Improving access: These psychology instructors created a free textbook that has saved students thousands of dollars

- October 15, 2020

Univesity Teaching Fellow Leanne Stevens, left, joined together with some instructors in her department to design a digitial open textbook for students. (Provided images)
Univesity Teaching Fellow Leanne Stevens, left, joined together with some instructors in her department to design a digitial open textbook for students. (Provided images)

Leanne Stevens, a university teaching fellow in the Faculty of Science's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, has always aimed to reduce financial barriers for her students. “I’m uncomfortable with requiring students to buy a textbook. I don’t want students to have to choose between buying their textbook and buying their groceries,” she says.

The commercial textbooks that she and her colleagues have traditionally used in the Introduction to Psychology course cost around $150. To mitigate that cost for some students, Dr. Stevens would put a couple of textbooks on reserve at the library or encourage students to use a previous edition of the text if needed. But there was another option Dr. Stevens wanted to try — developing an open textbook that her students could use for free. If she could do this, she knew she’d never again have to wonder if all the students in her class had access to the textbook.

Open educational resources (OERs) are defined by UNESCO as teaching, learning, and research materials in any medium — digital or otherwise — that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation, and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.

As Dr. Stevens saw the prevalence of OERs grow, she realized that offering an OER to her students was becoming a feasible option. “I’d attended a lot of workshops about open resources and saw that they were really evolving. More people were buying into the concept, which meant more OERs were being developed, and those that had been developed were undergoing more review,” she says.

With that in mind, Dr. Stevens came together with a few colleagues this year to design an open, freely available and downloadable textbook to replace those costly ones typically used in introductory psychology courses. Developed with the help of an Open Educational Resources grant co-sponsored jointly by Centre for Learning and Teaching (CLT) and the Dalhousie Libraries, the text has saved thousands of students close to $200,000 so far and helped ensure all students have equal access to the materials they need to excel in those crucial early years of study.

Finding the right fit

One important way that OERs differ from traditional educational resources is that others can freely adapt and build upon existing OERs without having to seek permission. “I knew that developing an OER would be within our reach. Not surprisingly, an intro course would be the type of course to have an OER before a more niched subject area. Introduction to psychology courses tend to be fairly similar across the board, so it seemed reasonable that we’d be able to move to the open world. We knew that whatever OERs we found wouldn’t be perfect, but the groundwork would be laid. We wouldn’t have to write an entire text ourselves,” says Dr. Stevens.

Through some of the workshops she attended and through conversations with Geoff Brown (shown right) of the Dalhousie Libraries and Chad O’Brien of the CLT, Dr. Stevens learned about some large repositories where she could browse open textbooks to find one she could adapt. She visited the BCcampus, eCampus Ontario, OpenStax, and the OER Commons sites to find adaptable texts.

The Introduction to Psychology course at Dalhousie has a lot of neuroscience content, setting it somewhat apart from other typical intro to psychology courses. “We needed something that had a focus on the brain. I looked at around 10 textbooks before I settled on my choice,” says Dr. Stevens. She used reviews to help inform her decision.

In the end, the book that best fit the bill was American. “I’d always picked Canadian content for all our resources, but I made the decision to err on the side of the depth of the content and the quality of the resources for students,” she says. Working on a tight timeline, she also needed something that had already been through number of reviewers and iterations of corrections, which this text had.

Further reading: Open books, open education

Aligning for learning outcomes

To adapt the textbook, Dr. Stevens had help in the form of the $4,500 grant from Dalhousie Libraries and the CLT. The grant was offered to provide support for Dalhousie educators who were interested in adapting or creating an OER or who would like to investigate the impact of their use of OERs on student learning. The objectives of the grant program include supporting Dalhousie’s teaching and learning strategic priorities and the eLearning strategy, as well as providing faculty with opportunities for professional development with respect to OERs.

When Dr. Stevens applied for the grant, her initial plan didn’t include launching the textbook in the fall of 2020. But, with the rapid transition to online classes, she saw the value in having the open textbook ready this fall instead of sticking to her original timeline. “We worked really hard from April through the summer to get it to a place that we felt good about,” she says.

She used the grant primarily to hire two upper-year students, who’d taken the course themselves, to help out. Alex Oprea and Mallory Whebby, who Dr. Stevens says were instrumental to the success of the project, did a comparison between the selected OER and Dalhousie’s Introduction to Psychology course learning outcomes, assessments, standardized terminology, and organization, to identify any gaps and to supplement those with their in-house “tricky topics” videos. The tricky topics videos are additional resources created by senior instructor and university teaching fellow Jennifer Stamp (shown left), Dr. Stevens, and other students and instructors that focus on those topics that students traditionally find challenging.

Finally, Dr. Stamp and Kevin LeBlanc (course instructor for spring/summer Introduction to Psychology classes and coordinator for fall/winter Introduction to Psychology courses) reviewed the content and ensured consistency with the courses.

Not just changing neighbor to neighbour

“We also have to Canadianize the book. Psychology is about making personal connections to the material, so it’s really important the students see themselves in the content. There are small things that we still need to change, like mentions of high school students taking SATs, or an example about the US nickel industry. We also want to replace mentions of U.S. political figures with Canadian references.

“Some of the content varies more significantly, in terms of cultural approaches and views. There are some underlying views that just don’t fit with common Canadian views. One of the sections we’ve already changed considerably was the one about drugs. The approach to drug use, the criminology of it, and the disordered views of drug use in the book were just so different. In Canada, we have legal cannabis, but beyond that, there are differences in how we, as a society, define drugs. There’s nuance in some concepts that we’ve tried to modify because they’re very much outside of what we want to reinforce,” says Stevens.

They started using the textbook, developed on the open book creation platform Pressbooks, with this spring’s Introduction to Psychology class, adapting the text as the course progressed. Because the introduction course is released in three units, the text was also released in units. The first third of the course went live on the first of May, but the other two units remained hidden until students completed Unit 1, buying Dr. Stevens and her team a bit of time to complete the text.

Advantages beyond affordability

Beyond the financial accessibility of the open textbook, Dr. Stevens has found there are many other advantages to OERs. “If an error is found, it can be immediately corrected. Most of the students are accessing the textbook through a browser, so they can immediately see any changes we make to the text. Before, when a textbook contained errors, all we could do was alert the students. The students have also spotted errors themselves and they raise other things for us to consider.

“We also have full control over how the text is integrated into our course. We’re in charge of the link, where the textbook is hosted, and how the information is presented. We don’t have to worry about something failing and having no control over the situation. There’s a lot of administrative work related to integrating a commercial textbook in your course within Brightspace that is very time consuming, especially at the beginning of the year. We have none of those issues with our OER, we just send the link and give students full access to it. Logistically, it’s easier than using a commercial textbook.”

Dr. Stevens says a lot of students have contributed to the development of the textbook. “We’ve asked students who are using the textbook for feedback. The biggest comment so far has been the lack of Canadian content, so we know that is something students want and something that we will continue to work on. It’s been really rewarding to have the students involved with this.”

Dr. Stevens’s OER was developed with the principles of universal design for learning at top of mind. Captioning and transcripts were already available for the tricky topics videos. “Over the years we received grants from Dalhousie’s Student Accessibility Centre and the CLT to create the tricky topics videos, so we had already done that work.”

Despite the positives, she says it’s important to acknowledge that creating an OER is not easy. “There is a lot of work involved but there is a lot of reward on the other side of it,” she says. Depending on the topic and the level of the course, it can sometimes be tricky to find an existing resource to adapt if you don’t want to start from scratch.

Long-term plans

Eventually, Dr. Stevens plans to put the textbook, called Introduction to Psychology & Neuroscience, back into the world beyond Dalhousie, truly completing the OER cycle. For now, it’s available locally at Some common OER sites where it could be shared include BCcampus, eCampus Ontario, OER Commons, and the new Council of Atlantic University Libraries OER pilot project.

“The idea is that others will be able to adapt this text to their needs as well,” she says. “That really is my hope, that this is useful for psychology courses at other universities and that they would want to adopt it, passing the savings on to even more students. I also no longer worry if our students have access to the text and no one has to drop the class because they can’t afford a textbook.”

To date, the textbook has saved students up to $197,100.

“The only way I could have done this was with the OER grant,” says Dr. Stevens. “The grant provided an opportunity for us to do things we’ve wanted to do for a long time. I hope it becomes an example of what can be done on a small budget in a relatively short time. I think that’s no small change.”


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