Maybe free is bad – something else not to talk about

I have just spent the last few weeks doing as I meant to do for the last year – creating a book of Wikipedia text and my own edited primary source documents to create a free textbook for my students in Western Civ I.

Now that I’ve finished, and it’s all ready for my summer classes (both as a pdf they can download and print, and chapters inside my online class), I can go back and catch up on my reading about online teaching.

One of the things I’m supposed to be reading about is OEI, the California Online Education Initiative being run by a number of wonderful people. What they’re creating, however, will undermine artisan course design and bring in rubrics that already have several good online teachers in tears.

As part of this project, there are courses being offered by faculty at several institutions. A number of faculty have volunteered to have their classes be models for the new system (I declined when I saw the rubric). The word “model” has now been thrown around the administration as meaning they are great classes.

Some may be. Some of the most lauded, however, are taught with prepackaged course cartridges and full technology from a major publisher. I went and looked at that publisher’s offering for one “model” class, their costly package to students, and found what I expected – the cartridge is essentially teaching the class.

While it’s sickening that this kind of thing is the new “model” course for the future (I’ve ranted about that elsewhere), I was looking at the price. $177 new, with rentals varying from $80-133.

In all classes except one, now, I’ve given all the materials to my students. They don’t need to buy anything. My classes have students who go in and out, don’t do all their work, fail because they don’t follow instructions. In the “model” canned course, student success rates are high, as is retention. Extremely high. Only 10% seem to leave the class. Grades are high too. In History classes overall, it isn’t unusual to have 20% drop the class. We have always thought this is because our History classes are more demanding than what is being offered in other disciplines.

But there may be another aspect. If one pays $177, perhaps one is more dedicated to the class? Or could it be that the canned class makes it easier for students to pass without much stress (i.e. thinking) so they tend to stay? Or could the canned class be better? for whom? for learning? or just to make everything easier for everyone, student and instructor alike?

But wait! I know of another discipline (again, not mine) with high student success and retention also, where their online numbers equal their on-site numbers, but the classes are not canned, and in fact are outstanding artisan classes. The book? $95 new, $52-72 for rental.

My conclusion? I should not be creating free materials – it may be devaluing the classes I’m teaching. I know it’s not the quality of the materials – not only do I edit them all myself, but I have reviewed dozens of textbooks (see my name in many of them) and most are not very good. It’s the perception of the quality of the materials.

I had a student comment on an evaluation that he didn’t want to read the article I had linked from Wikipedia, because it made him feel like he wasn’t in a college class – if he wanted to read Wikipedia, he didn’t need to be paying college tuition. (Of course, he isn’t paying much tuition – the state has him covered – but that’s another post.) The quality of the article wasn’t the point – it was Wikipedia, so it must be useless.

If I’m right, the point that has gotten lost in the anger at high textbook prices, the insistence that community college remain open access, and the administrative concern about retention, is that students may want to pay high prices for textbooks. It may keep them dedicated to the class, even when they have to borrow money to buy them. I don’t think anyone really wants to talk about that possibility.

3 comments to Maybe free is bad – something else not to talk about

  • Well, I’ll offer my class as a counter-example: I’ve always had the Myth-Folklore readings online for free. For 10+ years I had a choice of two readings each week, but as I saw the EXPLOSION of public domain online sources, I spent last summer retooling my Myth-Folklore UnTextbook so that it had 100 reading units total, rather than 28 as before, and student response has been tremendous (seriously, they really love it, mostly because of the choices, but also because it’s free, and they already pay an outrageous $120 online course fee/penalty to enroll in an online course as opposed to classroom-based course).

    I’m spending this summer building an UnTextbook for my other course (Indian Epics), and I am really excited about it. The free part is good, but the better part is being able to build student choice into the course design, providing a better reading experience than I ever could with a static textbook. More about how the OER affects my course design:

    So, I’m sticking to artisan and free, trying to find lots of ways to make the class valuable for students… esp. since they are paying a penalty to enroll to begin with. Why? Who knows: I have no office, I make less than a TT faculty member, I require no classroom… but there’s a hefty online course fee, and it’s even gone up in recent years. Sigh.

    • Hi Laura! That makes me wonder about primary vs secondary sources. I’ve never had a concern about the free primary sources available online everywhere, and students never have either. It’s the concept of “textbook” (even if I’ve tried to call them context readings) that I think is an issue. Or perhaps I am totally wrong.

      I don’t really want to cost them money either. I was up hours last night going through course cartridges. If I switched I would pull the whole focus of my classes away from skills and onto content. That isn’t really what I want to do. I’d lose the whole active learning part of my class.

      My problem is that I don’t just want them learning content – I want them to be historians using the sources. That takes time, thinking, effort in a completely different way than using a groovy textbook that quizzes them as they go along and gives them lots of hints when they’re wrong (aka adaptive learning). But my method is increasingly being seen as “not working” for success and retention, and I’m flailing around trying to figure out what to do about it. 🙂

  • Yes, the primary sources are what interest me too! I am very lucky that in the areas I work in, public domain sources are abundant and valuable, so the materials I prep for my students are those primary sources with very limited commentary from me, and sometimes no commentary from me at all, just my repurposing of the public domain books. For Indian Epics, I am in more of a bind … and in a world where all books were free, sure, I’d order my favorite contemporary translations for the students to read. But books are not free, and I was amazed by what I found when I started poking around in the 19th- and early 20th-century translations I could use. And, to compensate for that, the OER person I mentioned in my comment on your previous post made it possible for our Library to buy a complete collection of Amar Chitra Katha comic books which I can make available on reserve in the Library. JACKPOT!!! I’m guessing the students will find that very groovy, and I do too!!! Here’s how I hope to get them to work with the comic books while also reading primary sources:
    It’s a new experiment. I hope it works!!!