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Open Educational Resources

OER Stories - Dr. Peter Staab

Dr. Peter Staab, Professor, Mathematics


OER, the early years

I inadvertently dove into open educational resources (OER) without knowing this term in Fall 2008, my third year at Fitchburg State College. The first couple of years, I had been teaching Math 1200, Finite Mathematics and reached the point that I just couldn’t assign a $120 textbook anymore for that class. Students were taking it for their one required college course and was probably the last math class they would ever take. I figured they would remember more about the cost of the book than any content. There were two steps that I took during the summer of 2008 on the OER front, the first was to take my course notes and create a textbook. The second was to use an open-source online homework system, called WeBWorK (see for more info). 

A draft of the textbook came relatively easy. Since I began teaching, I would always type up (using mathematical software called LaTeX) my notes in detail. This was fantastic in that each time I taught the course, I could easily update the notes. The software LaTeX has the ability to easily transform a document of notes into one of a book with chapters. I spent quite a bit of time on it over the summer of 2008 and a couple of weeks before the fall semester started, I sent the text to print services to make a copy at cost to be sold in the bookstore. The students were charged the cost of the paper or about $12. I taught Math 1200 nearly every semester until Spring 2011 and updated the text each year. The text was used for the next five years until we retired the course. More importantly, that experience gave me the confidence to do this in other courses. 

Also, previous to the summer of 2008, for the Finite Mathematics course, I had been using an online homework system called MyMathLab for about a year at a cost of about $50 per student per semester. I felt like having a system where students could work problems and get instant feedback was crucial. However, the online homework software was only available if you used a textbook through the publisher, Pearson. So after some googling, I came upon an open-source and free software called WeBWorK that did roughly the same. To get it to work for my students,  I obtained an old personal computer from the IT Department, stuck it in my office and that did an adequate job for about a year until IT installed it on one of their servers.

Next Steps

After successfully using my own text in Math 1200, I did the same in Math 3500: Methods in Applied Mathematics, a course that I designed as part of the Applied Mathematics concentration. The first time I taught the course in Fall 2010, I used a huge textbook that was common for engineers that had at least 3 or 4 courses worth of mathematics. I picked through the topics appropriate for that course, but the students again spent probably close to $200 on a textbook in which only 25% of the content was used.

Before the Fall 2012 semester, I again refined my notes into a textbook to provide to students for about $10 or $15. Reflecting back, however, more important than giving the students an inexpensive text, by writing my own book, I was able to cover the material I wanted to cover in the way I thought would be best for our students. This has come to be the primary reason why I develop my own OER texts.

Like the Finite Mathematics class, I taught this course a few more times and was able to refine the text each time, either adding new material that I wanted to cover or discovering a better way to present the material. I haven’t taught this in five years, however, Dr. Ben Levy has taken over teaching this and still uses the text.

I have either used my notes or one of my more-formal textbooks in 5 other courses, Math 2550, Symbolic Computation, Math 3150, Number Theory, Math 3003, Advanced Statistics, and Math 4500, Numerical Analysis and Math 3001, Scientific Computation. I am also working with a group of Mathematics faculty to develop a text for Math 1500, Informal Number Theory over the summer of 2021.

Creating Dynamic Material

My endeavor last year was to take more informal notes for Math 3001: Scientific Computation and create a textbook as part of my sabbatical project. I mainly chose to create my own text for this class because I chose the computing language Julia, which is quite new and no textbooks had existed at the time. However, two truly notable things about this text is that first, I am in the process of getting it out to the broader public and secondly, I am developing this as a dynamic text. 

Typically with all of my textbooks, I make a PDF version which can either easily be printed or just viewed on a computer—and I have noticed that students tend to not want a printed copy anymore. Because of this, I tend to use a lot of color these days in formatting, which makes it look a lot nicer than my early versions, however they are still very static.

The course Scientific Computation is a very nice blend of mathematics and computer science. In a nutshell, it develops techniques (mainly through computer programming) to solve problems in Math and the sciences that often cannot be done with pencil-and-paper mathematical techniques. I find that courses with some programming in them are very interactive. You “tell” the computer something and you get a response. That is far from static. Often textbooks with programming in them have code that you should type in (but really, who does??). 

I have already created a nice PDF with lots of examples using the Julia language, and a nice feature is that all of the code in the text was run as the book was created. But it was still static. In the fall of 2020, I decided to put my book up at which allows for dynamic texts. I’m still in the process of completing this conversion, but a draft of the book is posted on the website.

Because the text lives on the internet, it can be dynamic. For this text, instead of just getting a code snippet and you may retype it (but realistically you won’t), the code snippet is there and with a click of a button (and who doesn’t love a clickable button?), the code runs. This is cool, but the important part is that you can change the code that you put in there and watch it run. 

Because of this feature, I’m writing differently. I’m spending more time with exercises to encourage students (or any reader) to play. What if you change this, what happens?  What about that?  This is when it gets cool and people learn. I will talk about this at the Development Day on May 18. 

WeBWorK, a truly dynamic OER

As mentioned above, when I first stepped off the edge of the land of published material, I managed to find an online homework system called WeBWorK, which was developed by a pair of mathematicians in the mid-1990s at the University of Rochester. Within a couple of years of starting to use it, I got involved with the project, first as a WeBWorK scholar, a knowledgeable user and evangelizer, but then as a developer of the project.

WeBWorK was first designed for mathematics, mainly at the calculus level but has branched into nearly every subfield of mathematics and is also growing quickly in other science fields like Chemistry and Physics. There are at least 40,000 problems in the library that are easily put into homework sets and assigned to students. I have written a few hundred problems, including quite a few for Math 1500, Informal Number Theory, which is a course for students in Elementary Education. I received an OER grant in the Fall of 2020 for working on developing such problems. The WeBWorK library had very few problems appropriate to this course. 

Over the past 7 or 8 years I have been a developer for the project in which I work on writing code to improve WeBWorK. Since it is open source anyone can do this, but on the development team, I not only produce code, but help review changes to software and work with others.

I have truly begun to realize that I have been using and creating Open Education resources since beginning to teach and have evolved from the material benefitting the students in my own classroom to those at both Fitchburg State and beyond. Also, as web technologies continue to evolve it gets easier to do the “publishing” part of OER and I will continue to embrace many of the dynamic aspects of textbooks on the web.