Dr. Barbara Illowsky is a retired mathematics and statistics professor at De Anza College and former Chief Academic Affairs Officer for the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative. She is also co-author of Collaborative Statistics (later renamed Introductory Statistics), the first free and open textbook published by OpenStax College, as well as Introductory Business Statistics. A pioneer in the open educational resources movement, Dr. Illowsky continues to advocate for greater open educational resources (OER) adoption in order to make the cost of attending college more affordable. Since 2018 Dr. Illowsky has served as the Michelson 20MM Foundation’s OER Fellow.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. 

Why is OER particularly important to students at the community college level?

One of the reasons it’s so important is that it’s tied in with overall college affordability. It’s at the community college level where we have the widest equity gaps in college success between students who can afford materials, food and housing, and those who cannot. Sometimes just a few hundred dollars is the difference between students being homeless or hungry. Even those students who do receive financial aid don’t get their aid until the second or third week, which puts them behind. Thus, financial challenges widen that success gap.

How do open educational resources impact community college instructors? 

Open educational resources give instructors opportunities to collaborate with colleagues in order to provide students with better learning products. It also allows them to take action to help their students in their higher education journey. It’s the affordability part that got me initially involved with the OER movement. I looked at my students and thought I can’t do anything about their housing, I can’t do anything about their childcare, healthcare, transportation. But once they enter the classroom I can provide them with all the materials they need to succeed, and right on Day 1 of the course.

Talk to me about how you developed your statistics textbook.

At the time, my co-author, Susan Dean, and I were advocating for using graphing calculators in our statistics course as it was a course for non-STEM majors. It was very controversial back then because some people believed calculations should be done by hand. And we were also experimenting with a number of textbooks in the class, none of which included “multiculturalism” (term used before “diversity”) in a way that avoided stereotypes or were applicable to our students. At our college, we have a large proportion of Vietnamese and other Asian students. And they shared with me a dice game that they played every New Year which involved a concept known as the binomial distribution. So I wrote an entire statistics lab about it. And we were using real data from the county and nearby areas in our courses to give the course topics more relevance. Our students said, “We’re not using the textbooks. We’re only using your materials. Could you put it all a binder so we don’t have to buy a book?” And we thought, sure!  

And how did you transform it from a traditional textbook to the first open textbook? 

We had a contract with a commercial publisher to publish our materials with a price cap to keep the book affordable. A handful of schools starting using it, which was important because some schools may not accept transfer credits if they deem the materials used in the course are not up to their standards. But then our publisher was acquired by another and the affordable part fell through. Fortunately, we were able to purchase our copyright and we self-published for about ten years at a low-rate that kept students happy. This was before wide use of the internet so an online book was not even in our thoughts.

Dr. Martha Kanter, then Chancellor of Foothill-De Anza Community College District, invited me to Rice University for a Connexions conference. I was excited, and as soon as I arrived and learned what they were doing with OER, I was totally hooked! When I got back I talked to Sue about jumping on this bandwagon. The Hewlett Foundation funded a grant to study how an online textbook would work. And they wanted to do this with a textbook already being used. By then, our statistics book was widely in use so it was deemed credible and acceptable. 

Dr. Bob Maxfield, who was on the Board of Trustees at Rice, had a foundation that purchased the copyright from Sue and me. Then, he donated the copyright to Rice with a Creative Commons Attribution license and we worked with the Connexions project while they converted the text into open and ADA accessible textbook. As I understand it now, Introductory Statistics is  being used at over 800 colleges and universities worldwide, as well as in many high school AP classes

Once you got into the OER movement, how have you gone about spreading the word to other faculty?

I speak at a lot of conferences, I do a lot of advocacy – my first being with Michelson 20MM close to ten years ago when I was called up to assist with state policy on OER. I’ve since done a lot in the OER and Creative Commons advocacy space, including helping move through the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office the policy that says if you accept a grant from the Chancellor’s Office  then everything produced with it must have a Creative Commons attribution license and be openly shared. The intent of the policy is that projects funded with taxpayer monies, must be available to world.

As I opened my material, I opened myself up to criticism (both constructive and cruel) which people feel very comfortable giving. People would send suggestions for rewording different parts of the texts, and sometimes we’d incorporate them in the next round of publishing. Other times, we told those instructors that the beauty of OER is that they can download the materials and revise or reword sections however they deemed appropriate. An instructor on my own campus had done just this to suit her teaching style, and we used it as an example to show others how open materials make for stronger content and a better learning experience.

Also, at the community college levels, many of the faculty don’t research or publish. But OER give these instructors a chance to work on publication materials and contribute in an intellectually stimulating manner.   

What do you see as the next big thing within textbook affordability at community colleges?

The next step is getting college and university systems to list all the OER they’re using and making them widely accessible so other institutions can immediately adopt them. And the second part is making Zero Textbook Cost pathways easy to find as well as the materials used in those courses. Right now, I may be able to find a pathway for a sociology major, but then I’d have to contact each of the instructors to learn what zero-cost textbooks they’re using in their classes. So having that knowledge readily accessible would allow those pathways to be replicated at other schools. 

Also, we need to have at least one librarian at every college who is trained in OER research. I know it’s starting with some colleges already that have the budget to pay for training programs. It’s important so that if faculty members want to implement OER in their course, they can approach their librarian for assistance in finding the right materials.   

Is there anything else you’d like to share about OER or your work in general?

I think it’s really important that students become involved in a proactive and positive way. For example, if students put up posters on campus that said “Thank You Dr. Illowsky for Saving Us XYZ dollars This Semester,” another faculty member might see that public act of appreciation and think, “How do I get up there?” So students can use positivity to really motivate and inspire faculty members into taking action on the subject of OER.