Open Education Story: Charlie Molnar

Charlie Molnar is a biology instructor at Camosun who has long been involved with Open Education, revising, adapting, and creating Open Educational Resources since 2015.  Charlie began his Open Education journey by working with Dr. Jane Gair, who teaches at Camosun College as well as at UVic in the Island Medical Program, a distributed site of UBC’s medical school, to substantially revise the open textbook, Concepts of Biology, creating the first Canadian edition which Charlie and several of his fellow biology instructors at Camosun have been using in their courses for the past seven years.

Reflecting back to 2015, Charlie recalled that his Dean “informed faculty that there was an opportunity to work on a project to create resources for students that would be high-quality, engaging, and not carry any publishing fees.” Jane and Charlie (with release time because of the project funding) began working on their project over several months, creating a substantive revision with much support from BCcampus (especially with the building of the textbook in Pressbooks.)  Charlie told me that he “made first use of the new edition during the summer session at Camosun in 2015” and commented “how grateful students were to have this resource that they could download and have forever and use for free.”  Charlie and his colleagues over the years have also arranged for the Camosun Print Shop to print relevant chapters of the textbook that students who prefer a print copy can purchase at the bookstore for a nominal fee.

But Charlie was not done with his Open Education journey, and since 2015, “nearly every year [on his Schedule Development time], he has been making revisions to the materials in the textbook.”  For example, Charlie first encouraged students to look for grammatical errors, labeling problems, or any issues with the open textbook.  “They were quite pleased to be part of this process and valued that I wanted their input on how to improve the textbook.  What a wonderful thing it was to not only be teaching from this textbook, but to see my students reading it differently because they had input in how to make it better, something which was unique in my experience as a biology instructor.”

Charlie said that “the next major upgrade was to create video content [working with Alan Shook at Camosun] that could be embedded and linked into the textbook, so students could see me, as well as graphics and images, describing not only interesting facets of biology related to the text material, but also some topics that were a little beyond the ordinary context of a biology text. I think now there are 24 five- to seven-minute-long videos embedded in the textbook that the students can access and re-access, something that is not available in a paper textbook.”

Next, Charlie worked with Suzanne Wilkinson and others to integrate Indigenous content into the textbook.  “We integrated material related to Indigenous culture, especially of the Pacific Coast Aboriginal peoples, and their expertise in processing food and calories, etc.  For example, there’s a portion that talks about camas bulbs and the biochemistry of why these bulbs are treated in the way they are, buried underground with the coals over top of them and what that happens to the carbohydrates there.”

Charlie returned to his videos the next year, working with Sue Doner in eLearning to include accurate closed captioning so that the video materials would be more accessible. “Once again, the people at Camosun, especially Sue Doner, were extremely helpful in facilitating this upgrade to make materials maximally accessible.”

Next Charlie got involved with another BCcampus funded project: adding H5P objects to the textbook.  “I worked with a colleague from Kwantlen Polytechnic to move the written questions that appeared at the end of chapter sections into H5P which meant students could answer section questions right in the textbook and get immediate feedback and check their understanding in real time, without an instructor needing to mark those questions.”  He also integrated H5P into many of his videos.  “Now nearly all of the videos have at least one stopping point where the video pauses and questions are posed to the students about what they’ve heard so that they can get real-time feedback about that as well.”

Finally, this last summer (working with Sue Doner and Kristina Andrew in eLearning) Charlie “created a package of material [on a WordPress site] that was based around the first two chapters of the textbook and included those first two chapters, the first laboratory exercise, and exercises in terminology, so students could preview what kind of text material was most important.”  The link to this site was sent to students who had registered in Charlie’s course by the beginning of August 2022.  Those students then “had early access to the textbook and materials so they could prepare for the first days and weeks of class and have an idea of what was coming, what kind of materials would be covered and to what depth.”  Charlie especially wanted to support those students for whom English is not their first language to give them a clearer idea of what they could expect “so they could preview the course and see if it was for them, whether they were ready for it, interested in it, and perhaps make their registrations and financial decisions in a more educated way.”

Charlie described the past seven years as an evolution, but not one he had anticipated back in 2015 when he first embarked on that original open textbook revision.  “I really didn’t know what would be involved, what partnerships could be created. I was not very technologically adept and still am not. The original idea was just to create a resource to help relieve the students from the burden of exceptionally high textbook costs.”  So, what made Charlie want to do more?  “I must confess that it was a bit of altruism thinking, I have an opportunity to help students get through their college experience with less debt, and with a high-quality resource. It also felt really nice to go to Concepts of Biology first Canadian edition and see my name there with Jane’s.

When I asked Charlie if he considered all his work as a success, he said, yes “while I think students are more familiar with open resources now, in 2015 they were so startled and grateful to have this free resource.”  He has also seen some of his colleagues take the open textbook and make their own adaptations to it, “not to necessarily add to it formally, but use it as a starting point, or pull our specific videos and components, or lead students to it for those portions on Indigenization.”

One thing Charlie wishes he knew was who else outside of Camosun is using his textbook.  “I hoped there would be a list of colleges that have taken advantage of it, but I know that it’s used around the world because I’ve received emails from people in various locations who stumbled across it and felt grateful enough to write to me and thank me for it. So that felt nice too.”

I asked Charlie what challenges he faced doing this work over the past seven years, and he reiterated the importance of getting all the support he did, from BCcampus, from people at Camosun, the H5P expert from Kwantlen.  “I could just be the subject matter expert rather than having to learn all the technology – I could simply create the materials for someone else to insert and embed into the textbook.”  And when I asked what advice he would give people thinking of embarking on their own Open Education journey, he said “why do this alone? I’ve always been a person whose loves to work in groups and take advantage of people’s different skill sets so why not recognize your strengths and find other people who could be helpful in other aspects of the production and share this opportunity to create something that will help students so dramatically.”

One thing I personally think we could do better as an institution is celebrating our faculty, students, and employees who do this kind of work: creating materials that are shared around the world, support students, and make such a difference.  Charlie mentioned to me that back in 2015 “I was bursting with pride for Jane and I when we created this textbook, and I asked if we could have a display of the open educational resources that we’ve created at Camosun [because there are a lot!] to show how proud we are of this work but it never came about.”  Well, I am happy to say that we are going to do just that here in the library in March 2023 to celebrate Open Education Week!

When I asked Charlie if he would recommend that others do this work, he, not surprisingly given his obvious devotion to Open Education, said yes, “it’s a wonderful thing to.”  And not just for students.  “It also helped me refresh my understanding of unfolding biological and genetic research so that I could include up-to-date examples that the students would have heard about and convey it at an appropriate level both in my teaching and in the textbook.”

Charlie is heading into retirement (he is currently on a two-year post-retirement contract) but he is not likely done with his open textbook yet.  “I don’t know exactly what I may be devoting time to when I’m fully retired from Camosun, but it might be that I add to, clarify, and refine materials in the textbook.”  I look forward to seeing what he does next!

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