Ruth Fairchild, English Instructor, Ridgewater College
Author a Textbook? Yes, You Can!
Students look at me with surprise, confusion, delight. I savor this moment on the first day of my introductory communication classes.
“You heard right,” I say, “your textbook is free.”
A student says, “Thank you.”
The Idea and the Proposal
The textbook I refer to is the Open Education Resource (OER) that my colleagues and I created over the past year and a half. With grant funding from the Minnesota State Educational Innovations unit, four communication studies faculty at Ridgewater College wrote an online textbook to use in our Introduction to Communication courses.
This is what’s called a “hybrid” course, meaning that it covers foundational theories of communication as well as interpersonal communication, small group communication, and public speaking. It’s a course we all teach almost every semester.
This project started with our colleague Keith Green. He regularly teaches online, is our go-to person for D2L and other technology questions, and recently served on a statewide technology committee. That’s where he learned about the grants available for OER projects. He thought, “We could do that,” and proceeded to talk us into it.
Keith is also the one who drafted our grant proposal and offered his existing textbook for the introductory course as a starting point. Over the years, he had written what he called “expanded handouts” on the introductory communication concepts for his students to use. Keith also has created web-pages as a hobby since the beginning of the web and knows how to code. Having his book and skills as a framework made the project seem feasible to the rest of us.
The Work Begins
By February 2017 our project was funded, so we got to work. As we sat down in the conference room for our initial meeting, Keith said, “Okay, we can do this, just remember that our friendships come first.” And they did. Through it all, we continued to work and complain and laugh and enjoy one another.
Key decisions needed to be made as we got going: we established a rough timeline and a schedule of meetings. We chose to use OneDrive for storing our documents (and quickly realized we needed a consistent naming system for those documents).
We also divided the content tasks: Keith would handle certain chapters like public speaking and code the textbook in HTML. Bev Knudsen would work on the small group and interpersonal chapters. Darcy Lease-Gubrud took charge of the images, documentation, and editing. Ruth Fairchild was responsible for creating a test bank and for a few chapters including intercultural communication.
We met almost every week, and each one would report on his/her progress. Then we would look at big picture questions like which chapters needed to be expanded and what the order of the chapters should be. Then we decided the chapters should be called modules. Some days we all would be working in OneDrive on the same section at the same time. Thank goodness for chocolate. It fueled our work and kept us content. By early summer 2017, we were ready to start cleaning up the content. Since we knew it would be challenging to achieve a unified style, we decided to hold a marathon meeting at which we talked through Module I bit by bit. We took over a classroom in order to project the content on a large screen while we each used notes on a paper copy of the module to make our suggestions.
By the end of that day, we were almost through the first module. We felt good about the product, but we knew we couldn’t spend so much time on each module. We also didn’t think we needed to because we now had established the unified style we wanted.
Our work moved more fully to OneDrive. We color-coded our comments and each worked through the modules twice—once to raise questions and again to answer the questions of others. We made edits as we went. Fortunately, we had agreed to leave our egos at the door. Everyone’s contributions could be changed, whether whole parts were rearranged or single sentences were edited. This played a key role in our successful collaboration.
Nearing the Finish Line
Our original intent had been to have the book finished by fall semester 2017. With the book taking many more hours than we had anticipated, it became clear that would not happen. We weren’t willing to give up the priorities of attention to detail and a high-quality end product. However, we were able to set fall semester for beta testing a version of the book. Another deadline that motivated us was our scheduled presentation at the fall CTAM (Communication and Theater Association of Minnesota) conference
intended to help us create interest in the textbook with our colleagues statewide. You, too, can check out the book at http://introtocommopensource.ridgewater.edu/. If CSMT faculty at your college want to learn more about using it, let us know by clicking the “For Instructors” link on the book’s homepage.
With the beginning of fall semester looming as our deadline, we established an online format and a flow of material that we thought could be easily adapted by various instructors using the book. Darcy and Bev worked on ADA compliance concerns like including alternative text for images. Once classes started, we used feedback from students to help us clean up typos, clarify content, double check the citations, and make the format consistent. We added key-word lists and brief module outlines. We will keep working on it, updating and correcting. Was it all hugs and chocolate? Of course not.
We made changes we later un-did, we pushed to make deadlines, we read the book so many times we could no longer see it, we struggled to balance this mammoth project with our teaching loads and our lives.
Fortunately, it feels good to have a product we can be proud of. Now in the fall of 2018, we (almost) miss those regular meetings, though it is delightful to gather to talk about other topics. Keith has retired but volunteered to teach Bev and Darcy to do the HTML coding needed to make changes now and into the future. We’ll stay connected. And our friendships will continue to grow.
A year later, we begin fall semester with an online textbook that students truly appreciate—and not just because it’s free.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.