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How to Create Multilevel, Co-authored OER, or ‘Writing Nice, Free Textbooks with Friends’

On January 30, Jonathan Emery, Assistant Professor of Instruction in Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), presented the TEACHxperts talk “Multilevel Co-authoring of OER: Collaborating with Students for the Creation of Course Materials” or, as he summarized, “writing nice, free textbooks with friends.”

In his talk, Emery shared how he is working with Digital Publishing Librarian Chris Diaz, Professor Ken Shull, and others to create a series of free texts for use by the students and instructors of MSE courses. These texts are distributed online and available to be copied and adapted by other instructors. A recipient of the 2017-2018 Provost Fellowship for Digital Learning, Emery won a grant through the Affordable Instructional Resources (AIR) initiative to pursue building co-authored open educational resources (OER). For this MSE project, that grant award is supporting work-study students who help in the authoring process by capturing content in the early stages of construction of a new text.

A single $5,000 AIR grant can have long-reaching effects. The first class that Emery and his colleagues targeted for an open educational resource text was an introductory class with an enrollment of about 300 students a year. The textbook typically used for the course tends to cost between $100 and $200 per copy, equaling between $30,000 and 60,000 of total annual potential textbook cost for all students enrolled in the course. Using OER instead of the textbook, students can either access a free online version of the text, download a digital copy, or locate a printed version online for about $20. In addition to the textbook cost savings, the texts are able to be continuously updated and modified. As such, Emery and others can quickly and easily adapt OER to account for new developments in their field and changes in course design and then disseminate those changes online. Since targeting that initial course, the team has gone on to build multi-level, co-authored OER for several other courses.

Applications for the grant that Emery used are now open. Until March 9, faculty can apply for grant funding to develop open educational resources for undergraduate courses, funded by the Affordable Instructional Resources (AIR) initiative.




This project was not without challenges. Emery shared that he needed to master new content creation and version control software, adapt to variable work-study student availability and skill, and devise a workflow that included graduate students and other faculty. His advice for anyone looking to build OER is to understand that the process will take time and effort, but that authoring open educational resources should be a team-based project. It’s important to work closely with work-study and graduate students in the construction of  the first levels of materials, including outlining, figure construction, and initial drafts. However, editing and revising the texts and managing workflow will likely remain in the hands of the lead instructor and other experts.

Click the button below to view a video recording of Emery’s TEACHxperts talk.


Following his talk, Emery and Diaz answered some additional questions from our team about building OER. (Their responses below have been edited for length and clarity.)

What are some unexpected benefits you’ve seen after going through this process?

Chris Diaz [CD]:  I’ve learned a lot more about publishing scientific information. I have a better understanding of tools and workflows that can be applicable across the social sciences, life sciences, and engineering fields.

Jonathan Emery [JE]: This process has forced me to delve deeper into the material that I teach and really think about how students engage with content. I think much more about accessibility and learning modalities. The HTML-deployable texts provide powerful and variable ways to deliver content – audio, video, games, interactive graphics, practice problems – that aren’t possible in static media like a physical text. Unexpectedly, this authoring workflow has allowed me to better facilitate co-teaching and course documentation.

What advice do you have for instructors wanting to start building OER materials, especially co-authored materials?

JE: If a faculty member decides to pursue the creation of OER with this workflow, they should understand that they need not (and probably should not) do it alone. Support from the libraries and the teaching community is really very, very strong.

CD: Find existing OER in your subject area to serve as an inspiration or foundation for your specific teaching context (your librarian can help you with this if you’re not sure where to start).

What are some ideas or materials that you’ve found to be helpful or inspirational in this process?

CD: My work takes inspiration from the minimal computing community in digital humanities. They promote a minimalist approach to scholarly writing and publishing, which is why I prioritize the use of plain-text inputs, static “serverless” websites, and open-source software. Here’s a good introductory essay on minimal computing.

JE: I focused quite a bit on organizational workflow. To do this, I needed to learn how to use some new software tools. I was happy to learn that NUIT Research Computing Services ran workshops that helped get me started with GitHub (which was critical) and had useful workshops in Python and R (not absolutely necessary, but helpful).

Grant Opportunity

Instructors who want to create OER don’t need to work in isolation. Anyone interested in the AIR grant or in creating OER can contact Chris Diaz directly. Schedule a consultation with the Teaching & Learning Technologies team to discuss how you might integrate OER into your class or explore other related pedagogical questions you may have. Learn software skills needed to replicate Emery and Diaz’s workflow through workshops and resources provided by Northwestern IT Research Computing Services.

Upcoming TEACHxperts Talk

You can also continue to learn more about the principles of open educational practices by attending our next TEACHxperts talk on March 5 at noon. In this virtual session, Suzanne Wakim will present “How Open Educational Practices Support Universal Design.” For more information and to register for this online presentation, view the Eventbrite page.