Texas A&M University biologist Dr. Wayne K. Versaw has been selected by the Student Government Association to receive the 2020 SGA Open Education Champion Award for his efforts to implement open source textbooks for freshman biology courses.
The award is one of two presented annually by the SGA in partnership with the Texas A&M University Libraries to recognize Texas A&M faculty members who promote or contribute to a culture of using open access materials. Specifically, it honors a single faculty member who demonstrates the most compelling and significant positive impact in areas related to Open Education Resources (OERs) or use of Texas A&M’s OAKTrust Institutional Repository, with the broader goal of lessening the financial burden on students, mitigating the overall cost of receiving an education and championing Texas A&M’s land-grant mission of public education. Nominees are considered based on the quantity, quality and depth of contributions and their actual or potential impact.
Versaw was cited for leading a campus-wide effort to adapt the OpenStax Introductory Biology online textbook for use in two key introductory biology courses, BIOL 111 and BIOL 112, required for many Texas A&M majors — a move that has helped Texas A&M students save thousands of dollars each year since 2018.
“As far as I am aware, there is absolutely no one on campus who has championed the adoption of OER materials so broadly and successfully as Dr. Versaw,” said Dr. Thomas D. McKnight, professor and head of the Texas A&M Department of Biology. “He envisioned their use as a partial solution to the poor student success rate in our introductory biology courses, and he had us well-positioned to become the first department on campus to use them. He has encouraged their use for other courses in our department. In addition, through his role as associate head for academics in Biology, he has encouraged his counterparts in other College of Science departments to also adopt OERs.”
As associate head for academics in Texas A&M Biology and a former instructor of introductory biology courses, Versaw began advocating for large-scale adoption of OER materials at Texas A&M as early as fall 2015 through initial conversations with faculty teaching introductory biology courses to gauge the idea’s potential and pitfalls. By fall 2016, he had researched various textbooks, including the OpenStax Biology textbook, which he encouraged faculty to review and offer feedback on regarding both its quality and quantity. Armed with that faculty input, Versaw made the decision in fall 2017 to switch from the department’s previously required commercial textbook to OpenStax, which was phased in campus-wide during the next academic year.
“Immediately following his official decision, he asked faculty to edit and submit additional materials to OpenStax so that we could develop our own customized version of the OpenStax textbook,” McKnight said. “Results of his efforts have not only had enormous benefits for the large number of students who take our introductory biology courses, but our text is now discoverable to the world through the Oak Trust Repository, where the current customized Texas A&M OpenStax Biology textbook is housed, which is indexed by Google and has use-metrics to track the broader impact.”
Given that BIOL 111 and 112 together serve approximately 2,200 unique students each year, that move to replace the traditional commercial textbook used by the freshman biology program for more than 35 years — each copy of which retailed for $273 — with the free OpenStax option singlehandedly saved Aggies more than $600,000 each year.
McKnight describes Versaw’s pioneering vision and its ripple effect as a gift that keeps on giving. To help improve student performance in BIOL 111 and 112 and further reduce their education costs, he assisted other BIOL 111 and 112 instructors in writing an EDGE grant to develop an online version of the BIOL 111 and 112 laboratory manual, resulting in an additional cost savings of $125,000 each year.
“Thanks to Dr. Versaw’s commitment, we now are able to provide free textbooks and lab manuals to every student enrolled in our BIOL 111 and 112 courses each year,” McKnight said. “Beyond BIOL 111 and 112, Dr. Versaw has encouraged other professors in our department to adopt OERs for their courses. Recently, one large section of our introductory microbiology course, BIOL 351, adopted the OpenStax microbiology text. The previous book retailed for $260, saving the 150 students in this particular BIOL 351 section alone a total of $39,000.”
For Versaw, however, the buck doesn’t stop with student savings. Ever the consummate educator, Versaw also has strongly supported and encouraged faculty to apply for grants to continually enhance and improve the OpenStax textbook’s content. As a result, Texas A&M biologist Dr. Asha Rao recently secured funds to replace or enhance more than 100 illustrations identified as providing poor content and/or projection resolutions. Versaw currently is working with Rao to review and fine-tune the new illustrations, which are scheduled to be incorporated in the customized Texas A&M OpenStax biology textbook this summer as well as in the publicly utilized OpenStax textbook in its 3rd edition at a later date.
“The new illustrations will allow instructors to explain difficult but important concepts with ease, and most importantly, help students make clearer connections within and between concepts leading to better overall comprehension and retention of knowledge,” McKnight said. “They represent the latest extension of Dr. Versaw’s pioneering vision for the potential of OERs and the remarkable results he has achieved for our department and our students in implementing them.”
To learn more about the Open Education Materials Awards, the Texas A&M Oak Trust Repository and related projects underway within the Texas A&M Libraries to benefit students, faculty and staff, visit https://library.tamu.edu/.
For additional information about undergraduate programs in Texas A&M Biology, go to https://www.bio.tamu.edu/undergraduate-programs/.