A UM-Dearborn lecturer’s latest project will change the way you think about textbooks

October 4, 2021

Benjamin Wielechowski’s newly published “Introduction to Narrative Journalism” shows off the exciting capabilities of the new generation of open educational resources.

A graphic showing a laptop and textbook morphing into each other.
A graphic showing a laptop and textbook morphing into each other.
Graphic by Violet Dashi

When lecturer Benjamin Wielechowski took over teaching the narrative journalism course a few years back, he was already thinking about ways he could stray from the traditional textbook approach. Even the texts he liked the most weren’t always 100 percent relevant. And both his colleagues and students were encouraging him to lean harder on non-written modalities like podcasts and short documentaries — both as worthy narrative journalism formats and as useful teaching materials. The big challenge, Wielechowski says, was figuring out how to organize this more a la carte menu of learning resources for his students. Initially, he thought he’d take a stab at laying everything out in Canvas, UM-Dearborn’s learning management system, which can easily accommodate external links to, say, videos or magazine articles. But after several conversations with folks on UM-Dearborn’s Open Educational Resources Task Force (now the Open Education Campus Committee), his vision got a lot more ambitious. Ultimately, with their support, he decided the way to get exactly what he wanted was to author his own “open” textbook, which would prominently feature his own students’ work and be freely accessible and licensable to anyone who might find it useful.

The environment of so-called open educational resources (OERs) is evolving so quickly, you might not recognize it if the last time you read about OER was a few years ago and the first thing that comes to mind is a simple downloadable PDF book. In fact, Hub Instructional Designer Autumm Caines says many advocates in the OER community now prefer to talk about “open education” — dropping the emphasis on resources and products so the movement can widely encompass pedagogies as well. The idea that teaching materials and practices can be free, accessible and constantly improved through widespread sharing, customization and collaboration, is still the motivating force. What’s changed noticeably, says Caines, is the pace and direction of innovation, spurred in part by a growing capacity to support folks interested in open education and new technology platforms that majorly up the game of OER authors.

The cover image from "Introduction to Narrative Journalism," featuring a masked student holding a bag, waiting for a ride in a dimly lit parking structure.
The cover image from "Introduction to Narrative Journalism," featuring a masked student holding a bag, waiting for a ride in a dimly lit parking structure.
The cover of Wielechowski's new book.

The making of Wielechowski’s textbook, “Introduction to Narrative Journalism,” illustrates both facets of this expanding open education environment. He built the digital book on the Pressbooks platform, a tool for open textbook creation sporting features that may make you rethink the fundamentals of the format. For sure, Wielechowski’s own instructional commentary still gives the book a recognizable backbone, but the text is seamlessly interrupted by embedded videos, external links, and perhaps most interestingly, dozens of examples of his own students’ work. “If you use professional pieces as examples, often the challenge is those authors don’t play by anyone’s rules, so it can be hard for students to make sense of them,” Wielechowski explains. “But if I can show current students what past students have created in direct response to an assignment prompt, and can show the variety of ways students have approached it, it just clicks with them so much faster.” (Another cool perk of that is students become published contributors.)

Some of Pressbooks more interesting features are its interactive ones. A plugin for social annotations makes the reading marginalia of individual students public to the whole group, creating the capacity to have conversations right within the textbook’s pages. Wielechowski is already using that feature, but when he revises the book, he plans to take advantage of the H5P functionality. That will allow him to directly embed interactive exercises in the book wherever he sees a need to check for understanding.

Though the cover bears his byline, the project was a big group effort. Wielechowski’s book was supported through a grant from the recently reorganized Open Education Campus Committee, whose work has helped UM-Dearborn faculty utilize, remix and build upon existing open resources for several years. But this is the first time the open education community at UM-Dearborn has supported the creation of an all original OER text. “We’ve been gradually and organically building up different offerings over time, but we’ve wanted to make sure we could support whatever services we were offering to faculty,” says Education, Health, & Human Services Librarian Raya Samet. “So to be at a point now where we feel like we can support the creation of a textbook from scratch, which is a major undertaking — that’s a pretty big leap into our next phase. It’s a bit of a pilot using Pressbooks, but we definitely hope to scale this up and provide this tool more broadly to our faculty.”

Textbooks, Samet says, will be just one approach of many they hope to support in this fast-evolving space. For her, Caines and others passionate about open education, it’s frankly hard to predict all the possibilities. But the future of education on campus does indeed look more open. 

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If you’re a member of the media and would like to talk with Raya Samet (left), Autumm Caines (center) or Benjamin Wielechowski about their experiences with open education, drop us a line at UMDearborn-News@umich.edu and we’ll put you in touch. (Story by Lou Blouin)

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