I think we’ve all become much more aware lately about how something can grow exponentially. Two cases of COVID-19 becomes four, and then 16, which quickly turns into 256 cases and frighteningly 65,536, which is roughly the number of cases just in the state of Iowa as I’m writing this. 

It’s important to remember that exponential growth can happen in positive ways as well.  Given the negative example I started this post with, and that is certainly weighing on most of us, I want to turn the focus to the positive.

On a health-related note, in the 1980s, approximately 350,000 people, mostly children, developed paralytic polio each year throughout the world. In 1988 a campaign was launched to eradicate polio world-wide and today there are only about 40 cases of paralytic polio per year.  

What got me thinking about exponential growth was something that happened at the university. I lead the open textbook initiative, which in a simplistic explanation means free textbooks for students. In 2015 there were about 300 students benefitting from this initiative at our institution. That number is now 7,500 per year, not exponential growth, but still pretty impressive. Based on the average cost of a textbook and that some students just don’t buy them, we’re saving students about $750,000. The first year we saved them about $30,000.

If you haven’t yet glazed over from all of the numbers, stay with me for a bit longer. In 2018 I co-chaired a conference that we hosted. It had joint themes of open educational practices and Indigenization, both of which are important at our institution. Organizing the conference was very stressful for me and when it was over I felt like I had failed because nobody seemed to be talking about open. This was one of the things that pushed me into the bout of depression that started to bury me that summer and lasted until the following spring.

As I was coming out of that depression, however, an instructor in a department I’d been trying very hard to convince to use open materials came to me and said that she’d been at the conference and had been inspired to not only use an open textbook, but she wanted to take existing open materials (which are free of most copyright restrictions) and create a new book. I was thrilled. And then something started to happen. 

I was asked to join a meeting with the department head of that same department because a colleague of mine was working with him on a course and was trying to convince him to turn the materials he was creating into an open resource. We did convince him and one instructor in that department became two.

But wait, there’s more. Before I left that meeting I talked to him about the book that first instructor was working on and how it could be used throughout their first year courses. By the time I walked out, he was onboard with requiring the open resource to be used in those courses. With that, two instructors actually turned into about ten. And as those materials were used and word spread within the department, others became interested. 

Of the 7,500 students using open resources instead of buying textbooks this year, about 35% of them come from that department. It started with that one instructor from the department I struggled to crack, that instructor who came to the conference I thought I’d failed at, and it turned into 2,500 more students per year not having to buy a textbook for at least one course (plus the book she developed is now being used at other universities, benefitting even more students).

What’s the point? There are two points really. First, sometimes when we think we failed at something, we really just have to wait a bit to see the positive results. Second, just as one case of a virus can eventually lead to 65,000, one instructor can lead to 16 who choose to do something that makes a real difference for their students, saving them hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Don’t give up. Don’t dismiss the power that one can have, whether for good or bad.

Featured image courtesy of Yomomo under a CC-BY-SA license.

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