Innovation Lives Here

For Dr. Robert Petry, being effective in the classroom isn’t just about what he teaches—it’s also about how. Much like his scholarly colleagues in disciplines such as visual arts and film, Petry’s medium profoundly affects his message. The Campion College mathematics and statistics instructor has developed “open” textbooks that are changing the way his students—and others at the University of Regina and beyond—access knowledge.

Developing open textbooks is one way instructors free themselves and their students from the typical limitations of textbook contents, publishing cycles, and copyright restrictions. Put simply, instructors develop open textbooks so that their contents can be tailored to specific classes and audiences, shared freely with other content developers, and potentially offered at a lower cost to students.
Open textbooks find their origins in the world of open source computer programming, which is also known as the “free software” movement. The concept of free software was pioneered by American thinker and activist Richard Stallman, whose approach to software development has revolutionized ideas around personal liberty and the flow of ideas in the information age. For Stallman, software freedom hinges on the principle that users and developers must experience the following four freedoms:

• To run the program as you wish, for any purpose.
• To study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
• To redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour.
• To distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this, you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes.

For many, the word “free” implies “gratis” or “without cost” rather than “without controls,” so Stallman uses the phrase “free as in speech, not free as in beer” to highlight the difference. Developers, in Stallman’s view, should always aim to create software that is “free as in speech.”

Of course, the notions of liberty and openness that underpin the free software movement run contrary to our modern conventions of ownership and copyright. Petry, in explaining the breadth of Stallman’s significance, notes, “Stallman’s insight was to note that rather than removing one’s copyright to the material, one could use copyright law to free the material. Most people use copyright to restrict and profit from their work. However, there is nothing in the law that says you need to do this.” What emerged from Stallman’s work, Petry explains, is the concept of “copyleft,” or a “share and share alike” mentality towards created material.

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It is this idea of sharing, of knowledge flowing freely between instructors and students, that fuels Petry’s open textbook projects.

“As instructors, departments, and institutions whose motivation is not based on profit, we are interested in the creation, use, and sharing of public knowledge,” he explains.
Petry has developed “free” textbooks for his courses, and the endeavour has had a few important impacts upon his academic colleagues as well as his students. The first of these is the collaboration that the development of open textbooks has promoted on campus.

When Petry first arrived on campus, he connected with established Luther College mathematics professor Fotini Labropulu, and together they produced a coursebook for their sections of first-year Calculus. Petry notes that Labropulu shared her course material with him, which enabled him to do a better job teaching the course. He, in turn, spent the time he saved converting the material into an electronic format that improved both of their courses.

Petry explains, “open licensing makes useful collaboration between instructors possible because everyone knows they will be able to take the project and any of their contributions with them.” Such partnership is “particularly useful to graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, who may want to contribute to a work while they are at the university, but still want to use and develop it when they leave.”

There is, of course, another aspect of open textbooks that is of keen interest, particularly to students: in a world of rising education costs, can something that is “free as in speech” also be “free as in beer”? Petry would argue that lower textbook costs is one potential benefit of open textbooks.
Lowering student costs by using open textbooks can happen in a couple of ways. Petry explains that in a world where software is free and textbooks are open, prices tend to drop accordingly because no one has a monopoly on distribution.

“So, for instance,” says Petry, “there is nothing stopping me from putting my open textbook up for sale for $200. However you, Amazon, or a student, could legally take my textbook PDF and print it at cost, in keeping with the license. In time, the marketplace would take care of lowering the price of my work.”
As many former and current students know, instructors often adopt new editions of textbooks on a near-annual basis, entering a cycle that is both wasteful and very costly for students. Open textbooks can be updated quickly and inexpensively. Petry notes that his textbook can be printed in-house for under $30. And for students who just can’t afford the $30, the textbook is available electronically at no cost. Instructors know all their students have equal access to the course material regardless of personal economics, and students know “they will be able to access improved versions of the book in the future and, if desired, use the material themselves in a free manner wherever they end up.”

The idea of open course materials has caught the attention of both the U of R Press and the provincial government. The latter has funded an Open Textbook Publishing Program, administered by the U of R Press, to support the development of open textbooks and reduce the cost of classroom materials for students. Petry, in partnership with his Luther College colleagues Larbropulu and Iqbal Husain, has applied to the program for funding to both extend current and develop new textbooks.
While open textbooks have the potential to create many positive changes within the classroom and beyond, they do not come without significant challenges. The textbooks’ very openness can expose their writers to new and sometimes uncomfortable criticism.

“I think, in some ways, an open way of working is challenging, not simply because it may stop you from becoming fabulously rich, but because it opens you up to scrutiny. With software, people get to examine the source code you wrote, so it has to be good. Similarly, if I share a textbook, people are seeing what I use in my classroom.”

But Petry is quick to acknowledge the good that can come of being under the magnifying glass. “Scrutiny encourages one to strive for technical excellence. If the criticism is taken seriously, it leads to the improvement of the work.” Petry seems to understand intuitively that disruption is a necessary precursor to innovation and progress.

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Petry has a favourite saying, one that lies at the root of why he chooses to work at a college that is part of a public institution of learning. “Everything worth knowing is worth sharing,” he says.

This concept of sharing, for Petry, finds its roots not only in all the major world religions, but also in scientific enterprise itself. “The idea of sharing is what moved us from a mentality of hoarding ideas behind walls in guilds to the scientific revolution. A good scientist, almost by definition, cannot be stingy with sharing his ideas.”

Petry’s interest in free software and open textbooks finds itself, then, at the intersection of the ideals of religion and science.

And for Petry, it is at these sorts of intersections—religion and science, knowledge and freedom—that true innovation is born.

Dr. Robert Petry has been an instructor of math and statistics at Campion College since 2011. He holds degrees in physics (University of Saskatchewan, University of Regina) and mathematics (University of Calgary), as well as a diploma and post-graduate degree in theology (Oxford). Petry’s open source resources are available at http://amberlin.asuscomm.com/. For more information on the University of Regina’s Open Textbook Publishing Program, visit http://www.uregina.ca/open-access/open-textbooks/index.html.


Article by Jennifer Arends

Photos by Trevor Hopking, University of Regina Photography Department