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OER at Work: Ditching traditional textbooks for a true ‘companion’ to learning

A photo of two people working at a desk and looking at a computer.

By Tyler Hansen
Nov. 22, 2021

Cut down on chapter length. Get rid of drawn-out, technical explanations. Connect the text directly to the coursework.

Oh, and make it free to every student who needs it.

Those were a few of the goals Lara Letaw established when she set out to write a textbook on software engineering. The result, “Handbook of Software Engineering Methods,” was published this summer in collaboration with Oregon State University’s Open Educational Resources Unit.

Now the students in her CS 361 Software Engineering class have a freely accessible open textbook that is designed specifically to match her course learning outcomes.

Letaw answered a few questions recently to share details of the book’s creation process, the support she received from the Open Educational Resources Unit, and the people she consulted for feedback along the way — which included her own students.

Why did you decide to write an open textbook?

“To cover the same material as this OER, it would have required students to buy multiple textbooks, an expense of more than $100 per student. Working with the OER Unit, we also could not identify a suitable existing OER.”

What do your students think about the software engineering book?

“Students use the OER differently from many textbooks. Knowing that students often have to slog through textbooks, don’t retain much content and revisit mainly for pre-exam cramming, I targeted shorter chapters with fewer textwalls — and I encourage students to skim.

“Since the OER is tightly-coupled with the coursework, students revisit the chapters while doing assignments. The OER is a companion to their learning.”

What challenges did you face in bringing OER into your course?

“I was in a great position of having strong support from my department and Ecampus. The OER Unit accommodated my preference for using LaTeX and GitHub. GitHub is commonly used in the field of software engineering and provides both version control and collaboration features (e.g., for if someone wants to suggest additions).”

Were there any surprises along the way?

“I was surprised I could write a textbook! The process is not dissimilar to writing software.”

What do you think is the greatest strength of OER?

“Besides reducing financial burden on students, OER’s support ‘living fields’ such as software engineering by reducing overhead and barriers against creating and revising textbooks. They also increase possibilities for incorporating more voices into the knowledge we’re imparting to students.”

What was your process for authoring the textbook?

“Starting from the course learning outcomes, I wrote a chapter for each major area my software engineering students need to know about. I gathered feedback about early and finalized versions of the content from both students and peers from academia and industry.”

What’s your advice for faculty who want to use OER in their courses?

“Do it! The OER Unit has a catalog of existing OER and very helpful staff.”

Learn more about the OSU Open Educational Resources Unit and the support resources available to faculty.

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