PJ Glandon, an economics professor at Kenyon College in Ohio, spoke recently on our Engage 2017 conference panel on the Pros and Cons of OER (Open Educational Resources). Here he explains, as a new professor, how he chooses an economics textbook and the role that adding online economics textbook material plays in his class.  

I work at Kenyon College. You probably haven’t heard of it, it’s a small liberal arts college in rural Ohio. I’ve been teaching for five years, so I still consider myself to be pretty new at this.

I currently use traditional texts, but I am working on a team that’s writing a Principles of Economics text for Top Hat. The first half, Microeconomics, is in use this semester and Macroeconomics will be in use this spring. And it’s been a really interesting experience for me.

I wanted to talk about the three things that I think are really important in selecting a text—and what a textbook adds to my teaching. And so, here are the three things that I came up with: authors as curators; a text serves as a kind of external quality control; and it helps, I think, with buy-in from students in my classes. So let’s just think about each of these individually.

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    1. Authors as curators

In Economics there are literally thousands of papers published each year on a variety of topics and [finding the best ones can be] a really daunting task.

Only a very small fraction of those are really worth bringing to the classroom, especially in a principles class. And so, a really good textbook author and editing team selects what should be taught in undergraduate classes and how to present it, and picks what’s good for principles, intermediates or electives.

I think of the textbook author as a curator of cutting edge economic research—but then also as a curator of real world examples. The reason I really like the text I use so far is that it has great applications of economic ideas. All economic ideas should be taught with one or preferably many real-world examples and it takes a little time to collect those things.

    1. Texts as an external quality control

I think of the textbook I use as sort of a benchmark for what undergraduates taking Principles of Economics should be capable of, and what types of models they ought to be able to master. It serves as an external source to which I can kind of calibrate the level of my class.

  1. Student buy-in

This is especially helpful for a new professor—it’s important to me that students know I’m not the one making this stuff up, that there are a lot of people out there who have studied this and agree with the ideas I’m teaching.

The textbook that I use is written by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok and, though they’re not famous, they’re somewhat famous among economists. Tyler Cowen writes a column, he used to write a column for the New York Times but also Bloomberg, and so students may have come across his writing outside of class. Alex Tabarrok came and gave a talk at Kenyon College and he speaks regularly. They serve as an authority to back me up, and shows students there’s a consensus among economists.

How to use online economics textbook content

I do supplement with OER. What makes the course fun for me, and I hope fun for the students, is that I make it my course by adding my touch to it. And so I bring in outside sources to bring the course to life.

In terms of the challenges that OER faces, the profit motive is very powerful—that’s one thing that economists observe across markets. And when markets work well it actually works out pretty well for consumers. With the textbook market in particular, it strikes me that the decision makers are more sensitive to quality than they are to price. And quality’s expensive: one thing I’ve learned by working on the Top Hat textbook over the last couple of months is that quality takes a lot of time and effort. If people are not super sensitive to price, but they are sensitive to quality, there’s a big reward out there for someone who delivers a high quality product.

I think that OER might require a different kind of motivation than the profit motivation. It doesn’t mean that it’s not enough. The big open question is: is there enough incentive there to deliver the quality so that OER can compete? And to tell you the truth, I actually think that Top Hat might be the result of a demand for a different kind of quality, and so I think the enthusiasm of people here, along with the flexibility of Top Hat, might be enough to unseat the traditional texts.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Learn more about open textbook adoption in the full panel featuring David Harris, Editor-in-Chief of OpenStax and Colleen Knight, chemistry professor at the Coastal College of Georgia. Watch the Pros and Cons of OER Engage 2017 Panel.

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