Lunch and Learn: Alternatives to the Traditional Textbook

On Thursday, October 25, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.the first Lunch and Learn for the 2018-2019 academic year. Marian Feldman, Professor and Chair of History of Art, Professor of Near Eastern Studies; and Joanne Selinski, Associate Teaching Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Computer Science; presented on Alternatives to the Traditional Textbook.

Marian Feldman started with a presentation on the Open Educational Resource (OER) she created several years ago for her courses on ancient Mesopotamian art [see slides]. She commented that Mesopotamian art may seem esoteric; not many people are readily familiar with the subject matter. Mesopotamian culture began in the 10th millennium BCE, centered in (but at times extending well beyond) what is now Iraq, and flourished in the Bronze and Iron Ages with the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Neo-Assyrian, and Neo-Babylonian empires from the 3rd millennium to the 6th century BCE.

“Open Educational Resources are free and openly licensed educational materials that can be used for teaching, learning, research, and other purposes.” ( Feldman’s motivation for creating OER for her course stemmed in large part from the fact that there was no good textbook available. The only text, The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient (Frankfort) was published in 1954, and though new editions were released up until 1996, the material was not updated. In 2017, a new text, Art of Mesopotamia (Bahrani), was published, but at $90 a copy, Feldman plans to stick with the OER she developed as a free alternative for her students that is also more directly relevant to the materials she covers.

The OER has other value as well. When Mesopotamian art is introduced in a standard survey of art course, a $90 textbook is overkill, while the modularity of her OER works perfectly for an introductory approach. Feldman was also interested in highlighting these works of art in a time when many cultural heritage sites and objects in the region have been destroyed or are under threat. The OER as an open resource puts information in the public domain where it is easily accessible.

Screen shot of OpenStax CNX website home page.Feldman applied for and won Technology Fellowship Grants (2015 and 2016) from the Center for Educational Resources (CER) that allowed her to work with two graduate students in Near Eastern Studies, Megan Lewis and Avary Taylor, to undertake the project. The CER advised her on a platform for sharing the modules—OpenStax CNX at Rice University. From the website: “OpenStax publishes high-quality, peer-reviewed, openly licensed textbooks that are absolutely free online and low cost in print.” OpenStax CNX was a good fit because Feldman was not particularly technology oriented, and it offered a relatively easy-to-use platform. She also liked the “knowledge chunks” concept where content modules can be aggregated into a custom “text” for students. The platform uses a Creative Commons license and content is freely accessible to all.

Feldman and her graduate students created 15 modules over two years. Each module is stand alone, and many incorporate videos. The modules can be downloaded as a PDF—which students found useful for study purposes—although multimedia content such as videos is not viewable in the PDF. She noted that because the platform is open, she cannot track use by individual students to be sure that they are viewing the modules. However, end-of-course surveys of the students indicated that they had found the OER modules to be valuable course content. She received positive feedback from colleagues as well. The one complaint from students was that at times the platform was slow, particularly when playing multimedia clips and downloading materials.

There were challenges with creating the OER modules. Feldman acknowledged that it was a lot of work. All multimedia content—images, videos, interactive materials—had to be in the public domain or permission had to be obtained from the rights holders. There were some technological challenges with the platform. Feldman described it as “clunky” at times. The built in HTML editor was easy to use, but limiting for formatting purposes. She had hoped that having the students use the modules might allow her to do less in-class lecturing, but that was not the case.

Feldman has run some analytics on the modules, using Google Analytics, and discovered that beyond her own use (and that of her students), the modules have been viewed by others, but perhaps not as much as she might have hoped. Over a 12-month period excluding JHU use, the various modules were viewed between 6 and 150 times. There was a big spread on the IP access—viewers came to the site from around the world. The relatively small numbers of viewers for her modules on OpenStax CNX are in contrast to a TED-Ed Animation project she worked on during the same time period, targeted at the K-12 constituency. The Rise and Fall of the Assyrian Empire has received over a million views!

zyBooks website home page screenshot.Joanne Selinski introduced the audience to zyBooks, billed as an affordable, interactive, online textbook platform for STEM disciplines. Selinski is piloting the use of a zyBook for the Gateway Computing course she is teaching, although she had previously used a limited version of zyBooks in teaching a Java course. While zyBooks is not free, it is relatively low-cost, about $50 per student depending on instructor customizations.

Selenski noted that she had the opposite problem from Feldman—her field, computer science, is constantly changing and advancing so that texts become outdated quickly and must be updated frequently. Print texts simply can’t keep up with the changing curriculum. Moreover, courses are not standardized across departments and institutions, so a standardized text may not be flexible enough for adaptation to a particular curriculum. And, every instructor teaches standard courses differently, so there really is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all textbook. Thus the discipline has seen a move from print books to courseware on interactive platforms.

In Selinski’s experience, students didn’t read textbooks and she would have to repeat the information in class. Homework assignments applied the work done in class. Using zyBooks allowed her to flip her class model, with students learning concepts outside of class and doing applied work in class individually or in groups. She had wanted to flip her class previously, but didn’t want to use only videos for outside-of-class instruction. While she does use some videos as a supplement, zyBooks provided a great overall solution.

Selinski gave a demonstration of the customized zyBook that she developed for her Gateway Computing course. The modules are a mix of various types of demonstrations and exercises interspersed with fill-in-the-blank, true-false, and multiple choice questions. She finds that the quizzing while doing method is beneficial to student learning. There are challenge activities for students looking for more advanced work, but they are not required as in-class group work covers the challenge material. Everything is auto-graded. Selinski can choose which assignments will be graded. The biggest benefit is that students get introduced to the core material before they come to class.

Selinski noted that the company worked closely with her (and other JHU faculty in the pilot) to develop their texts from a menu of pre-created modules. She liked that zyBooks offers lots of options for customization. The interface is easy to use. She can add notes on the modules for specific instructions or to make comments. More advanced students can take advantage of extra materials. She was able to add a student who enrolled in the class late and change the deadlines/due dates for that individual. And, she can see who has done what in terms of the on-line work. Overall, zyBooks has great reporting features. Her one caveat was that students won’t do work unless it is required.

Because this is the first semester of use, she does not yet have data on student response to the platform, however informal comments suggest that students like it overall. She responded to student complaints that too much was required in the early part of the semester and reduced required material to some extent. She will like be more selective when using zyBooks next semester.

A lively discussion followed the presentations. There was a question about whether material from these alternative texts could be integrated into Blackboard, JHU’s course management system. In both cases, the answer is no, that these are separate platforms. Links to material can be provided in Blackboard, but the content resides on the platform—OpenStax or zyBooks.

Selinski was asked to elaborate on what students do during class time. Classes are small sections of 19 or fewer students, and she has a teaching assistant, so she can have them working individually or in small groups and oversee them all. Generally, there is an in-class assignment, activity, or problem to be solved that reflects the material covered in zyBooks. Sometimes students are working on paper, others times on their laptops, other times on the board. For some activities she may do a brief lecture for background before the students start working.

There were questions about the zyBooks platform, course development, and subscription model, and the availability of materials for students on both platforms after a course has ended. Selinski elaborated that zyBooks offers general texts that are updated frequently and can be customized by each instructor for their use. A course can be saved and copied for use in a subsequent semester. There is no sharing across institutions—another institution cannot readily see a JHU instance of a course. Students subscriptions are for the duration of the semester; after which they cannot access the course. They are able to download PDFs of content during the semester they are enrolled. Feldman noted that OpenStax CNX is by nature open and free accessible to anyone at any time.

There was some discussion about the benefits of interactivity, and there was agreement that modality should match the content being presented. As for print versus online, it is clear that it may come down to personal preference–some prefer reading online while others want a hard copy of a text. Feldman noted that the evolution of the Internet has led to a re-thinking of the concept of an intellectual canon for an area of humanistic study. The Internet allows a break from such narratives with inherent advantages and drawbacks. This has implications for how faculty teach and students learn. [See M.H. Feldman, Rethinking the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art in the Internet Age, Published Online: 2017-06-22, DOI:]

Finally, Mike Reese, Associate Dean of University Libraries, Director of the CER, and lecturer in Sociology, offered another alternative to the textbook that is free to students. In the courses he teaches he is committed to students not having to pay for textbooks. Instead he assigns materials such as e-books and research articles that are available to students through the library. This Lunch and Learn session demonstrated that there is more than one way to lower the cost of textbook materials for your students.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Web page screenshots

The Open Faculty Patchbook: An OER on Pedagogy

We are seeing an increased interest in Open Educational Resources (OER) in our library and among faculty. [See Consider the OER an Innovative Instructor blog post by Marian Feldman, November 7, 2016.] What is an OER? Wikipedia defines open educational resources as being “freely accessible, openly licensed text, media, and other digital assets that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes.”

With the skyrocketing costs of textbooks used in higher education, colleges have responded to student demand by instituting programs to support the production of OER texts, especially for discipline-standard introductory courses. There is a listing of OER initiatives, resources, and projects on the SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) website. The Open Education Consortium also lists OER initiatives, including a list of open textbooks.

Image resembles a patchwork quilt with 26 hexagonal patches, each with a stylized image of a person representing the authors of the articles making up the book.By happenstance, I came across an OER written by faculty for faculty on pedagogy. The Open Faculty Patchbook was created by faculty at Fleming College in Peterborough, Ontario.  The Learning Design and Support Team at Fleming was tasked in 2016 with revising the faculty development model. Inspired by a presentation given by Robin DeRosa at the 2016 Open Education Conference in Richmond, Virginia, the team decided to create a how-to teach manual. They came up with the metaphor of a quilt, with each contributor creating a “patch” to add to the “community quilt of pedagogy.” Currently, there are 21 pieces describing how instructors do their work. Topics include cohort-based-learning, teaching within the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, activating students’ background knowledge, formative assessments, facilitating deep learning, laboratory assessments, co-teaching, group work, and more.

The Patchbook was initially designed to cover the University of Michigan’s School of Education High Leverage Practices, which are described as “…the basic fundamentals of teaching. These practices are used constantly and are critical to helping students learn important content. The high-leverage practices are also central to supporting students’ social and emotional development. These high-leverage practices are used across subject areas, grade levels, and contexts. They are “high-leverage” not only because they matter to student learning but because they are basic for advancing skill in teaching.”

The patches in the Open Faculty Patchbook are relatively short, making this an easy to digest guidebook. It is also open to contributors for additional patches. At the end of the current book is the statement: “Future versions planned include ones focused on professional learning, digital pedagogy (online learning) and course design. If you would like to contribute, email with the subject heading ‘I’m awesome. I want to add a Patch’. Your patch, when complete, would immediately appear on our WordPress site and be added to a Pressbook publication.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Open Faculty Patchbook

Consider the OER (Open Educational Resource)

I should first disclose that I am not a longstanding, seasoned user of online strategies in my pedagogy. In fact, aside from very basic use such as posting images online for my students to review, my first real foray into systematic, thought-through online pedagogical strategies began in the summer of 2015.

A stitched image showing the Ishtar gate of Babylon in full view. Pergamon Museum, Berlin.In my discipline, specifically the study of Mesopotamian art but more broadly art history, I see two somewhat different audiences for online resources: 1) students (or student-like users) looking for content about art history; and 2) educators looking for pedagogical support/sharing related to the teaching of art history.

With respect to online resources for student-like users, two main trends in online pedagogy are apparent: 1) how to recreate and/or enhance the kind of activities that take place in face-to-face teaching; 2) how to add to, that is do something different, from the kind of activities that take place in face-to-face teaching.

My own foray into online pedagogy was primarily aimed at student-like users, although a secondary audience of other educators is also relevant because of the open-access nature of my project.

The arts of Mesopotamia – the “land between the rivers” in what is today Iraq and Syria – represent some of the earliest complex artworks dating back to 3500. Works from intricately carved seals to sculpture offer a wealth of arts that inform on the social, political, economic, and religious spheres of multiple ancient cultures, including Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria. The cultural heritage of Mesopotamia is particularly threatened at the moment due to the current political situation in Iraq and Syria.

Teaching this material at the undergraduate level, however, is a challenge as there is no reliable, up-to-date textbook available; the most recent usable textbook dates to 1954 (H. Frankfort, Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient). Publication of a traditional, hard-copy textbook now is considered financially impractical.

In the spring of 2015, pursuing a Technology Fellows grant from the CER, I proposed a solution: to create on-line modules to be used in teaching my course Palaces, Temples and Tombs in Mesopotamia in fall 2015. These modules are designed as Open Education Resources (OER) using a pre-existing Internet platform, OpenStax CNX, hosted through Rice University, which promotes the production of small “knowledge chunks” in an open license venue. Materials for the modules consist of freely available content and content created by me and my graduate student fellows, Megan Lewis and Avary Taylor.

What is an OER? From the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation “Open Educational Resources are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and repurposing by others. OER include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.”

OER modules of instruction permit multi-media and non-traditional formats for conveying information, including virtual reconstructions and walk-throughs, videos, and hyperlinking in addition to providing up-to-date informational entries for the ancient artworks. For my course, I envisioned these modules as a means of engaging students before actual face time in the classroom in order to concentrate on discussion and exploration of the complex conceptual aspects of Mesopotamian art and culture during class time.

Over the 6-month period of the fellowship, five different modules were created and posted to the website at OpenStax CNX. They were an enormous asset to the class, because they provided background information and discussion points that were up-to-date in their content and specifically formulated to align with my class lectures and discussion. The modules also included helpful videos and virtual reconstructions of the ancient art that provided a fuller understanding for the students.

The online modules were evaluated through an online survey, developed with the aid of CER, and available to the students through JHU’s Blackboard (learning management system). All 12 students completed the anonymous survey, which consisted of 5 questions. 83.3% of the respondents said the modules were “very successful” in providing information related to the course content, while the remaining 16.7% said they were “somewhat successful.” The responses to the other questions were also generally quite positive, with appreciation for the multimedia components and for the fact that the modules aligned well with the lectures. Respondents found least useful about the modules some formatting issues inherent in the platform we used, and a few noted that they were slow to download.

Beyond the student reactions, I have had positive responses from colleagues in the field who expressed gratitude for making freely accessible materials on Mesopotamian art available.

The one downside for me was that the OERs did not necessarily promote a higher level of discussion as I had hoped; the modules were still too close to a textbook in terms of how students interacted with the materials

There were a few issues that we faced in developing the content, one of which was copyright.  We had to rely on what was freely available online and that sometimes meant using videos that contained inaccurate material. We also had to work with the OpenStax CNX version of an html coding program that made certain things difficult to manipulate and constrained format in terms of relationship of image to text.

These drawbacks did not discourage me from using OERs. In spring 2016, I received an additional grant through the CER’s Technology Fellows program to produce more modules for my teaching with the assistance of graduate student fellows Megan Lewis and Avary Taylor.

The modules can be accessed through various search mechanisms on the OpenStax CNX website, including through the authors’ names: Marian Feldman, Megan Lewis, and Avary Taylor. They are:

  1. Cylinder Seals and the Development of Writing in Early Mesopotamia
  2. Ur III: Continuity and Erasure
  3. Late Bronze Age Internationalism and the International Artistic Style
  4. Neo-Assyrian Palace Reliefs of Kings Tiglath-Pileser III and Sargon II
  5. The Ancient City of Babylon
  6. Mesopotamian Votive Statuary from the Early Dynastic Period
  7. Mesopotamian Cosmology and Mythology
  8. The Development of Sumerian Temple Architecture in Early Mesopotamia
  9. Sargon the Great and the Charismatic Rulers of Ancient Akkad of Mesopotamia
  10. The Babylonian Map of the World: A Portrayal of Mytho-Historic Reality
  11. The ‘Victory Stele’ of Naram-Sin of Akkad and the Development of the Public Monument in Ancient Mesopotamia

Marian Feldman, Professor, Departments of the History of Art and Near Eastern Studies, Johns Hopkins University

Image Source: A stitched image showing the Ishtar gate of Babylon in full view. Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Photo CC Radomir Vrbovsky, Wikimedia Commons.