on the New Deal? really?) and needs some reorganizing. Unlike most of the OER history texts, it has review questions, is written and peer-reviewed by historians, and comes out of a respected university (Rice). It even looks like a textbook. OpenStax’s system allows a somewhat cumbersome but handy way to reorganized the sections and chapters. I can even rename them. After about 24 hours, it creates a solid PDF version of the book, with a table of contents, repaging and automatic transferring of questions and terms to the appropriate section. While it will take time to extract the questions for quizzes, I think it’s worth it given the quality of the text. I will likely lose the focus on the primary sources inside the lecture – the textbook is too large. But since my US students tend to be at a lower level than my other classes, they likely need both the security of an ordinary-looking textbook and the information it provides. I am testing chapters this semester in all three online sections, even without quiz questions.
But US is it. There are no similar quality resources available for Western Civ, World History, History of England, or History of Technology (my new class!).
History of Technology
So for Western Civ I tried to create a book from Wikpedia articles, using Wikipedia’s Book Creator. This has not gone well. Wikipedia is for the most part fine from a factual perspective for common areas of history, but some sections are written in too much detail by total fanatics of that particular era or subject. I have spend many hours trying to make it work. For History of Technology, however, I might just need a basic Western Civ overview as background – all else would be articles and primary sources, in addition to lectures. I have created a book from a single overview article. I can add my own stuff with PDF using Preview, perhaps, or just have it online.
Frustrated with the Wikipedia book, I began copying Wikipedia text of the sections I liked into a Word document, and editing. For Western Civ I, I have finished. I have a complete textbook of Wikipedia text edited carefully by me, with main terms in bold, the primary source documents from within the lecture included at the end of every chapter, and quiz questions I wrote from the resulting book. I am using it for the first time this semester in both the online and on-site sections of the class.
It will take time, but it looks like I’ll be doing the same for Western Civ II.
History of England
It is the only class with a published item students much purchase. I wrote my own quiz questions out of it. When they stop publishing The Penguin Illustrated History of England and Ireland, I’m in trouble.
I have had to take open resources in hand myself – I have found nothing that can be adopted wholesale, like a traditional texts. But traditional texts have their own problems, of coverage, rigidity, poor supplements, bad quiz questions, etc. And history texts are costing over $100 now, which wouldn’t be so bad except they aren’t good enough for that kind of money. And my own texts I can edit, re-edit – they can evolve over time at no cost to the student except for printing if they’d like to print.
I’d like to share all this. The Wikipedia books aren’t mine – I’ve done the editing but only written some of the text, and adding documents I have been using for years, most of which have passed copyright clearance on more than one occasion when custom published in previous book efforts. If I do construct quiz banks out of the OpenStax chapters, I’d like them to be available for others to use (my created book already is, inside the OpenStax CNX system). OER should be, well, O.
But it looks like it’s not enough to do OER. Looks like you have to create Build-Your-Own OER.
In addition to submitting a grade for each student, and a last date of attendance of they failed, we are now asked to assess the level of learning outcomes for each student for two elements: critical thinking and global awareness.
Our grade sheet is starting to look like a data entry form.
I have heard faculty complain that this is ridiculous and impossible – it would take far too much time to reassess each student’s class performance in outcome areas (last year it was just one) as well as their final grade.
I don’t think so.
I remember many, many years ago, we had a full faculty meeting about developing and tracking our first Student Learning Outcomes. It was the third or fourth iteration of this idea, and we were all sick of it – sick of hearing about this stuff that had clearly come in from the outside, through administrative fiat. And one of my favorite colleagues stood up and said, “Don’t we already have this? It’s called GRADES.”
I’ve never forgotten that. The grade I give means something. I spend a lot of time determining what percentage of the final grade counts for each assignment and skill. So does my grade now mean nothing when set up against outcomes? Do I really have to reassess each student for their demonstration of critical thinking and global awareness?
No, because these are built into the Course of Study, the class design, and my pedagogy. When I give that final grade, it says something already about the student’s achievement in critical thinking and global awareness.
The drop-downs have levels of achievement on these:
My default for a real passing grade (A, B or C) is “Practitioner – Met”. If they hadn’t met my standard for critical thinking and global awareness, they wouldn’t have passed the course.
My default for a D or F is “Apprentice- Not Met” if the student finished the class. If they stopped attending, it’s “Novice-Not Met”.
If I recall their work as being excellent, Critical Thinking jumps to “Expert – Exceeded”. Few get this designation – I am the expert, and few excel in either critical thinking or global awareness. But if they did, I remember it – I don’t have to look anything up.
Similarly, I recall other details leading to exceptions: the brilliant expert student who got a D for not turning stuff in, the B student who didn’t know where China was, etc. Again, no need to look those up.
So even though it seems burdensome, the process goes pretty quickly. Because I trust my grades.
Well, we all know how I feel about textbooks, the adoption of which seems much more necessary for on-site classes (they basically refuse to read them online). I have dumped textbooks for my US History classes, which I teach online. I have an atlas (out of print – the next problem) for History of England. For modern Western Civ, I took the lectures I have online (which are lengthy) and adapted them with my set of primary sources to make a makeshift text, but that didn’t work well.
This semester I’m teaching early Western Civ in the classroom. I have used three texts in three years for early Western Civ. I didn’t want to do it, but this semester I went ahead and used a text I’d used before that wasn’t too bad, and refurbished a full set of 16 quizzes for them. I had tried to create my own out of Wikipedia, but had run out of time and was unable to deal with problems of the granularity of content.
We started the semester on Monday. By Wednesday I couldn’t stand the textbook and was standing in my office, hating it, at 10 minutes before class. The bookstore had neglected to purchase the text back in April, and had to rush copies to campus. I had visited the bookstore and couldn’t find them – they were turned sideways about 12 feet from their shelf tag, under another class’s tag. I counted 14 of them. I have 32 students. The universe was trying to tell me something.
I wondered what would happen if I dumped the text right then. Bad timing, I know. I decided to ask the students whether anyone had bought it, then see if those who had were ok with dumping it. We could write our own. Maybe we could put together the Wikipedia version I’d failed to create. Something. Anything.
So I went in and asked how many students had bought the text, since they were required to do so by that day. Three. Well, four if you count the one who had it on his Kindle. So I presented them with my problem, and my hatred of textbooks, and quickly discovered they basically felt the same way.
Then I told them the real problem behind the textbook issue, writing it on the board. I explained that there are three levels to my pedagogy:
- Facts – the building blocks of history. We don’t have to memorize them but we must have familiarity with quite a few.
- Interpretation – the use of those facts to support arguments, which I want them doing right away in their primary source work.
- Themes – which require analysis on a larger scale than interpretation, and where they get to choose their own path.
The difficulty was only with the Facts. How do we get them? What possible use is there for a textbook if it’s only for facts, when we can find those facts elsewhere?
When I presented my idea for creating our own textbook somehow, from open and available sources, half a dozen students got all excited and participated in a lively discussion of how that might work. One student asked if they were really qualified to do this. I told them of my failed Wikipedia effort.
How, I asked, should we decide what to do with the idea? Not all students were into doing it. Some might be happier with the same old thing. One of the excited students said we should vote. I explained that I was concerned about the minority, who would get overrun. Between their mumblings that majority rule was what democracy was all about, and mine about my experiences being in the minority on many votes, we decided we should somehow have choice. I explained the quizzes were written already, and they were based on the book. How about if I gave them the question bank in advance and they can decide whether to buy the book, use it in the library, or just look up answers online to study? How about if those who wanted to edit the new textbook didn’t have to deal with any of that, but would have more work out of class?
By the third class meeting, 14 students had gone ahead and bought the book anyway, I assume to preserve comfort and predictability. It didn’t work – most students did poorly on the first quiz. I’m hoping that’s a separate problem.
The editor students so far seem to want to use Google Docs instead of a Moodle wiki to put together the book. I think it’s a bad idea because I can’t fix anything in a Doc really (no HTML toggle), but they essentially told me that making it look good was my problem. And I want them to work where they’re comfortable and have a sense of ownership. Today I created the file in Google Drive, like they told me to.
So we’ll try it. It might succeed, it might fail.
It’s hard to be dictatorial about these things when I know that there is no best way to do this stuff.
A couple of years ago, I was starting the first week of class, and a student said, “well, obviously you’re a liberal”. I asked him why he thought that, and he said, “your shoes”. At that time, I wore Birkenstocks in class (my feet are size 8 wide). I laughed and pointed out that I was actually a radical. As I teach my Western Civ class:
Conservatives value stability at the expense of liberty and equality.
Liberals value liberty at the expense of stability and equality.
Radicals value equality at the expense of liberty and stability.
I am a radical on most issues, although my biggest issue (the environment) is hard to categorize with this system, since I favor rather draconian measures if they force people to reduce, re-use, recycle.
About the same time, I listened to a Howard Zinn CD a friend gave me. In it, he said that professors are doing students a disservice when they do not share their point of view. After all, we are highly educated people, and if in our studies we have come to a particular perspective, it should be shared. There is an ethical responsibility that we need to fulfill.
Then today, I read this post from one of my favorite online people, Stephen Downes. Responding to whining that more college professors should be conservatives, Downes wrote:
If people want more right-wing teachers, there’s a really simple way to do it: pay them more.
That way, you’ll get teachers who are motivated by the money passing on capitalist values rather than people who are motivated by social service talking about cooperating and sharing, about rights and diversity.
So I am again rethinking my objective goals.
I have been more open with students about my views, and have been clear indicating that they are my
views, and that any stance supported by evidence is valued in my class. But what I do not know is whether that has made any difference, since the students themselves seem to have become more “left” in the past several years. Perhaps the extremes of our current executive have done that to them.
But knee-jerk liberalism is just as bad as knee-jerk conservatism. A student who nods in agreement with a leftist opinion, but doesn’t understand its foundation, is just as uneducated as someone nodding conservatively.
Perhaps my role should not be so much sharing my perspective, as sharing my intellectual process so students know how I got to my view. Intellectualism, I’m thinking, not political affiliation, should be the point in education. I plan to keep that in mind.]]>