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OER at Work: A book on keeping information private that’s available for all to read

By Tyler Hansen
Sept. 1, 2021

In the introduction to the textbook she authored on digital security, Oregon State University associate professor Glencora Borradaile writes in part that they want the book “to be accessible to any curious person.”

This means that the information within can ideally be understood even by those without a background in cryptography. But the desire for it to be “accessible” is twofold — and that’s why Borradaile published it as an open textbook, one that is freely accessible to people everywhere.

It’s also a key reason why Borradaile, the associate dean of graduate programs for Oregon State’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was named an OER Champion by Open Oregon Educational Resources earlier this year.

Borradaile is also part of the growing collection of faculty members who work with the OSU Open Educational Resources Unit to adopt, adapt or author low-cost and no-cost course materials.

Read on to learn more about Borradaile’s book, “Defend Dissent,” how their lecture notes played a vital role in the writing process, and their three pieces of advice for faculty.

Tell us a little about the course you teach that uses OER.

CS 175 – Communications Security and Social Movements aims to pair motivation for learning about communications security (by including historical and contemporary examples of surveillance used to hinder social movements, such as the civil rights movement) with hands-on, active learning in using tools for communications security. Students come from both technical and non-technical majors.

A secondary goal is to expose a more diverse student audience to computer science as a field of study. One important aspect of selecting a tool for communications security is that the tool be open source. It makes sense that the materials for this course be open as well.

What kind of OER are you using?

I aim to make all my course materials open! I wrote a textbook, “Defend Dissent,” that covers most of the material in the course that I felt might be adaptable to a course at a different university.

So while CS 175 is a Difference, Power and Discrimination course in the Oregon State Baccalaureate Core, the textbook does not delve into the DPD heavily, although those concepts and ideals are woven throughout, as the particular concepts our DPD courses cover are quite unique to OSU.

Why did you decide to write an open textbook?

There wasn’t a good single resource written at the right level. There are training materials by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the like that aren’t deep enough for a university course, and there are cryptography and security texts that are written for junior- or senior-level computer science students. Those aren’t appropriate for my non-major, freshman audience.

I also wanted to make sure that “Defend Dissent” would be of interest to non-students.

What do your students think about ‘Defend Dissent’?

This is my first quarter (summer 2021) using the published book. I was a little worried that my group-messaging app for my class was silent on technical topics. When I checked in with students about this, they said the book was so clear they didn’t have any questions!

What challenges did you face in bringing this open text into your course?

None! Well, my own motivation for completing the book…

What was your process for authoring the textbook?

I started with lecture notes that were just for my use and expanded with examples I used in more polished talks. Gradually this built up to cover about half the content of “Defend Dissent.” Writing the other half… that took more effort.

What surprised you about working with OER?

How easy it was!

What do you think is the greatest strength of OER?

Knowledge should be free.

What advice do you have for faculty who want to use OER?

  1. Start with lecture notes. Polish those notes every time you teach a class.
  2. Don’t spend time making figures. Draw something on a white board and take a photo, then let proper illustrators take it from there. Save the figures for last so they have a uniform style.
  3. Don’t assume something can’t be done. Check with the OERU staff — they are wonderful!

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