‘Combinations Proven to Work’ – A MATH prof finds it best to write her own OA book

Dr. Joy Morris and Joerdis Weilandt

In an interview in the Fall 2017, Dr. Joy Morris told me she has always been interested in Open Access, not only for publishing her research, but for disseminating her teaching materials too. What really motivates her besides the academic freedom to create unique quality teaching materials is the discomfort she feels when collecting royalties for publishing a textbook.

Her textbook ‘Combinatorics’ has since been added to the BC Campus Open Textbook Collection.

Teaching Centre (TC): When did you become interested in Open Education?

   I have always been interested in affordability of education. I was very lucky that my parents had a good income and good savings to support me through my education without me having to depend on work part-time jobs or student loans, while many of my university friends were not so fortunate. The situation has certainly gotten worse since then. When I was a graduate student, I was on the National Executive of the Canadian Federation of Students, where we were working hard on issues relating to affordable education. I found out early that Mathematics textbooks can be among the worst of the science textbooks for the price relative to what you are getting for it. During my studies that meant I would rarely buy a required text, but would look at the textbook of a friend, just to find out what the homework questions were. Since I started teaching I have always been very careful to fully transcribe problems so that buying the textbook isn’t needed for that. It is of course desirable when students refer to text as supplementary information, but if students feel they’re getting enough info from the lectures then that’s fine too.

In terms of direct efforts of mine to tackle the affordability issue, the first thing we did was to bring back with us a 50-book set of an abstract algebra text from a visit to the University of Wisconsin Stout, which their library had been selling off in favor of a newer edition. This is still one of the standard texts in the field, and we have since found that loaning them to our third-year students who are taking the abstract algebra 3400 course was an appropriate way to deal with the issue of textbook provision. I will still be using the set for that course this fall.

What motivated you to write your own open resources for your courses and to publish them under a CC-NC-SA license?

   With regards to the access material that my husband Dave and I have written, it started out from the realization that none of the textbooks available for an introductory logics and proofs course worked well enough for Dave’s very personal way of teaching things. Having always had an interest in Open Access, not just for teaching but for publishing in Open Access journals too, he eventually found an Open Access textbook published with a Creative Commons license that had some good material. After he extended it with his own materials, this has become the standard text for our Math 2000 courses since the early 2000s.

Since then, we’ve made some changes or adaptations every year based on things that we realized didn’t work well. While I wasn’t very involved in the first incarnation of that book, I started making my own extensive modifications soon after I taught that course a year or so into its publication. That’s when I became a co-author of that text. Over the years we have been teaching with this text, we’ve gotten several emails from people at universities in other countries who’ve used the book and found that they liked teaching with it. In fact, this year we got an email request from somebody asking our permission to translate the book into Indonesian for her students, which was a nice expression of appreciation for us. As the book is released under an open license, she wouldn’t have needed to ask for that permission, which made it all the nicer for us as we now know that people use our book in places we hadn’t anticipated.

What really motivates me to choose the Open Access path is the discomfort that I feel when I see myself collecting royalties for publishing a textbook. I am paid well for the teaching I do and I am paid out of the public purse for it, so collecting extra money is simply inappropriate for me. Students are already paying me for my services through their tuition and they shouldn’t be paying me any more than that. It would be a great achievement if we could raise awareness among people about how much textbook prices have catapulted.

What can be done to help raise awareness for low cost/ no cost alternatives?

   Grants or course relief for people who adopt would certainly be helpful incentives, as could money made available to hire students to assist with the mundane details that come with adaptations. Ultimately, responsibility also lies on the side of the students who will need to communicate their needs. In that regard, it is important that all sides, including the students are aware of the research that shows that alternative resources are not harming their outcomes.

 Can you provide us with some details as to what was involved in the creation of  your Open Combinatorics text?

   Our third year Combinatorics course doesn’t fit the mold of most combinatorics courses, which either introduce the material at an earlier stage with not as many proofs or cover materials other than our rather unusual combination of graph theory and design theory (to fit our departmental research strengths). So most commercial textbooks were not suitable for this course. Frustration over my attempts to use different substitute materials soon convinced me to write my own text to present this material together clearly.

Having taught the Combinatorics course a couple of times meant that I had created a solid stack of lecture notes, which I could use as the basis for the new text. The process of shaping those notes into a book was still a big job because it required substantial elaboration of research ideas and thorough editing so that my lecture notes wouldn’t be identical to the textbook.  Having produced review documents for my students that included all of the theorems and definitions we had covered each year worked in my favor as did the experience I had gained working on Proofs and Concepts of how to put together a book. We had used Latex for the typesetting, which helped me with the formatting of the Combinatorics book as well. So one year recently after I taught the Combinatorics course in the Fall, I told myself that had to get this done and I basically spent the entire winter and a bit of the spring and summer working on writing the text, which I finally got done just in time for the next school year.

How have your students reacted to the use of OER/ OA materials in your courses?

   I was very clear with my students the first year I used the Combinatorics book that this was a first draft, which they were invited to provide me feedback on.  In the end, they didn’t have a lot to say apart from a few typos here and there, which I considered a good thing.

Generally, I get a lot of ‘wows’ from students who are appreciative of the fact that they don’t have to buy the text. There are also a few students who get back to me in terms of the quality of our texts. This past year I had a student who was working with the book on her own at home due to an illness she was subject to and she contacted me several times saying that she truly appreciated the textbook because it helped her understand the concepts that we were covering that term. Those students who want more depth I refer to materials that provide more information than intended for the course. By and large, students seem to be appreciative.

 Did you see that writing your own textbook has impacted your teaching somehow?

   There certainly has been some positive reciprocal feedback going forward, linked to the fact that I know my text so well. Because it was me who put it all there, I am very comfortable in terms of knowing what details we can skip at certain points in a class to go into further depth in other parts that might not be available in that detail in the book. I can trust students will find the information we skipped whenever they need it afterwards.

The Combinatorics text is a work in progress, which means there is a lot that I still want to do with it, but I finally decided that it was to the point that I would release it publicly. Until this year I’ve just been sharing it on the private section of my website only because I wanted to first complete the production of solutions to all the exercises in the text. Not all of those solutions are now publicly available, but at least they all exist now and are thoroughly tested.

Would you consider storing your open textbooks in a renowned OER repository like the BC Campus OpenEd Resources to make it more widely accessible across Canada and beyond its borders?

   I would be very interested. I posted my Combinatorics text publicly in March this year, but I haven’t done anything to advertise it so far. It’s out there, and I don’t know that anybody really knows about it, which is why I would like to get it set up in a more publicly available place for other people to use, share, modify, and/ or contribute too. That way, updates concerning new research like the one I had to make in June, only 3 months after my release, would not solely have to depend on me and my time, but could be added by other people too.

Your website not only links to your openly licensed textbooks and article publications, but it also mentions your community work.  Can you tell us a bit about that aspect of your open work?

   In the Spring 2017, I ran an 8-week drop-in program for parents, which was a lot of fun and part of my service role in the university. The drop-in program was developed out of the need I have heard many parents express by saying that they felt inadequate or helpless in some way with regards to supporting their kids in building their math skills. Spending time in my daughter’s school and helping students who struggled in Math made me realize how important support in math from their parents would be to help these students catch up.

Convinced that I could assist the parents, I approached the district with the idea to set up drop-in sessions for them. Very supportive of the idea, they encouraged me to narrow the focus on parents whose kids went to middle school. Based on the results of provincial achievement tests, according to which achievements of the kids are up to par in grade 6 in this district, but drop off significantly in grade 9, we specifically targeted that group to help those parents that are struggling to explain the slightly higher-level concepts to their kids during those years.  When I realized that I could potentially have to serve 500 parents, I spoke to Richelle Marynowski, a professor in the Faculty of Education who specializes in the teaching and learning of mathematics, who then invited me to meet her third-year math education majors cohort, 14 of whom volunteered to help me with the project. It turned out to be a real ‘win-win’ for everyone, because for the university it meant making positive connections with the community, while for the student teachers it provided a unique learning experience that they can now also put on their CVs.

Did this experience of teaching Middle school kids and parents make you reflect your academic teaching practice?

   I certainly put a lot of thought into the ways I wanted to approach the parents. Here the key was to make them realize that things they may have struggled with as kids are easier when viewed from their adult perspective. In working with the parents, I found that a lot of them were not struggling with their math skills so much, but rather needed assistance as to how they could communicate those skills to their children so they would see the math in their everyday lives.

We are offering another set of drop-in session this winter, for which I am hoping to get as many volunteers from the Math Ed cohort. A goal I set myself for this year is to make the drop-in sessions more inclusive to FNMI, immigrants and people of different socio-economic backgrounds or with differing abilities.

What would you recommend people who’ve had little exposure to Open Practices but are interested in adopting materials?

   If you are interested in Open Access publishing, you could start with a Google search for Open Access publications in your field. That’s a relatively easy thing to do and it’ll give you an idea of the Open Access landscape in your research area. One thing that I would like to emphasize in that regard is the need to differentiate between journals that offer Open Access for a fee and those that are actually truly open.

In terms of teaching with Open Access resources, it is essential to first obtain information how open licenses such as the Commons (CC) work. Being familiar with their specific permissions provides you with the basis for the things that you might want to work on. In my own case, when I wrote my introductory texts, I focused on materials that were available in the Public Domain, so that I wouldn’t have to worry about limitations or incompatibility issues of licenses. There were a few exceptions, when I referred to specific people’s research, but again that research is publicly available, so the references I used are completely appropriate. The one thing I was very careful with were the exercises. I decided to create them from scratch on my own to prevent having to deal with copyright issues of any sort. Rumi Graham, the university copyright Librarian can provide you with further details in this regard.

Publishing and teaching using Open Educational Practices might generally be easier in the field of Mathematics than in many other disciplines because our practices around copyright seem to be somewhat different. By citing the sources, for example, theorems can be used verbatim without the need for additional quotation marks. Similarly, people are not possessive of definitions. Both are considered the common base for our work and require utmost precision in the language being used.


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Digital Teaching and Learning at the UofL Copyright © by Dr. Joy Morris and Joerdis Weilandt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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