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Customized Uniformity

October 20, 2009

The problem with textbooks is that they offer little accommodation to professors who disagree over how and in what order material should be taught, says M. Ryan Haley, an associate professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh’s College of Business. On the other hand, Haley says, professors’ ability to cut and paste electronic textbooks according to their own preferences can result in uneven development of students across a single program and foil the expectations of those teaching advanced courses.

On the strength of a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Education Department’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, Haley and his colleagues at the Oshkosh business school announced Monday that they are aiming to develop a model for customizing e-textbooks that would encourage curricular continuity without denying professors their own unique teaching styles.

“There are a lot of great teachers out there that can really feel stilted by using a common textbook that they didn’t vote for, and that results in a bad learning experience for the students,” Haley told Inside Higher Ed.

At the same time, he said, it is important that students remain on similar footing with respect to certain foundational concepts as they emerge from prerequisite courses.

The Oshkosh business school plans to designate one professor in each academic department as a “principal investigator.” Under the new model, the job of the principal investigator would be to solicit input from his or her colleagues across all departments, then pen an e-textbook covering about 80 percent of the material to be taught in introductory courses. The other faculty members in that department would then write supplements for the editions they use to teach their own sections, based on their own preferences -- "subtle things that allow each professor to control the flavor of that final textbook" while keeping students in step with their peers.

“This is an actual cross-sectional effort,” said Haley, who would draft the text for the school’s introductory business statistics course. “Other people who are in my department, other people in my college, who are actually consulting in accounting, in human resources, in finance, in marketing -- and bringing all that stuff into the final product that I ultimately lay in front of my statistics students.”

In addition to “incentiviz[ing] cross-discipline awareness to improve curricular uniformity,” the college expects this project to save students money.

While e-textbooks began as virtual facsimiles of the traditional paper-and-ink bricks that students have used for decades, Web tools like Primis Online now allow professors to build their own e-textbooks by cutting and pasting from other e-textbooks in order to decrease the number of texts they have to assign and students have to purchase.

The money from the grant, which was one of several that FIPSE recently awarded for textbook-related projects, would be used to compensate Oshkosh professors for their roles in writing the custom textbooks.

Ed Windoo, an adjunct professor of computer information systems at Nova Southeastern University and Regis University who has studied e-textbooks, said he wonders whether using monetary compensation as a carrot might backfire once the grant runs out.

“Say you go ahead and use up the $300,000 over the next couple years, and you write all these books, and everything is great,” Windoo said. “Now the money’s dried up, and these books need to be updated every few years, right? Who’s going to do it? You think you’re going to be able to get people to sit down and write textbooks for free?”

But Haley said the grant money was just to prompt widespread initial participation. The bulk of the work would happen at the beginning, he said; updating the e-texts periodically would not be so labor-intensive as to require monetary compensation.

At the same time, he noted, colleges that might seek to replicate the Oshkosh model would have to make a similar upfront investment, and they might not be able to depend on a government grant.

 

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