Physics course adopts open textbook and saves students $90,000

UBC students are collectively saving $90,000 this year in a physics course where instructors have adopted an open textbook.

Students in the physics course, Introductory Physics (PHYS 100), previously used a commercial textbook as well as four other services or tools to support learning in the course. Beginning in September they are using College Physics, an open textbook published through Rice University’s OpenStax service and iClickers for in-class response. Instructors have integrated the free, openly available textbook into their course website, which was developed by a team of instructors, graduate students and staff members and is hosted on the edX Edge platform.

Now instead of buying a textbook and signing up for the other tools, students just have to register for an edX Edge account to get started on the course.

“They get to the learning faster,” said Georg Rieger, an instructor who teaches the online version of the course which is offered in the spring.

The new, integrated approach was developed over the summer by Rieger and his colleague, Stefan Reinsberg, an assistant professor in the department, as well as four graduate students, Firas Moosvi, Jason Park, Pedro Luis Esquinas and Scott Veale. The project received funding from the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund, and the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology has also provided support for the project.

Physics 100, a course for students who didn’t take grade 12 physics, falls within UBC’s 40 highest enrolment courses. There are 850 students enrolled this term and approximately 50 students participating in the online version of the course in the spring. With the changes to the course, each student will now save more than $100. When Reinsberg announced to his class that they would be using an open textbook, students responded with a round of applause.

The high costs of textbooks is an issue that the Alma Mater Society (AMS) at UBC has taken up in their recent #textbookbrokeBC campaign. The AMS hopes to raise awareness about costs of textbooks and also promote the use of open textbooks and other open resources on campus.

College Physics is one of the textbooks listed as part of the BCcampus Open Textbook Project, a provincially funded initiative to support open textbook development and adoption in post-secondary schools in B.C. UBC’s Physics 100 course currently represents the largest single adoption of an open textbook in the province.

Rieger and Reinsberg chose the textbook because it can be easily integrated into edX Edge, both as a PDF document and as hypertext. The problem questions from the textbook have been imported into edX, and the Physics 100 team generated a question bank for both tests and homework.

“The text is good overall and has some nice real world examples,” Rieger said. “Since it is an open textbook, we can make modifications if needed.”

While the changes to Physics 100 benefit students financially, Rieger and Reinsberg have also consolidated all course related materials onto one single website, which saves students time and has eliminated the need to register for multiple commercial online homework systems and discussion boards. Edge also works well with tablets and other devices so students can work on the course during their commute or wherever they like.

EdX is a non-profit, open source platform developed by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012. The edX Consortium was formed to support continued development of the platform and to enable Consortium members to offer a range of courses to a worldwide audience, most notably Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In September 2014, UBC became the first Canadian university to join the edX Consortium as a contributing Charter Member, thus joining the University Advisory Board that serves as the chief advisory body to edX. A key benefit for all members is access to the Edge platform, which allows edX partners to experiment with the available tools and host local campus courses.

Reinsberg just tried one of those tools for the first time this week with his students, a web page with an embedded scan of their in-class test that contained annotated corrections next to a solution. “If we were to continue to develop this more,” he said, “the level of customization to an individual student is rather amazing. Long term, one could imagine selecting questions from a bank that’s targeted at areas that a student has shown room for improvement in.”

In terms of going with edX Edge, the instructors liked its features, layout and user-friendly design. Reinsberg installed some other open source learning management systems on his own servers and tried them out. “Moodle looked good but the student experience on edX is quite a bit better,” he said. “It does have a higher cost in terms of instructor time for setup of course material if you want to go beyond the simple posting of marks and lecture slides…but in Physics 100 our students require more than just some slides on a web page and edX can provide that in one integrated package.”

“For us,” Rieger said, “the big interest is really how can you use technology to push the pedagogy and really help the students focus on the physics and not be distracted by all the extraneous stuff like how to get organized and things like that.”

With the open textbook, the instructors will be able to continuously adapt the course content in future years. The OpenStax textbook and Edge integration also allow for more flexibility in how they offer the course, allowing them to deliver it in a completely blended format this fall and online in the spring.

“We both think it was definitely worth it to do it [because of] the level of control we have now [and] the flexibility to do things in the future,” Rieger said.

Please stay tuned for more stories about open learning at UBC and some upcoming events. For Open UBC Week, the UBC Library, Simon Fraser University Library, BCcampus, the Public Knowledge Project, and the BC Research Libraries Group will host an event on October 22 where speakers will discuss what the impact of using open materials would have on the cost and efficiency of higher education and what role governments of B.C. and Canada should play in opening higher education. Vancouver will also host the Open Education Conference November 18-20.