Gabe Higginbotham worked as a student project assistant on open textbooks for two years at Open Oregon State. He received his B.S. in Business Information Systems at Oregon State in early 2017. Currently, he works as an IT consultant for OOS. In fall 2018, he will go to grad school abroad to study Human Computer Interaction Design. In his career, he plans to continue contributing to the open education field.
Tell us about the role you played in open textbook creation at Open Oregon State.
I have been involved with the creation of roughly 10 textbooks at Open Oregon State, including A Primer for Computational Biology (set to go to print soon!), Introduction to Permaculture and Introduction to Microbiology.
I worked on converting professors’ texts (either Word or LaTeX) to HTML.
Some of our books were created from materials used in online courses, others were LaTeX books that became online books to increase their availability.
I also designed the books (using CSS) to cater to either the needs of the professor or the purposes of the book. I learned HTML, CSS, and LaTeX on the job, and was one of the first student workers in the department.
Books at Open Oregon State are created using PressBooks, a WordPress plugin. We use some other multimedia tools including video and, more recently, H5P. We also use a number of WordPress plugins such as a glossary, code highlighter, and broken link checker.
When I was first hired, I was tasked with making a list of open textbooks available online. I also found replacement materials that professors could use in courses. Over the course of a few months I made an Excel spreadsheet of 4,500 open textbooks available on the web, and this list is continually growing!
What did you learn and what skills did you acquire in the process?
As a student in information systems, learning HTML and CSS in my position were particularly useful as an introduction to programming before entering my actual programming courses. The tasks of my position allowed me to navigate the process of problem solving in a relatively risk-free environment. Conversely, my courses often introduced me to techniques and tools I could use in my position with open textbooks. For example, learning PHP in my programming course allowed me to edit a WordPress plugin to meet the unique needs of a particular programming textbook.
Troubleshooting design issues in my position introduced me to platforms such as Stackoverflow and GitHub, where I could interact with other contributors and find solutions to problems I came across. I was able to apply the solutions in one problem to a similar context in another problem, often with a creative and unique approach. These proved vital in my courses later on, where I would encounter more complex problems such as querying databases and creating UIs.
My position was also beneficial in the realm of project management. Working on a number of distinct textbooks with different needs, stakeholders, contributors, and deadlines improved my ability to estimate task times and switch back-and-forth between various tasks and requests. This was useful and applicable in my courses, where I had very different projects that demanded varying levels of attention. I needed to allocate my resources to succeed in my courses as efficiently as possible.
Researching open materials for my position in turn made me more adept at finding free learning resources to augment my own course materials. Where other students may have paid for supplementary course materials, I could find suitable free resources, saving me hundreds of dollars on my undergrad degree. Most students I encountered had no idea such materials existed.
What do you see as processes or practices that lend themselves to best success when faculty and students work on these projects?
Communication is key when creating open textbooks. It’s imperative that students (or any other contributors) understand the purpose and needs of the finished book. Everyone must be on the same page or there will be a lot of duplicate or superfluous work. Checking in with professors, faculty, and other student workers can ensure that nothing falls between the cracks. A task management system such as Basecamp or Asana may be useful to create project milestones and allocate work. This is more important as a team increases in size. Open Oregon State did not take full advantage of a task management system, but there were only about five student workers at any given time.
A cohesive “vision” for the department may help limit the scope of certain books that may require special attention (in my experience, these include math-based or programming books). This “vision” may need to develop over time and can include strategic intentions for both content and style. Since open textbook programs (and the open textbook industry in general) are relatively new for most universities, I believe this process is still in its infancy. A few standouts have emerged including BCcampus and the University of Minnesota. These are definitely models to follow for the establishment of new open textbook departments. I believe that OSU is emerging as an exemplary model.
It is imperative that the knowledge gained from students workers not be lost when they leave or graduate. There is a substantial learning curve that comes along with being hired in any position. Using previous student workers’ perspectives and experiences to train new hires can not only speed up book production, but create a more cohesive body of work and culture within the department. I cannot stress enough how important I believe this legacy knowledge is.
Fostering a collaborative and open environment is vital for student workers to thrive and find creative solutions to complex problems. Create a space where students can work together and share input; this keeps them motivated and engaged when design work gets tedious. I was lucky to have a patient and open boss at Open Oregon State who listened to my ideas and considered my advice when making decisions. I would suggest that other open textbook department heads do the same: consider the opinions of your students workers. They have the perspective of both a student and a faculty member.
What are some key challenges and considerations you would like to see addressed in such projects?
For professors generously contributing content to open textbooks, they must be made aware of the limitations that certain platforms may have. For example, an HTML environment will not have the same cross-referencing or indexing capabilities as a LaTeX environment will. Illuminating these limitations from the start will prevent unnecessary work and avoid disappointment as the book progresses. However, the advantages and rewards of an open book must be emphasized over any potential shortcomings that may present themselves.
The interactivity and availability of supplementary materials must increase as more textbooks are developed. I believe this is one of the main hesitancies of professors in adopting an open textbook for their course. As the trust in open materials gains momentum over time, ability to replace existing materials in courses with minimal effort and exceeded expectations will prove to be essential.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Students’ input is most essential, but can often be overlooked! I would like to see more projects emerge that aim to share the best practices of student workers, both within and across universities.
I would like to thank the Director of Open Oregon State Dianna Fisher for giving me the opportunity to learn and grow in this position. Her guidance, support, and willingness to allow me to take on new challenges provided a fulfilling environment for my first job.