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The future of education is wide open

Using free course materials and big data, OSU physics instructor eliminates textbook costs and improves student success

Oregon State physics instructor K.C. Walsh writes on a lightboard.

Oregon State senior physics instructor K.C. Walsh makes extensive use of digital learning materials, including hundreds of his dynamic video lectures. Here he is writing on a lightboard, which is like a transparent whiteboard. The videos are flipped during post-production so the text and images are displayed correctly to student viewers. (Photos by Lucas Paris)

By Tyler Hansen
May 4, 2018

Fact 1: A college education costs money. It is arguably the most worthwhile investment a person can make in a lifetime.

Fact 2: A college education costs too much money. Many students cannot afford to buy certain required course materials, often to the detriment of their class performance and academic careers.

K.C. Walsh, a senior instructor of physics at Oregon State University, long ago realized how burdensome the financial situation is for students. In sports terms, the textbook publishing companies are winning, and it’s a blowout. Financially, the students continually come up short.

That’s why Walsh decided to change the game, which brings us to Fact 3: A required physics textbook that costs $70 today can cost $0 next term.

As Oregon State increasingly embraces the open educational resource (OER) movement, faculty members such as Walsh give learners widespread access to no-cost and low-cost course materials. This is achieved most commonly when OSU faculty adopt, adapt or author open textbooks – those that are freely available online – through a partnership with Open Oregon State.

Dozens of open textbooks are in use or in development at OSU, and the cost savings has been substantial; faculty members who assigned an open textbook last year helped students save more than $1.5 million.

Making college more affordable is central to Walsh’s ongoing efforts to implement no-cost materials in his introductory physics course series. After all, the traditional publisher’s textbook for introductory physics comes with a hefty price tag of $70 for the roughly 1,000 students who take the class each year.

Oregon State University physics instructor K.C. Walsh

K.C. Walsh holds a Ph.D. in Physics from Oregon State, and he was a double major in engineering physics and physics during his OSU undergraduate studies.

Do the math: $70 x 1,000 students = yikes.

But replacing a costly textbook with a free one barely scratches the surface of Walsh’s OER efforts. Through two learning innovation grants and a $30,000 grant from Open Oregon State, he and a team of undergraduate and graduate students have spent years creating and refining Project BoxSand – a comprehensive, research-driven collection of online course materials for PH 201, 202 and 203.

“BoxSand is not just an open textbook. It’s an open resource research project. It’s a whole suite of resources that actually has multiple textbooks inside of it along with other forms of media and content organization,” Walsh says. “Having all of the information and modes of delivery laid out in a menu-driven system, where moving through the content is quick and seamless, really sets it apart from any of the resources currently available.”

The BoxSand website features thousands of videos and other OER that promote active learning in Walsh’s flipped classroom model – one that requires students to watch pre-lecture videos and suggests they prepare for class by engaging with other site content. This helps students form a robust knowledge base, and in class they can work through familiar problem sets and participate in other activities with their classmates.

Walsh and his assistants have cultivated such a vast trove of digital resources that one could argue a traditional publisher’s textbook is no longer needed to convey the course content. Walsh, however, leaves nothing up for debate.

“We found that students didn’t use the traditional textbook very much. We have evidence that we could go to an open source textbook, and it wouldn’t hurt the students. In fact, students were overwhelmingly supportive when we made that decision.”

He is an educator who places immense value in the day-to-day insights from students and those around him, but he also is guided by evidence-based practices.

“Everything we’re doing is driven by IRB-approved research. We track students’ interactions with these resources to try to understand what the best resources are and what the best path through those resources is instead of thinking we know the answers,” Walsh says.

And what did the data reveal with regard to the publisher’s textbook?

“We found that students didn’t use the traditional textbook very much,” he says. “We have evidence that we could go to an open source textbook, and it wouldn’t hurt the students. In fact, students were overwhelmingly supportive when we made that decision (in fall 2017).”

Last year Walsh and his team collected nearly three million data points from student use of BoxSand. There were more than one million clicks on homework problems and other resources on the site, thus providing a characterization of how students engage with these no-cost course materials.

Project BoxSand

Oregon State faculty and staff can use their ONID login credentials for complete access to BoxSand. Give it a try »

Additionally, students made it clear in a set of questionnaires that they overwhelmingly preferred BoxSand to a costly textbook. More importantly, it’s also clear that the website – plus Walsh’s other tweaks to course structure and content delivery – have generated substantially higher student success rates in the PH 201, 202 and 203 sequence.

Since the 2013-14 academic year (when Walsh began incorporating digital resources):

  • Average class grades increased about 6 percent across the board.
  • Student evaluation of teaching (SET) scores are up more than a full point to 5.60. Walsh attributes this largely to the addition of undergraduate learning assistants, who are students who took one of Walsh’s classes the previous year and, after thorough training, help current students navigate the course and the resources on BoxSand.
  • The drop/fail/withdraw rate has been significantly reduced, from 36 percent to 13.6 percent.

To summarize: Grades are up, students are happier and they are passing at a much higher rate. It’s an educational trifecta.

“What K.C. has done in creating and adopting no-cost course materials has already had a major impact, and we see enormous potential moving forward because BoxSand is continually being improved,” says Dianna Fisher, director of Open Oregon State. “This project increases access to learning for all students, including those from underrepresented student groups who need more flexibility in their ability to access resources.”

Continual improvement is the force that drives the BoxSand team each day. Sure, introductory physics students don’t have to spend $70 for a textbook anymore, but Walsh isn’t stopping there.

“What K.C. has done in creating and adopting no-cost course materials has already had a major impact, and we see enormous potential moving forward because BoxSand is continually being improved.”

He is working with a team of Oregon State computer science seniors to customize a free, open source homework system from Rice University – called OpenStax Tutor – and integrate it with BoxSand. Walsh expects it will replace the publisher’s homework system this coming fall term, thereby saving students an additional $70,000 each year.

It is a welcome and long-overdue reprieve. As textbooks and other course materials have become such an appreciable part of the overall expense, a college education has become harder to attain for learners from nearly all socioeconomic backgrounds.

But the momentum has shifted in the metaphorical game between publishing companies and students. The publishers’ financial stranglehold is not what it used to be.

That’s because Walsh and many of his Oregon State colleagues are ready to rewrite the narrative.

“It’s a critical point in history where we can simultaneously take back our intellectual property from the publishing companies and make resources free for everybody,” he says. “We can learn through big, data-driven processes to discover what actually works best for students. We need to listen to them tell us how they learn and let that influence how we teach.

“And then we need to give them the digital resources to make it all come together.”

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