Monthly Archives: November 2015

OpenStax: Free Online Textbooks

The world of Open Educational Resources (OERs) is quite vast and can be difficult to navigate.  In the webinar I listened to a few weeks back, the folks at Inside Higher Education’s annual survey of faculty and administrator attitudes toward technology found that faculty tended to be interested in learning more about OERs, but appeared unsure of how and where to start.  Certainly, there are many free resources available, but like any other resource found on the Internet, the quality can be questionable. Enter in OpenStax for college textbooks.

OpenStax is a site dedicated to the creation, sharing, and adapting of college level textbooks.  Most of these books are for the lower-level introductory courses and have books for topics in physics, mathematics, psychology, sociology, economics, and biology to name just a few.  OpenStax was created by a faculty member of Rice University and the content that is shared on this site are vetted and peer-reviewed and are under the creative commons license. It is supported by grants from several foundations

These books are customizeable for individual courses and instructors are allowed to customize the books using their online platform.  When I attempted to play with the customization, I was not able to because of a registration error as of the time of this blog posting, but it may be worth one’s time if you wish to have a book tailored to your particular course’s needs.

When briefly reviewing the Intro to Pyschology book available, I’d say that the content is pretty comparable to most other books available commercially.  The modules did include a few links to some hands-on activities and videos and there are a few review questions at the end.  Unlike the books available by commercial publishers, the end of module questions are not scored and not exactly interactive (user simply clicks to reveal the answer, they do not select the answer they think in correct).

This difference is likley going to be the major difference between freely available textbooks like those in OpenStax and those developed by the commercial publishers.  The creation of the interactive content and integration with scoring and course management systems requires more developers, programmers, and has a cost associated with it. In my opinion, this is likley what users are actually paying for now with commercial textbooks.  With the availability of free textbooks online, the content is out there and some of it vetted likley as well as a commercially available textbook.  But the inclusion of embedded activities, quizzes, and videos along with scoring and tracking systems is what currently sets the commercially available textbooks apart.

In the end, the decision of whether to use an OER like OpenStax for your electronic textbook (if you choose the electronic book) or to use an online book from a commercial publisher will lie in how you and your students will choose to use the book. If the use of embedded activities and student tracking is important, the commercial book may be more appropriate. If you simply want the content and some activities from the reading available without the tracking then the lower cost (free) option may work.

Research Document/PDF Manager

I’ve been busy writing a research paper during my sabbatical and over the course of these past few weeks I’ve been using a free application called Mendeley quite frequently.  Mendeley is a document organizer that is focused on the organization of research papers.  I first started using Mendeley when I took on a textbook revision project.  I needed a better way of storing and searching the dozens of research papers that I was using and a colleague recommended Mendeley.

Since then I’ve also recommended this application to my students who are writing long research papers (senior thesis) as well.  Mendeley is pretty easy to use and has been quite the time saver for me when I need to find a specific journal article or if I simply need to search all my saved journal articles for a particular topics. I have Mendeley ‘watch’ a folder on my hard drive. What this means is that I save all my research journal PDFs into one folder (which I call ‘Journals’) on my computer. Within this folder I have  subfolders which separate my articles by the research project they first applied to. Mendeley watches my Journals folder and automatically syncs to it.  When I open Mendeley I can view all my files, I can see my most recently added files, or I can create folders within Mendeley as well.  What is important is regardless of which subfolder I place an article, it automatically goes into Mendeley as well.  When syncing, Mendeley also saves a copy of the article to the cloud, which means I can access my articles from any web-enabled device.  I don’t need my computer with the locally saved copy if I am traveling to a conference and need to whip out an article to read.

In addition to this basic organization ability, Mendeley can also automatically create references (usually in APA style but I think there might be others), users can highlight the articles electronically and create notes. You can also create groups and collaborate remotely with others using this application.

In addition to the desktop application (Linux included), there are also apps for iOS and Android devices for mobile connectivity.

Inside Higher Ed Attitudes toward Technology Survey

Yesterday afternoon I listened to a webinar from the folks at Inside Higher Ed on the results of their 2015 survey of faculty and administrator attitudes toward technology. The presenters focused on just a few of the items from this survey and I wanted to share a taste of what they found and some of the interpretations that were given from the presenters at IHE.

First when comparing faculty and administrators, there was a large difference in opinion about whether or not online learning could achieve the same outcomes as face-to-face courses (faculty 17%, administrators 62%). The presenters were careful to note that this asked about perceived achievement of outcomes. The presenters also elaborated and found that this opinion was more common with courses not taught by faculty. They found elsewhere in the survey that faculty believed their own online courses could meet outcomes pretty well (but not necessarily as well as face-to-face) but attitudes became more negative the more distant the course was (e.g. not taught at my school, not taught by me). The presenters also speculated that the faculty taking this survey may be making unfair comparisons. One presenter speculated that comparisons of online courses were being made to the traditional ‘liberal arts seminar’ class with few students and discussion based. However, I did not see any evidence for this speculation in the data.

Second, it appears that faculty are not aware of what are referred to as Open Educational Resources (OERs) available online. Or they may be aware of them, but not sure how to best find and select them. Some OERs do go through a vetting process to help ensure quality, others do not. I believe the shear volume of materials available out there become overwhelming for faculty as well. The presenters suggested that most faculty are very familiar and comfortable with the process of obtaining materials from publishers and thus tend to use those materials. But the process for OERs is less familiar. One of the things I’d like to try to do is to help develop some form of ‘clearinghouse’ for OERs that our faculty might be able to access. I’d likely be working in conjunction with the librarians and the new teaching and learning coordinator on this project.

Third, and interesting to me, was the finding the gulf between faculty and administrators on the issue of training. Administrators tended to believe that there were good training available whereas the faculty did not. This is another area I hope to address on our campus and will strive to make training opportunities available and to help faculty become aware of these opportunities. Additionally, the presenters focused on the issue of the perceived reward for effectively using technology. Many faculty did not perceive that the effective use of technology was particularly rewarded at their campuses. I wonder with some of our current reward systems at Morningside, if something can be done to specifically reward creative and effective use of instructional technology.

Finally the presenters shared that one of the things that faculty are most excited about is hybrid teaching (some online and some face to face elements). To some extent I think many people at Morningside do this already even though the course is not officially listed as Hybrid. The presenters also suggested that many faculty are doing hybrid courses without even really being aware of it.

In all the webinar provided a snapshot of the survey results and I think the presenters chose wisely as to which parts of the survey to share. I know that I came away with a few ideas for where to focus my efforts.

A summary of the webinar from the IHE website can be found here. There is a link to the full report also available on that site.

Importing Features of Moodle: Importing course materials and question banks

It may be a little early to be talking about getting ready for the next semester, but with registration day going on, it is certainly on the horizon.  A while back I posted a blog on how to create a new Moodle Course. In this post I will describe how to import content from an old course into a new course.

The import feature is a great time saver especially for those who use Moodle heavily in their courses.  It basically copies one of your old classes into a new class without bringing in the student data from previous courses.

Performing a course import

  1. Create the new class
    • From home page scroll down to see all courses. Then scroll down to add new class.
    • See the page in the Moodle Knowledgebase: Autoenroll on how to do this.
    • Be sure you use the EXACT title of the course from CampusWeb (including any punctuation – whether or not it makes sense)
  2. Go to the new class page
    • Will first see a screen to enroll (I think, unless that is special to my Moodle Admin role). You can probably ignore this (students will auto enroll) but be sure you are enrolled as a Teacher. Otherwise continue to add content.
  3. Begin Course Import
    • Administration –> Import
    • Select the old course you want to copy from the list
    • Select what you want to import over
      • May choose to not import things like calendar events (i.e. assignment and quiz dates) and groups – things specific to that old semester.
    • Select the specific materials you want to copy over.
    • Perform Import (takes a few seconds depending on how many materials you have)
  4. Clean up the new class (this can be a little time consuming but better than doing everything over again)
    • Change the due dates on all assignments and quizzes (edit resource then expand all to change dates)
    • Change references to specific dates in any text (labels, assignment descriptions)
    • Upload new documents (new syllabus, updated assignments, etc.)

Using this process the most time consuming element is cleaning up the new course to reflect the new dates. There is not a feature that will automatically adjust the dates for you, unfortunately, but this is still much quicker than re-creating the entire course.


Another importing feature that Moodle has is a question bank import.  Using this feature you can import existing question banks (from publishers or self created) into your course and makes for quick work at getting existing questions into Moodle for quizzes and tests.

Performing a Question Bank Import

  1. Go to the course you want to import the question bank to
  2. Go to Administration –> Question Bank –> Import
  3. Select the type of question bank to import and proceed through the steps.
    • Moodle question banks support most major question bank file types (including Blackboard, WebCT, and of course Moodle)
  4. If you want to create your own multiple questions you can create your own question bank using Aiken format.
    • Uses a plain text file type (.txt)
      1. Use Notepad on Windows Machine
      2. Use TextEdit on Macs
      3. If go through Word save as a .txt file to start and choose UTF-8 formatting. If auto-formatting begins, turn this off to ensure correct formatting for the importing function.
      4. Use this format when writing the questions
    • This process allows for quicker writing of MC questions.  All questions can be written on a single document rather than doing all the scrolling and clicking necessary to create the same questions within Moodle itself.
    • It is probably still best to create short answer, essay, and matching questions within the Moodle Quiz activity.

You can also export question banks created in Moodle using the Administration –>Question Banks –> Export function.  This allows you to share your question bank with others or to save it locally onto your computer.