When Dr. Rebekah Smith, Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Mississippi, began teaching cognitive psychology over twenty years ago, textbooks in this area did not come with much in the way of additional resources, so she began creating her own collection of test bank questions, lecture slides, and demonstrations. Newer textbooks come with more instructor support, but also include more and more content with each new edition. Dr. Smith writes, “There is a limit to how much information is necessary and how much information students can effectively learn.”
By drawing on selective open resources, including the California State System’s MERLOT collection and materials available from the university library, as well as creating her own content, Dr. Smith minimizes the amount of unnecessary information students have to process. This more focused approach allows her students to engage more deeply with the content, focusing on developing critical thinking skills rather than memorizing facts. Finally, by using OER, not only is Dr. Smith getting the exact content she needs for the class, she is saving the 320 students who annually enroll in her classes a combined $56,800.00.
Thanks to a grant by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the University of Mississippi was able to provide funding for her doctoral student, Alex Kuka, to assist with the course conversion. Mr. Kuka completed the Essentials of Online Teaching course offered by the Division of Outreach, and also gained valuable experience as he helped Dr. Smith load the content into the university learning management system, helped to create mini-quizzes, and reviewed the over 50 short videos Dr. Smith created for this course.
Dr. Smith, who spent 200 hours preparing for and revising the web class, added that the process was more involved for a web course and her course revision would have taken considerable time even with a traditional textbook. She encourages other faculty to consider OER options when the time comes for their own course revisions, noting that some courses have complete OER textbooks available, as is the case for Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Stephanie Miller, who adapted an online OER textbook for her statistics course in spring 2020.
Dr. Smith suggests that a stumbling block for many faculty considering a switch to OER can be giving up the test bank that comes with traditional textbooks. Rethinking assessment is one way to address this concern. Dr. Smith writes “As part of the team that put together the university’s Resilient Teaching Learning Community to train faculty leaders this summer, I benefited from information brought to the course by other team members, especially in considering assessments and in applying the concept of backward design to keep learning objectives at the forefront in my planning.” Dr. Smith reports that this resulted in the use of a greater variety of assessments in the revised course and helped her to prepare for the shortened fall semester due to COVID-19.
Mid-semester student feedback the revised class has been positive, with one student writing,
“Cognitive Psychology, taught by Dr. Smith, may be my favorite online course I’ve ever taken. I am thoroughly learning the material in a way that it is fun. This class is designed to help me in the best way possible learn what I really need to know. I can see myself holding onto the information taught from this course after completion.”
An unexpected benefit at the start of this semester was a dramatic decrease in the number of emails in the first week of classes as students were no longer writing to ask about access to the customized etextbook and specialized software she used previously. More importantly, Dr. Smith now has a course that has exactly the content she requires, adds no costs for her students, and is resilient to changes in the discipline and in higher education.