Distributing Your OER Materials: A Broadened Approach

The astronomical costs of textbooks are a significant barrier to student success, and Open Educational Resources are a welcome solution to the problem.  My intention here is not to advocate OER, but to describe some limitations of OER and how those limitations can be overcome by individual OER authors.

A potential problem with using OER in college courses is the fact that OER textbooks exist largely in a digital universe.  In rural areas, students may live where data is a premium, and they are reluctant to spend large amounts of time “logged into”an LMS.  Many students, especially those of us wh.o are “pre-millennials” have a preference for good old fashioned paper books. These factors present a problem if we simply take public domain or Creative Commons Licensed books and place them in our learning management systems.  To expand the reach of OER and develop student “buy-in,” individual authors can expand the delivery of OER materials via several different options.

Traditional academic books required that you write a proposal, send it to an editor and repeating the time-consuming process until one took an interest.  If you were lucky enough to get a contract, you did a massive amount of work, and the book publisher made a lot of money. I don’t know a single academic that has reached the level of “well off” through book royalties.  These days, the traditional textbook companies have nearly priced themselves out of business, and other modes of content delivery have risen to prominence.

We all understand that anyone can start a web page, and content management systems like WordPress have made it easier than ever to do so.  If you have the subject matter expertise and the willingness to work hard for the betterment of student kind, then you too can be an OER author.  The most common form of OER is to write a traditional book, save it as a PDF file, and post it online. When it comes to student needs and preferences, this is about the worst thing you can do.

In my professional life, I am biased toward desktop computers with big screens and lots of processing power.  I often fail to remember that my students are much more likely to access my materials on a smartphone which means a tiny screen.  Because PDF files retain your original formatting, they are very difficult to read on a small screen. If you have tried this, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  If you have not tried it, I encourage you to do so. PDF files are great for professionals, but they are terrible for students.

My suggestion is to first publish your OER materials as HTML files (aka web pages).  There are many ways to do this, but I suggest that you strongly consider the option of starting your own website and building a brand.  This isn’t meant to fuel your ego, but to provide easy access, a common source that you control and keep updated, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO).  If you want your colleagues to use your work, they need to be able to find it. I well desinged web presence can provide many benefits, and keep your materials in a nice, neat, and easily found location.  

I strongly suggest that you use a modern, device sensitive Content Management System (CMS) to build your web presence.  There are many optinos, but I strongly recommend the WordPress option, which has been made famous by the rise of blogging, and more websites are “powered by WordPress” than any other software.  Just as we academics have OER, software folks have “open source” and that is what WordPress (and its thousands of plug-ins) is. WordPress has some powerful capabilities, one of which is to optimize your content for whatever screen you find it on.  That means you see a quality product on your big screen in your office, your tablet at home, and your student’s see quality, readable content on their smartphones.

If you want to go the extra mile and provide your students with an “eBook” version of your project, you can do that via Amazon.com’s Kindle Direct Program (KDP).  Amazon is a for profit business, but they allow you to charge nothing for your Kindle book because “free books” draw more users to the Kindle ecosystem, and that is good for business.   If you create your document in MS Word, KDP has free software that converts it into a very simple print book format (via a new tab) or you can get more advanced software designed to build textbooks (expect a learning curve with the more powerful software).

Once you have your Kindle book built, you can easily convert it to a paper book, and Amazon will house your book for free, and when someone orders a copy, they will print it and mail it out.  This is not a free option, but an attractive book delivered is cheaper than printing PDF files of the same size at your local business center or university library (where $0.10 per page seems to be the gold standard).  My preference is to set my price point where I make around $1.00 per book sold on Amazon to help defray the costs of maintaining my website.

If you want a better looking product, you can consider “self publishing” firms such as Booklocker.com.  There are some fees involved, especially for first time authors, but you get a lot of professional services for your money, and the product is of superior quality to what most people can do with Amazon’s automated services.  

If, in the end, you have a digital version of your OER textbook online, an eBook version available for download to a reader, and a print version that is available at very low cost, you will have captured most of the available options.  Multiple formats of your OER books will appeal to the maximum number of students, and provide alternatives to expensive textbooks at no or very little cost. This removes a significant barrier to student success.

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