Last week, Alana Harrington and I had the opportunity to travel to Houston, Texas for the 2012 Connexions Conference. This was our first time attending this conference, and let me tell you – it did not disappoint! The daylong conference was so chock-full of information and excellent presentations that it could have easily run across two days.

While I would love to provide you with every detail of every presentation, I’m sure you’d prefer a much shorter blog post. So instead, across two posts this week, I will highlight the areas of the conference that are most applicable to the Saylor Foundation: the OpenStax College Launch and Open Certification – Badges, Alternative Certification, and OER.

OpenStax College Launch
If you follow us on Facebook or Twitter, you may have seen a recent announcement that Connexions, with the help of the 20 Million Minds Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the Maxfield Foundation, partnered to provide free, open source textbooks via OpenStax College for five common introductory college-level courses – with a release of twenty titles over the next 5 years.

We are absolutely thrilled for our friends at these organizations, especially as they have already secured confirmation of use from a number of universities. This sort of announcement – one in which OERs are going mainstream – is huge in the open education community. So you might imagine my excitement when I saw that an explanation of the OpenStax College Launch was on the conference agenda.

The 45-minute presentation included talking points from David Harris, Editor in Chief at Connexions; Phyllis Hillwig, COO of Words and Numbers, the group that managed the creation of these texts; peer-reviewer Eric Christensen of South Florida Community College (and one of the users of the Physics text!); and peer-reviewer Marie Wallace of Pima Community College.

As each of these individuals presented, one thing that really struck a chord with me was the effort that went into each of the 5 initial texts, the resulting level of quality found in each, and the flexibility of format for the students.

The Process
Phyllis Hillwig addressed the process of developing both the Introduction to Physics and the Introduction to Sociology textbooks. For Physics, the group began with a Physics text, written by Paul Peter Urone (who Alana and I both had the opportunity to meet at the conference opening dinner). Value was then added to this text through various actions like putting it through a number of peer-reviews; converting all equations into Equation Editor for the Connexions platform; and making all images CC-BY so they, like the entire text, can be remixed and reused.

The Introduction to Sociology took a different route. Words and Numbers paired active Sociology professors with professional writers to ensure that content is both accurate and highly engaging. Additional instructors reviewed each individual chapter, a single academic editor reviewed all chapters, and then the text went through a number of additional rounds of review and edits.

The Flexibility!
As David Harris explained, these textbooks will be offered in a number of different formats to allow ease of use. For example, students preferring to study from a printed text can select a low-cost printed option (a printed version of the Physics text will cost a student around $40). The text will also be available in a free e-pub format for students fond of their electronic readers, and a PDF format for students who want to print out their own (less glossy), free copy.

Furthermore, each of the texts will be licensed entirely under a CC-BY license, which, as emphasized by Connexions, will allow the community to adapt, improve, and tailor each text for specific courses.

Initial Reviews
While these two initial texts won’t be publicly available until March, head peer reviewer of the Physics text, Erik Christensen, has already begun utilizing some of its resources in his physics class at South Florida Community College, a move that has been met with much appreciation from his students. He said that his students love the price (or lack thereof!) of the text, and that while its problems are present a challenge, they are “do-able” and the text is easy to understand.

Christensen pointed out that, like the students, college professors have a slew of options to integrate open texts in their classrooms. If they choose to not use it as a main text, they can incorporate it as a supplemental text, they could pull just a few chapters, or they could remix it completely to line up with their respective syllabi.

From this quick 45 minute discussion, it’s clear that the excitement surrounding these texts is completely warranted. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for a very positive public reception in March!

Tomorrow, I will post a quick highlight of the Open Certification panel, during which Alana Harrington addressed’s plans for implementing Mozilla badges. Please check back to learn more!


Image Credit: Alana Harrington. This image shows Rich Baraniuk of Connexions introducing the OpenStax College launch.