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Open Educational Resources (OER) in the Discipline of Mathematics (July 2018): The Key Players

By Andrew Misseldine

The Key Players

There are many more contributors to the OER movement than can be represented in this essay. Many are individual faculty or universities who initiated open educational projects for the betterment of their students and the greater educational community. Some notable contributors to the movement are MERLOT by the California State University, MIT Open Courseware by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Open UBC by the University of British Columbia, the Open Textbook Library by the University of Minnesota, and OpenStax College by Rice University. Many other state and provincial governments in the US and Canada have created initiatives to support, create, and fund OER projects. As of the authoring of this essay, twenty US states have joined the #GoOpen initiative,5 and twenty-eight US states and three Canadian provinces have some kind of OER policy or project.6 Many other organizations exist to aid in the creation and consumption of OER, including some non-profit organizations such as Creative Commons, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Open Education Group, and the Open Textbook Network. Several for-profit companies have joined the OER landscape as well, including Lumen Learning, Knewton, Odigia, and WebAssign, to name just a few.

However, four key players are important to note here, as their contributions will particularly contribute to the future of math OER: OpenStax College, the American Institute of Mathematics, PreTeXt, and Lumen Learning.

OpenStax College is a subsidiary of Rice University and is funded through a number of philanthropic supporters. OpenStax can be viewed as an open publisher. To date, OpenStax has published forty-six high quality textbooks across the disciplines at the college and high school level; there are presently eleven mathematics titles. These math textbooks come from developmental and general education math courses, consisting primarily of algebra, calculus, and statistics. While its math library is fairly small, OpenStax has set the standard and model for creating high quality OER. Each text from OpenStax was written by a team of content experts, has been peer-reviewed and proofed, and is designed for standard college curricula. In other words, OpenStax develops books that exemplify our definition of “high quality” from the introduction.

In addition to offering textbooks in multiple digital and print formats, OpenStax provides useful ancillary materials to faculty and students such as lecture slides, question banks, solution manuals, and supporting technologies. These ancillary materials are either produced by OpenStax’s team or through partnerships with commercial companies, an option that is particularly useful for providing supporting technologies that OpenStax lacks the capacity to develop or maintain. Although these OpenStax partners typically charge students a usage fee, this is often a necessary compromise, as this enables students to engage in high-impact learning activities that are only possible with such technologies. OpenStax offers its users all the same options as a traditional publisher at little to no cost. OpenStax’s greatest weakness is, frankly, the lack of competition. Faculty and students will greatly benefit if other similar organizations emerge to offer a range of textbook options. Most likely, the OER movement will create such rivals.

The American Institute of Mathematics (AIM) is a second major player in the OER realm. AIM promotes the development of OER through its Open Textbook Initiative. The Open Textbook Initiative’s home page states that “the AIM Editorial Board has developed evaluation criteria to identify the books that are suitable for use in traditional university courses. The Editorial Board maintains a list of Approved Textbooks which have been judged to meet these criteria.” The Approved Textbook list will be explained further in the next section. AIM’s Open Textbook Initiative does much more than simply pass on information about textbooks. In particular, AIM provides guidance, as mentioned above, to potential authors looking to produce their own high quality mathematics OER, fostering the creation of future resources.

Open Oregon is the OER initiative of the state of Oregon; its greatest contribution to the OER of math is the PreTeXt project (formerly known as MathBook XML). PreTeXt aids authors in the creation of mathematical OER textbooks. As such, it is not surprising that it is also funded by AIM, along with other supporters such as the National Science Foundation. Math typesetting entails specific requirements that are most commonly satisfied by the use of LaTeX, a coding language designed for mathematics and the sciences. Writing their textbooks in PreTeXt enables authors to use mathematical notations in a style similar to LaTeX and HTML, with which they are probably familiar, and has the capacity to simultaneously output to multiple formats such as pdf, online, print, and ePub. Math OER textbooks created using PreTeXt are generally the best quality in presentation and formatting. These textbooks have set the gold standard for all other math OER textbooks. Two noteable textbooks are A First Course in Linear Algebra by Robert A. Beezer and Abstract Algebra: Theory and Applications by Tom Judson. Beezer is the leader of the PreTeXt project and an important supporter of OER development in mathematics. In addition to authoring math textbooks, PreTeXt supports the integration of WebWork (an open source homework platform) and Sage (an open source mathematical computing software) exercises directly into the digital version of the textbook. These capacities, among others, make PreTeXt the ideal format to create open mathematical texts.

Lumen Learning is an excellent example of a for-profit organization that contributes to the OER realm. Luman offers digital courseware useful to supplement or customize preexisting OER at a fraction of the cost compared to traditional publishers. Lumen has a wide library of textbooks it complements, including many mathematical textbooks. These types of commercial partnerships—similar to those described with OpenStax—present a powerful opportunity for open textbooks to compete with traditional publishers. Such commercial partnerships will strengthen OER’s platform, not weaken it. Frankly, openness is about options: the more options are available, the better for faculty and students—even if some options come with a cost. Lumen’s business model is not unique, but it receives this honorable mention because it also financially supports MyOpenMath, an open, online homework platform for mathematics powered by the Internet Mathematics Assessment System.

 

5. “#GoOpen States,” US Office of Educational Technology, accessed March 20, 2018. https://tech.ed.gov/open/states

6. “List of North American OER Policies & Projects,” SPARC, accessed March 20, 2018, https://sparcopen.org/our-work/list-of-oer-policies-projects/