“It’s A Wild Ride!” Barbara Illowsky on the Journey of Collaborative Statistics

Winner of the 2013 OCWC  Educator Award for OpenCourseWare Excellence (ACE) for her work with Susan Dean on creating the open textbook Collaborative Statistics, it was my pleasure to speak with Barbara Illowsky at this year’s OpenEd in Park City, Utah during November. The interview recording will be made available shortly so you can listen to Barbara tell us more about herself, what open means to her and the story of how she became involved with OpenStax College and Connexions. In the meantime, here’s a snapshot of what we talked about…

More About Barbara

Professor of Maths and Statistics at De Anza College since 1989 and the first project director of the Community College Consortium for OER (CCCOER), Barbara is currently overseeing the state-wide Californian Basic Skills Initiative and working at the California Community College’s Chancellor’s Office which oversees the provision of community college education for the state’s 2.6 million students. Telling me more about De Anza’s missions, Barbara cited Martha Kanter (who was President of De Anza College, Chancellor at Foothill-De Anza Community College District between 1993 and 2009, and then U.S. Undersecretary of Education under President Obama from 2009 through 2013) in describing the college’s open access mission: “we accept the top 100% of students who apply.” De Anza serves a wide range of students, a large proportion of which are in their mid-thirties and who juggle numerous commitments alongside their studies but also younger people who are often the first in their family to attend college. As Barbara told me:

“The one thing that the majority of students have in common at the community colleges is that they are not wealthy. Our students, most of them work and of the students who work the average number of work hours is 32 hours per week … And the students are working, they are juggling paying their bills, especially the students who are not coming at age 18-20. Many of the students who come at age 18-20 have parental support … But even of those students who are 18-20 we have a huge percentage of students that are first-generation college…”

Earlier this year, Barbara worked together with Cable Green (Creative Commons) to draft and put forward the recently passed bill that requires all grants and their outputs (e.g. learning materials) in California to have a CC-BY license.  What does this mean for students and educators in California and elsewhere? As Barbara explained: “so now all grants coming out of this will require a CC-BY license on [them] and require [institutions] to share the materials versus just having them hidden somewhere on their own campus. So that’s a big policy, it’s the largest educational institutional system – I think – in the world that’s required the CC-BY for its grants and contracts…”  As Barbara later told me “I hope that other educational systems around in the United States and around the world adapt similar policies. We have so much to learn from each other.”

From Collaborative to Introductory Statistics

Whilst Collaborative Statistics is the latest open textbook to be released by OpenStax College (as Introductory Statistics) the story of Collaborative Statistics is an interesting one. Barbara told me more about how it all began:

“Susan and I started out because we couldn’t find anything we wanted to use and it was the students who begged us to please put everything into a textbook. We were writing notes, we were writing materials and finally the students said we’re not using the book, we’re just using your stuff. And we went into then packaging it as notes, then packaging it as a draft and then originally selling it through our bookstore as notes that students bought where they were just paying the reprographics cost. And then eventually it became a book.”

Prior to being part of OpenStax College, Collaborative Statistics transitioned from notes to a paper format textbook before becoming “one of the prototypes” for the Connexions repository, which is based at Rice University, Houston. Founded in 1999 by Richard Baraniuk, the Connexions platform enables anyone across the world to access, remix and redistribute educational materials. “A showcase course” for Connexions, the copyright for Collaborative Statistics was purchased from Barbara and Susan by the Maxfield Foundation, before being donated to Rice University.

As Barbara explained, for community colleges “in California our tuition is low” here as elsewhere in the USA “the textbooks actually cost more than the tuition for most students.” Just as the CC-BY bill in California will enable students, faculty and institutions to benefit from each others’ work, releasing Collaborative Statistics as an open textbook, available for free in a PDF format or to read online, increases access to complete course materials and helps lower costs for students. The release of Collaborative Statistics as an OpenStax College textbook continues the pioneering work that De Anza has done around textbook affordability. Through the work of ex-student Hal Plotkin (who went on to become a Foothill-De Anza Community College District Board of Trustees member and is now Senior Policy Advisor, Office of the Under Secretary, United States Department of Education) and others Barbara told me how Foothill-De Anza was one of the frontrunners in establishing policies relating to open access and the use of “public domain” materials.

Saving Students at De Anza over $1 million dollars

At De Anza College alone, use of Collaborative Statistics has saved students over $1 million dollars. Barbara explained how this figure was calculated when the book was being “self-published” and being printed either by the college’s reprographics service or by printers elsewhere:

“At De Anza we have over 100 sections a year of elementary statistics, of those sections approximately 90 or so are using Collaborative Statistics… …Students never paid more than $50 for the books, at the bookstore, new. We estimated based on how many students had used the book and at $50 about three quarters of them would buy it new.

I started surveying the students to see buying it new, buying it from their friend, buying it used. … there was research that was done on the original calculation and then we just continued after that. So we estimated that $50 with about three quarters of the students who were using the book, buying it new, because that’s what was happening and that’s what was being saved each year. It’s probably a conservative estimate…

Once it went online and it was free more and more colleagues switched over to the book, so we could base it based on the number of sections, and how many they were buying. And keep in mind that this was based on the estimate of a $50 book, and if they were buying a $130 or $200 book they would have saved, in comparison, a lot more money.”

Collaborative Statistics: Past, Present and Future

Barbara continues to receive comments and feedback on the online version of Collaborative Statistics from around the world. The textbook is constantly updated, with educators contributing a variety of additional materials including “a 1000 question test bank to the OpenStax College for a teacher resource because [the educator] … so appreciates the fact that students don’t have to buy a book…”

Barbara has also created captioned videos (available on iTunes), and a non-native English speaking colleague at De Anza was asked to write the glossary so that it was made more accessible to non-native English speakers. Continually looking for ways to improve the textbook, Barbara told me about how students had introduced her to a gambling game played during the Vietnamese New Year (Tết). This has now been incorporated into one of the Labs, to illustrate binominal distribution: “we wanted our multi-cultural activities to actually reflect multi-culturalism; not to reflect changing the name in a word problem.”

However, whilst Barbara acknowledged that “over the years the book has become much better because people contributed to it” Barbara and Sue endeavour to keep “…what made is so successful for student learning, which was simplistic language, and ease of readability and interesting problems…” Talking about the impact of Collaborative Statistics, “…so many people have contributed to it, aside from the savings to the students, to me the book has become better, the learning experience has become better, this has been a total professional development ride for me; I feel that by having the book out there I have learnt so much… Now with the OpenStax version … Sue and I were both pretty strong that we wanted this to become a community textbook so we do not want it to still be the Illowsky-Dean textbook … we want to be the senior authors and then list so many people who had helped it … and call it the OpenStax College book.”

On why Collaborative Statistics is not Non-Commercially Licensed

Collaborative Statistics has made available with a Creative Commons CC-BY license. Barbara explained to me why Collaborative Statistics does not have a non-commercial (CC-NC) license, even though others could potentially make money from reproducing the textbook: 

“I wanted to talk about commercial aspects … So one of the interesting comments we have, is how could you not put the NC on your license, how could you agree to a CC-BY because somebody else can take your work and make money. That’s true but if we didn’t put that BY on there, there wouldn’t be other innovations. So, for example, another college… their bookstore wouldn’t be able to sell the book because they earn a profit on the hard copy of it. WebAssign … Collaborative Statistics was the first Open Ed Resource that they hooked up with to do a homework system with. Before they were working only with major publishers. But when I was starting to present at national conferences, and faculty said I love this book but I would never adopt it because I don’t want to go back to grading homework … The trade-off of a student spending $200 for a book that comes with a homework grading system, or me having to grade homework, they are going to buy the book.

So I approached WebAssign – it’s a fabulous company – but it does cost the students $25. So I tell the students, I recommend it but you don’t have to buy it. If you want to turn in the hardcopy paper with your problems worked out to me you can, but I think that the WebAssign has a learning system that goes along with it, they have the videos integrated, they have the books integrated… if you get stuck on a homework problem, it takes you back to the book if you want [etc.] … So I think this is a valuable learning tool, not just making my life easier for grading … now I’ve only had two students who started out turning in a hard copy paper and they eventually ended up buying it. So that’s a company that is doing innovation but if I had the NC license on it, they wouldn’t.”

Openness: Collaboration & Student Success

The experience of writing and developing Collaborative Statistics is central to how Barbara understands openness and what it means to be open. She told me:

“Openness means that I’m willing to share and others are willing to share. And that as much as we possibly can, we take our egos out of this and we work collaboratively for the end all. Which in an educational setting the end all is student learning. So, I got involved with OER because of cost savings for students, and I’m still strongly there with cost savings for students, but what I’ve found is the unintended consequence … was that student learning improved because of the fact that others could repurpose, others could use. We’re now studying success rates; I am making no claims at all about success rates going up with openness… [But] what I do know is that they have not gone down…

But the openness part … I think it’s a trend of faculty starting to collaborate more … Community College faculty tend to work in silos, we don’t have that many grants, most of us don’t publish. So we just go in and we teach, we do our stuff and then we go back. What I’ve seen is that more faculty are willing to share materials … we’re able to work together for improvements… I’ve seen departments get together and write the textbooks for their students, and so they all have ownership in this and when you’re all vested in this then you all want to use it.”

Thanks again to Barbara for taking the time out to speak with me, and for all her help and assistance in preparing this interview. Look out for the audio shortly!

More Resources:

Barbara’s homepage

Susan’s homepage

Jane Park (Creative Commons) interview with Susan Dean and Barbara Illowsky in 2008

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2 thoughts on ““It’s A Wild Ride!” Barbara Illowsky on the Journey of Collaborative Statistics

  1. Pingback: Listen to Barbara Illowsky on the Journey of Collaborative Statistics! (Part Two) |

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