AU prof wins second innovation award
An Athabasca University (AU) chemistry professor has won a second prestigious award for his work creating an open, online, free textbook for his organic chemistry courses.
The Canadian Network for Innovation in Education presented Dr. Dietmar Kennepohl with the Award for Excellence and Innovation in the Integration of Technology in the Higher Education category at its May 19 meeting.
The project already won the Award of Excellence for Open and Distance Education Materials from the Commonwealth of Learning, an international organization that promotes open learning and distance education globally.
“It’s a nice surprise and recognition,” Kennepohl said. “I’m just really surprised that two different organizations, an international one and a national one, are recognizing this work.”
An open textbook
Roughly two years ago, he launched the open textbook through LibreTexts for CHEM 350: Organic Chemistry I and CHEM 360: Organic Chemistry II. It allows students and faculty to review and make edits to different sections, to correct or update everything from minor typos to more significant issues of formatting and clarity.
It’s not exactly a free-for-all, though, as academic experts can watch the changes being made and serve as editors so they can keep the changes that are good, reject the ones that are bad, and maintain academic integrity in the material.
Kennepohl said while the learning opportunity presented by an open textbook is foremost in his mind, there’s another very significant advantage he hears about from learners: the cost.
“The single thing they love most about this is the cost savings,” he said. “With organic chemistry, by the time you buy a textbook it can be up to $200 or $250 for that.”
He acknowledged not every learner was enthusiastic about the process, especially at the beginning when there had been fewer rounds of proofreading, but said most learners now embrace the online model.
For those who still prefer to have a physical copy in their hands, Kennepohl said they have the option to print the book themselves, or even get it printed through a third-party publisher for the cost of printing alone.
“They’re charging in the range of $25 to print it off, compared to $250 for a commercial text. That’s quite a savings,” he said. “So for those students who really want to have something in their hand that they can flip through and really feel like they have something, they can do that.”
“It kind of fits in with that bigger philosophy of who we are as an institution.”– Dr. Dietmar Kennepohl, on the award-winning open textbook he developed for his organic chemistry courses.
Kennepohl pointed another advantage of an open, online textbook model—different concepts can be easily linked in the body of the text, making it easier to navigate, and making it easier to link to a glossary of terms, for example.
It can also link to related ideas in other branches of chemistry, or even in other disciplines—something impossible with physical textbooks but easy with a large academic community working collectively to create materials.
“There are so many authors; it’s not just organic chemistry, but the whole LibreText world covering a wide range of disciplines,” Kennepohl said. “This is not a commercial venture, there are just academics freely contributing to this from all over the place.”
The work related to this project doesn’t end here. Rather Kennepohl has built a research project around students’ attitudes, perspectives, and performance with this textbook. This in turn is part of a broader effort around evidence-based science education research.
That research, in turn, is part of a larger body of research produced by AU researchers about distance, online, and open education.
“We’re an open university and that means lots of different things. We’re open year-round, we also don’t have any formal prerequisites, and we’re also inclined to do things like open education and open research,” Kennepohl said. “It kind of fits in with that bigger philosophy of who we are as an institution.”