Interview with Donna Gaudet, Head of Mathematics Department, SCC, the United States
Interview conducted by: Derek Moore, Instructional Designer at eLSI, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa
Professor Donna Gaudet, maths head at Scottsdale Community College (SCC) in Arizona, leads a team of 19 mathematics faculty who, since 2012, have been creating a range of open education resources (OER) in mathematics, right across the department. Since their decision to go open a year and a half ago, the math faculty members of SCC have been prolific and authored numerous resources including a number of workbooks – three of them over 300 pages and one over 500 pages long. The titles include Basic Arithmetic (2nd edition), Introductory Algebra (3rd edition) and Intermediate Algebra (3rd edition) and these books were released in time for the 2013 semester.
As anyone who has authored a textbook can attest to, publishing educational materials is a time consuming activity not to be taken lightly. I recently had the opportunity to interview Donna, via Skype, about their efforts and to ask her more about the backstory to their decision to convince a maths department to put all their efforts into creating open educational resources for all of the pre-college classes.
What prompted you to start this free and open trajectory?
SCC’s journey away from commercial resources and into OER’s was prompted by a publisher’s online homework system. Homework is a central part of SCC’s math courses and this commercial publisher kept on raising the prices for student licences of their assessments tool. Initially a student licence cost $30, but as licences kept getting more expensive without any marked improvement in features, the department decided to look around for an alternative. Once an equivalent free open source assessment tool was found, the new platform freed mathematicians of their dependency to the publisher and faculty were able to start incorporating OER’s in their courses.
What’s the name of this alternative assessment software?
The alternative software is called IMathAS. It’s a web-based mathematics assessment and course management platform and is available as free and open source software. This system is designed for mathematics, providing delivery of homework, quizzes, tests, practice tests, and diagnostics with rich mathematical content. Students can receive immediate feedback on algorithmically generated questions with numerical or algebraic expression answers.
Why Open Education Resources?
After we reviewed textbook options for all our faculty we decided to author our own resources. Cost was probably the major motivation.
Who is responsible for creating these OER materials?
Within the department, different faculty members work with different materials. Some are focussed on free text books, others on making videos and others on writing workbooks. All of my colleagues’ efforts are different elements of a mosaic, with different people working on different things, all of them somehow related to open and then fit together. There isn’t one person creating the materials, but about half of the full-time faculty are creating open resources in the course that they are responsible for, and all faculty are using them.
How do students access your materials?
Students access to materials has developed and changed over the last two years. Initially students were told, “Here’s a link to the digital materials.”. While this link offered students access, students also demonstrated a little short sightedness, and after printing out what was necessary for the lesson, and completing the exercises, they would throw it away without any thought about studying for midterm exams. The department now works with a local publisher to make print copies available in the bookstore, which means they pay $20 instead of paying nothing online. Currently, I rquire students to have a printed version of the workbooks by the second week of class. They can either buy the workbook in the bookstore or, if they have access to unlimited printing, they can go to the course website and print it out and bring it to class.
Do you envisage students accessing only digital versions of your learning materials?
Math, at least to these mathematicians, is a very tactile thing. I believe that you can’t do it all in your head. The department wants students using printed materials and writing on it until students have tablets that can actually be written on. Until then, we’d prefer to work with printed paper resources.
Did these OERs make any great difference to student outcomes?
Academics are always interested in improving student’s outcomes, but we should be careful about getting too excited when there are some small changes in student results. There are many other positive reasons for using OER, not the least saving money for students. I’m happy to say that our outcomes are at the very least the same as they were before OER was adopted.
What has the reaction of school administrators been to this project?
At the local level, Scottsdale Community College school administrators are very supportive of this initiative. The district administration is also supportive of this work and have supported the creation of an OER steering team that has members on each campus in the district (there are 10), which meets twice a month. The OER steering team are aiming to get course fees to pay for the costs of producing these materials.
Are you trying to broaden some of these positive outcomes of OER beyond maths?
Apart from trying to figure out ways to get other colleges to support this model, the OER steering team is also looking at the entire district’s published data about the top 25 courses by enrolment and are investigating whether there’s interest from these academics to put together OER materials. Their rationale is: take the first 3 of these 25 courses, English 102, Reading 091 and Pyschology 101, and generate interest from these faculty to put together a few course materials. The OER steering group is also looking at ways in which they can offer authors some funding for their efforts. While the amount offered will not be a lot, US$7500 per quarter per course, the message being sent out that institutionally, SCC supports faculty efforts to create and pull together OER materials.
This sounds like steps towards institutionalisation of OER.
Yes it is. But we have to note that one obstacle to institutionalisation of OER is fear. Fear of not being sure how to find OER or to identify where they are or to define what a good OER is . This fear causes a lot of people to be reluctant in their participation as they see that this approach requires a lot of work. The math department at Scottsdale has become a publishing house and this does require a lot of effort by a lot of people, it can’t be accomplished by one person.
Does this project have any impact on the reputation of the institution?
Within the OER community, the activities of SCC mathematicians are starting to become more well known, but outside this community, their efforts are not being harnessed as a marketing tool. I think that if they could have 75% of all classes using OER on campus, then this initiative would have reputational impact and could be used to really attract students.
Does OER production contribute to professional development ?
Most definitely. it’s one thing to put together some OER stuff for your own class and know you are never going to share it with anyone. It’s another thing to raise the bar and create materials that you know at a minimum are being used by 30 or 40 people in your department. This act of sharing within a department puts faculty under a microscope, and academics have recognised the need to present their material professionally. OER production has both necessitated and enabled the department to work together, and this collaboration has led to great satisfaction.
Do you think you could maybe look at the future and tell me what you hope to see in the next three to five years?
In 5 years time, when an institution decides that they want to make OER work for them, they are going to have to find in-house means to support people that are doing this work and help it grow. For OER to be more than a flash in the pan, institutions are going to have to find a way to make their OER efforts sustainable. Institutions are going to have to find a way to support the faculty, and a framework needs to be set in place to support them, and what they have started doing. Within our department, four people are constantly working on OER and an additional 10 to 12 are active. Because of the four faculty pushing OER, I was able to go to my administrator and say that this is a group who are trying to support a department level initiative and some specific administrative time should be awarded to them for this increased work load. We created OER Coordinator positions or roles, and this allows us to claim a certain amount of credit for our hours. Initiatives like this are helpful because when the team is producing the stuff and working with the stuff after the 10th or 11th semester you don’t go, ‘I’m still doing this for nothing’.
If you had to describe open education at your institution in five words what would they be?
If we start with the department, I would say it’s engaging, it’s energising; it’s rewarding, its community building. It’s probably not fair to just try and come up with 5 words at the institution level because we are not really there yet.