Stories of Innovation: A Collaborative Journey to an Open, Online Textbook

Author: Amanda Bemer, Director of Academic & Professional Writing, Southwest Minnesota State University

A Collaborative Journey to an Open, Online Textbook

Once upon a time (fall semester of 2015, to be precise), there were four beleaguered knights (okay, English professors—that’s similar, right?) who tried and tried to find a great textbook for their class, but failed time and time again (seriously, it was getting ugly). This is a tale of how they overcame obstacles and saved the princess from the dragon. Wait, I mean, this is how they funded, collaborated, and wrote an open, online textbook for their sophomore-level writing class and in turn saved their students from paying exorbitant textbook prices at the bookstore.

My name is Dr. Amanda Bemer, and I’m actually not a creative writing or literature professor (surprise, right?); I primarily teach technical, business, and academic writing at Southwest Minnesota State University. In Fall 2015 my colleagues in English and I wrote a proposal for a grant from Educational Innovations at Minnesota State. With this funding, we were able to create an open, online textbook resource for our English 251: Writing in Professions class. This class focuses on writing in the disciplines.  We collaborated with disciplinary professors on our campus to create resources about writing, reading, research, and documentation (in addition to annotated writing samples and videos pertaining to these topics). Our ultimate goal in creating the text was to get our students more invested in the sophomore-level English class—which occurs during the dreaded sophomore slump and when many students are wanting to take classes in their specific disciplines instead of another English course. Our multimedia and disciplinary approach has proven to be successful!

The textbook is titled Why Writing Works: Disciplinary Approaches to Composing Texts and is hosted at

Web view of the course.


Why Writing Works: Disciplinary Approaches to Composing Texts is truly a tale of collaboration across disciplines. As editors, Neil Smith, Lori Baker, and Lisa Lucas Hurst, and I created a series of prompts about writing, reading, research, and documentation for disciplinary professors to answer. After our first professor responded to these prompts, we refocused and revised them. We worked with our disciplinary contributors to help them respond to the prompts when asked, and at times we went back to the professor to ask for expansion and/or clarification. Faculty members were not left alone to complete their work—when asked, we were happy to assist. We have worked with faculty in a number of disciplines including:

  • Communication Studies
  • Education
  • Environmental Science
  • Justice Administration
  • Literary Studies
  • Marketing
  • Math
  • Nursing
  • Philosophy
  • Professional Writing & Communication
  • Social Work
  • Special Education

Of course, collaboration was sometimes a challenge. There were a few collaborating professors who procrastinated better than most students, but as Tony Soprano says, “Whaddya gonna do?” We know where their offices are. (Note: we did not actually hurt anyone, despite what Tony Soprano or a medieval knight might have done in this situation.)


Professors at SMSU were eager to help us train their future students, but incentives were critical to the process. Time is money, and the funding we received from Minnesota State primarily went to pay for duty days for these instructors to compensate them for their efforts (and ours). To date, we have eleven disciplines represented on the site, with two more in preliminary stages. Other costs involved paying student workers to film, produce, and caption videos; proofread and copy edit pages on the site, and code the interactive annotations for our writing samples. Student help was invaluable in the creation of our text—in addition to the work they did (which fit within their disciplines and career paths), they offered insight into what students wanted from a multimedia resource and were able to help us focus our efforts in this direction: extensive video content, pop-up annotations, and viability on mobile platforms a satisfying student experience.


Our site is hosted on the SMSU Cascade server system.

Mobile view of the course.

When we started our work, SMSU was undergoing a transition to this system, which meant we were amongst the first users of it on our campus. As a group we decided that only one editor should have access to the site for various reasons, one being cost (one login is $300/year)—that person was me. SMSU’s web administrator, Joseph Zimmerman, created the template for the site and has worked extensively with me to adapt it as our needs changed. I have uploaded and edited all content on the site, maintained the MediaSpace-hosted videos, and overseen issues such as dead links that need to be updated. Incidentally, the faculty we’ve worked with have been tremendous about updating links when we ask!


There are multiple copyright issues pertaining to any textbook out there, and ours is no different. With the help of the legal counsel at Minnesota State, we were able to create permissions contracts for hosting and sharing student work, disciplinary contributor work, and for our scholarly journal permissions, in addition to multimedia permissions from the same people. We are quite willing to share our forms, so if you need something similar, let us know!


It’s important to note that our site is great now (in my opinion, which is incredibly biased, of course), but it took us a few years to get it this way. When we started our journey we had only a vague idea of what our outcome would look like. As our journey progressed, the destination got clearer. However, our work is not finished! Students love the site, but are disappointed when their discipline isn’t represented—you can help us help students!

We Want YOU

This is the part where I ask you, fair reader, to join our collaborative journey! We are currently seeking faculty across the disciplines to respond to a variety of prompts, provide and annotate two writing samples (scholarly and student), and ultimately help to shape the way students view writing in their particular disciplines.

We especially desire to fill in gaps in the following areas, though we would be excited to work with faculty from any discipline:

  • Accounting/Finance
  • Agriculture
  • Biology
  • Business Management
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Graphic Design
  • History
  • Political Science
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Sport Management
  • Theatre Arts

Please consider taking up your sword (okay, pen–well, word processor) and becoming a disciplinary contributor to Why Writing Works: Disciplinary Approaches to Composing Texts! Go to for more information!

Do you have a story about a campus innovation you’ve been working on?  Consider submitting it for publication to “Stories of Innovation”!   Contact Stephen Kelly, Open Education and Innovation Program Coordinator, at for more information.

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