Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Freeing The Course Part 2: Course Readings

So now we come to the next part in our series on “Freeing the Course.”  In the first part, we dealt with free programs and tools, this time, we're looking at free readings and material for your class.  We all know that textbooks are a significant challenge for any course.  The prices are challenging for students between affording them, getting them from the bookstore, and glitches or problems with financial aid.  Then, of course, there is the problem of ordering them online on their own and waiting.

So what about free material online?  There’s lots of it.  Vast amounts, in fact.  So what do we make of that and how do we use it?  There are several considerations that you want to think about before venturing onto using online materials that is worth considering.

1.    How much will they be reading online?  Reading on screen has been found to be more challenging than reading a physical text.  Some of this may come to change with improved technology, but it’s something worth keeping in mind.  One way to offset this is to make sure the physical text may be available (on reserve in the library, as a “recommended” purchase in the bookstore, or just through the library and inter-library loan.

2.    Do you want students to have the readings in class?  Many faculty members will want students to have them in hand in class.  So this might mean you need to clarify your technology usage policy in your classroom to encourage students to bring laptop or tablet devices.  However, many of your students may want to print the material.  If that’s the case, please make sure you provide them with sufficient guidelines on how to print efficiently (such as double-sided or printing 2 pages on 1 side of a paper to get 4 pages per piece of paper).  Not only does this promote more environmentally friendly results, but students are limited in the amount they can print before the school charges them and you don’t want to use the student’s entire semester budget for just your class.

3.    How reliable are the readings to stay where they are?  We know the internet can be quirky.  That awesome site that’s here today can be gone tomorrow.  So in selecting readings, make sure you choose reliable sites or sites that have been around for several years (though that’s no guarantee that they will always be around).  You might want to find the source in several places or alternatives to each reading.

4.    What do you want the students (or yourself) to do with the readings?  As we’ll see below, the online environment allows for something that you cannot with regular texts (at least not as easily) and that is create a collaboratively annotated online text.  So maybe all you want your students to do is to read the material.  But you can also start to push the students to engage with the material and voice opinions or thoughts on particular passages directly onto the page, using tools like Diigo.

Ok, so what are some of those resources that you may want to consider:

The first handful sources of particular use for the Humanities and Social Sciences (though other disciplines are apt to find great nuggets to include in their courses from these sites):  The Internet Archive, The Gutenberg Project, Wikisource, and Librivox.  There are large repositories of the public domain which includes books and textual material in the case of Archive, Gutenberg Project, and Wikisource, but also sound in the case of Librivox and images, sounds, videos, text, programs, and well, the entire internet, in the case of The Internet Archive.  Some of these sites only offer html-based text resources, but Archive does a decent job of providing formats that are operable in different eReaders.

Librivox offers user-based sound recordings of works that are in the public domain.  This can be great for giving students access to audio renderings of readings.  However, it could also be a great idea as an assignment for students to create additional reading in the public domain; it might be a great service learning project for a communications, media, or English course.
Meanwhile, if you are looking for a standard textbook, Flatworld Knowledge might be your place to be.  From this site, you can select and use an online textbook FOR FREE for your class.  As the site explains it, "It’s this easy: search our catalog, request a print review copy or review our book online, complete an online adoption form, give a URL to your students, and download our supplements. Done. It really is that easy."    The text is free for students to read online and if they want to order a physical copy, they can for a reasonable price.  Faculty can also chose to customize the text if they so choose.

In addition to these Internet-based sources, there are also two great tools that are available through the library.  The first is Ebrary, the library’s digital library, giving students access to 1000s of books both popular and academic.  Faculty can assign entire books or individual chapters from a range of books.  Ebrary also includes some great tools such as a notes section, annotations, and highlight so students can engage more with the text.  Overdrive is another great source for access to digital copies of both books (more popular books in this case) and audiobooks.  The one drawback with Overdrive is that there are limitations on the amount of students that can virtually check out a book.  But it might be useful to direct students if you have them doing research or required to read an outside book on their own.

Finally, for developing content online as opposed to standard pay-for texts, I’d highly recommend Diigo.  This is a social bookmarking tool that allows you to not only create and share bookmarks, but if you create a group, you can collaboratively annotate and highlight any page you bookmark (or that students bookmark).  Some faculty enjoy using a variety of websites including blogs, newspapers, and other online sources.  They can create a Diigo group for their class, organize the links into different “chapters” or “weekly readings.”  But what’s great is that the faculty can annotate and highlight passages on the website that students will be able to see or faculty can require students to write commentary on the website.  In effect, this creates a “living text” that the faculty member can use each semester, adding or subtracting as it makes sense to do so.  For more exploration of Diigo’s uses, check out our playlist on Youtube.

One last note.  It’s important that you explain to students the expectations around your course material in terms of how they should be used.  Students may not have had material online to read and so giving them some directions and guidelines about how to read (and notate) online as well as resources to overcome problems and alternative places they can find the material is really important.  It’s frustrating to the faculty member when the student doesn’t do the reading, but it’s equally frustrating for the student when the reading isn’t accessible.
  • What are barriers for you to keep you from using online materials instead of the standard physical text?
  • What kind of online material have you used?  What did you like and dislike about it?
  • What would be your ideal for online materials?  How would it work?