From Print to OER Ebook to Obsidian

I began teaching at Bemidji State University in Fall 2017, as an emergency replacement adjunct. A tenured professor had been on sabbatical, but had informed the university she was seriously ill just before the semester was due to start. I was hired literally a week before the first day of classes. One of these classes was World History II, which is the Modern World History half of the sequence, covering about 1500 to the present. I picked a textbook I was familiar with, since the professor hadn't done that.

At the end of that semester I was told I wouldn't be needed again, because that professor had planned to return. Then it turned out I WAS needed, because she couldn't do it. I was rehired and took over the classes in the second week of the semester. Books had already been ordered and many of the students had purchased a $150 textbook and a $50 primary source companion. I adapted the lectures I had designed the previous semester, to align them with the new textbook I was using. As I was doing this, I had the opportunity to reflect on the ways that these textbooks were very similar in their skeletal structure, with really just a few details and stylistic differences. I became curious, and looked at several more Modern World textbooks, old and new. It occurred to me that I wasn't entirely happy, charging 75 students $200 each (that’s $15,000!) for textbook content that they would have paid $5 on, if the professor had chosen the previous edition of the textbook (assuming all the students could have FOUND one to buy). Also, I was vaguely familiar with the criticisms of textbooks made by people like Jim Loewen, and I had already been adding big sections to my lecture content to expand coverage of areas I considered important, like the Columbian Exchange. Plus, I had already written a textbook for my American Environmental History online course I developed for UMass/Amherst. I was already a big fan of the idea of self-publishing, which I think had a long and interesting history before the rise of professional publishing in the last century or so. I laid out and published my American Environmental History textbook myself, and made it available inexpensively on Amazon. SO it wasn't all that unthinkable to me to imagine going off on my own and replacing the textbook.

The 3rd semester I taught MWH, I eliminated the textbook and used a combination of my own content and primary source readings that I put in a course pack in the online learning management system and claimed FAIR USE for. Nearly all of the documents in the Primary Source Reader the students had been required to buy were available online, and were either in the public domain because they were LONG out of copyright, or were government documents or content that the authors had made freely available. I discovered there was a lot of activity in the openly licensed education space.

I began joining Minnesota State's OER Learning Circles, developed by Karen Pikula. I also took the Creative Commons certification course, to get a better understanding of the differences between all-rights-reserved and the variety of more open licensing arrangements. After some thought. I decided I'd make my content available with a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution, Non-commercial, Share Alike) license, so that people could freely use and adapt my stuff, but would need to cite me as its source, make their content that was based on my work available for free, and slap a similar license on it. This is important, I think, to prevent the materials that educators make and contribute freely to the community STAY FREE. Without these stipulations (NC and SA), it would be possible for a commercial textbook company, for example, to grab the content I've created and add it to their "walled garden" of content which is technically free, but requires an expensive subscription to GET TO. This is a subversion of the Open idea which a lot of commercial publishers have tried, to reduce their cost of content and make themselves seem hip and up to date. The community calls it Openwashing.

I went to an OER "Effordability Summit" at UW Stout. Rajiv Jhangiani and Robin DeRosa keynoted and shifted the conversation from textbook cost to Open Ed. I hadn't really thought that much about the pedagogical aspects (they don't really teach PhD historians pedagogy where I went to school, or I missed it somehow, so I've been trying to educate myself since then).

Although I still wanted to replace the textbook for my Modern World History course (which I now teach every semester), the learning curve for the OER concept and the tools and apps I wanted to use was a bit steep. So the first project I worked on was turning my American Environmental History textbook, on which I owned the copyright, into a free ebook. I used an app called Pressbooks, which I had free access to through the Minnesota Libraries Publishing Project. I submitted the finished ebook to the Open Textbook Library, which is a well-known curator of open texts. One of the important features of the OTL is that textbooks are evaluated by other instructors along using a pretty thorough format, which provides a valuable element of peer review. The textbook was accepted and has received several four to five star reviews, which was fun for me. I went on to contribute an ebook version of a Short Handbook for Writing Essays in the Humanities and Social Sciences, which I had adapted with my father from content that he had written and contributed to the University of California at Davis years ago.

I returned to another OER Learning Circle and wrote an ebook version of a Modern World History textbook. As I wrote this, I tested it out on my students. I taught them to use the annotation app, Hypothesis, and assigned them to highlight and comment on the chapters each week in preparation for class discussions. This had the dual benefits of engaging them with the content, and also indicating to me which parts of the text were working well and which needed improvement. Since I wasn't telling them what they had to highlight and respond to, I was able to see what elements caught students attention and interest. And possibly more important, I was able to "mind the gaps', and rework parts that were too confusing or too boring to get the attention I thought they deserved.

I went to OE Global in Nov. 2019 in Milan. Ironically, I met several people from Minnesota whom I had been aware of but had never crossed paths with (it's a four-hour drive from where I work to the Twin Cities, and we have over thirty MinnState campuses in addition to the U of M and private colleges and universities). I also met people from around the world and learned about the UNESCO Sustainable Development Goals. This was an experience like the initial widening of my perspective by Robin and Rajiv (who I bumped into again at the Milan conference). A talk by Martin Dougiamas (@moodler, the Australian who came up with Moodle) really drove home the equity and sustainability issues, and the question of what we want higher education to be in five, ten, or twenty-five years.

In the next Learning Circle, I wrote a US History II textbook, adapted from The American Yawp. This was my first experience "Remixing" an existing CC-licensed OER. I think I took a step to making it my own and shifting its focus from what I considered a slightly consensus-driven and slightly political-correctness agenda to a more direct focus on some of the inequalities and injustices that the political correctness is belatedly trying to address. I think once I've reworked it one or two more times, using it in my courses and altering it gradually over a few semesters, it will probably be ready for publication as a "new" thing, although I'll continue to cite the original authors and point out that I'm in dialog with the previous work they did. I think this is how most textbooks are made, but like everything else, I want it to be very visible.

Then I returned to the Modern World History text, recruited a couple of collaborators (which collapsed to just one), and we completed a textbook last semester and put it up on the OTL.

This semester I'm running a HyFlex Community of Practice at BSU. We have 12 faculty teaching about 20 courses. I'm teaching four, including the Modern World survey. Like my aha moments with open pedagogy and the Sustainability Goals, this HyFlex experience has focused my attention not only on the equivalence of teaching modalities but also on trying to expand the equivalency across the media through which my course content is accessible to students.

This has resulted in a new format for my content, which incorporates the ebook with short videos that I make for each section, which include the questions for discussion I put at the end of each section. I've also begun experimenting with a new "knowledge graph" of my course content in an application called Obsidian. It includes content from the ebook, links to the videos, questions, and opportunities for the students to ADD to the knowledge. Obsidian is one of a new generation of note-taking or PKM apps, which are inspired by the zettelkasten system of Niklas Luhmann.

The Obsidian vault that I've created for the students is secure (by invitation only in Dropbox) and THEY CAN CONTRIBUTE to it. I've put the questions for discussion in the content sections, and have asked students to answer the questions on the page. This hasn't resulted in the types of threaded discussions I was hoping for, but improvements to the interface and better questions will hopefully lead to that.

I've also invited (that is assigned) students to participate in knowledge creation in the graph by adding content to fill "blank nodes" I've made as I've been inserting my content. They can choose which keywords or subtopics they want to learn a little more about, do a bit of research, write a summary that will be useful to their fellow students, and cite their sources. Although not all of my survey students are history majors, a lot go on to be social studies teachers, so this is good practice for them. And I think it's valuable for the others, as well.

So these are a few things I've been doing over the last couple of years, sort of evolving from print to open-ed ebook and now possibly to a more open knowledge collaboration. It's a work in progress and I'm not sure where it will end up. But I'm excited about the possibilities and very interested in hearing what people think.