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Affordable Learning Grants help fuel course material innovation

Faculty from across the WSU system are developing innovative course materials that are saving students thousands of dollars in textbook costs each semester. Affordable Learning Grants issued in 2020 helped fund transitions from traditional textbooks to open educational resources (OER) – openly licensed digital textbooks and course materials. Collectively, the projects saved students nearly $200,000 in textbook costs in 2020-21 alone.

Students benefit by not only saving money on course materials, but by increased engagement with the OER. Three of five 2020 grant recipients, Johanna Phelps, Collin Shull and Paul Buckley, each took different approaches to developing their OER, but each project is proving highly beneficial to students.

Johanna Phelps, English 402 and 461, WSU Vancouver

Closeup of Johanna Phelps.
Johanna Phelps

A gradual move to open education resources accelerated when Phelps received an Affordable Learning Grant from WSU last year. She produced, Consequential Contexts: Principles for Effective Community Engagement in Technical and Professional Writing, and it proved highly effective through the fall semester.

Phelps says the new course materials are not only engaging for students, but helping to drive home WSU’s mission of service to the community, both locally and globally.

“We found last fall based on reflections that students wrote that the instruction was much more concrete and they were able to really tie it to the University’s land grant mission,” said Phelps, an assistant professor and director of Technical and Professional Writing at WSU Vancouver. “We found there was a gap in the instructional and reading content for community engagement in undergraduate technical communication classrooms. And it’s not just for students, but the OER is something we can share with colleagues at other institutions – it’s a way to give back to the field.”

She plans to refine the text based on feedback and share it with colleagues at other institutions.

“This is the most accessible option available and our team at WSU made this transition straightforward,” Phelps said. “We have amazing people to support this work. It’s great for students and I’m deeply appreciative to get the support and to be able to build this.”

Collin Schull, Spanish 204, WSU Pullman

Closeup of Collin Schull.
Collin Schull

Shull, a lecturer of Spanish in the School of Languages, Cultures, and Race at WSU Pullman, was not satisfied with the textbook that had been a staple of his 204 course, so he went to work on a creative alternative.

He combined videos of short teaching sessions with fill-in-the-blank quizzes and graphics by a local tattoo artist to create Diablitos Hablantes. The website walks students through the course and it’s been a hit.

“We wanted to do more communicative teaching and in the old textbook there were topics that weren’t really related,” Shull said. “We wanted to make it more relatable, and the response has been really good. It’s easily equal to the proprietary textbook that students were paying for.”

Priya Panday-Shukla, a PhD student in the Department of Language Literacy and Technology at WSU, was a key collaborator on the project. The duo is passionate about the mission of OER – to lower the cost of classroom materials and thereby remove unnecessary hurdles for students.

“No one owns the language, so in any sort of humanities there is no excuse to make students provide the extra funds for a textbook when it is available by other means,” Shull said.

Paul Buckley, Chemistry 103, WSU Pullman

Closeup of Paul Buckley.
Paul Buckley

After teaching his course for three years, Buckley knew what material was working for his students and what was not working. He essentially distilled his class lectures into an OER textbook, and his daughter – a first-year chemistry student at Princeton – pitched in with illustrations.

“This is a unique class, so there was not a book out there that really matched it,” said Buckley, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at WSU Pullman. “We were using a traditional General Chemistry book, but we would jump around to all different parts of the book. Having our own (OER) book will help with the flow of the class and make it more seamless.”

While creating OER material can be a significant undertaking, it does not need to be complicated. Buckley is simply compiling the text he’s written and his daughter’s illustrations in Notability – a digital whiteboard app – and creating a PDF document.

“I would definitely encourage people to explore OER and be open to the idea,” Buckley said. “A lot of students don’t bother to read the book, so if you can tailor a book to the course, they’re more likely to use the resource.”

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