Thursday, April 17, 2014

On Forming an MAA Special Interest Group on Open Coursware

Last January in Baltimore, the question of how best to organize the open textbook community for our mutual benefit was raised. I suggested forming a special interest group through the Mathematics Association of America (MAA). At the time this was just an off-the-cuff remark. Since then I have discussed the idea with a couple of people and I believe there is sufficient potential in the idea to at least address how that might be done and to ask for comments.

I have looked into the mechanics of forming what I will, for the moment, call the Open CourseWare SIGMAA (OCWSIG). If there is interest in taking this further we can discuss what the name should actually be.

The Application Procedure

To apply to form a new SIGMAA is very easy. The precise details can be found at, but in a nutshell they are as follows. We would need:
  1. A charter. The MAA provides a model charter at, and the charters of existing SIGMAAs are also available for review. The charter would detail ". . . the common mathematical interest shared by the group of MAA members that founded the SIGMAA and also describe the goals, objectives, and activities of the organization."

  2. A list of "charter members." Basically, this is a list of MAA members who would be the founding members of OCWSIG.

  3. A list of initial officers for the OCWSIG. That is, people who have expressed a willingness to commit to a first term as one of the officers.
If we were to go forward, the first step is to contact the MAAs Committee on SIGMAAs to indicate our "intent, discuss the procedure, and address any preliminary questions." Once we have all three of the above items we would apply to that committee which would then "formally submit applications to the MAA Executive Committee for consideration and final approval."

Is a SIGMAA the right structure for us?

I think there is definite potential here. One possible objection is that to be a full member you must be a member of the MAA and I don't know how many of us are. This is mitigated a bit by the provision for unofficial members of the SIGMAA, who needn't be members of the MAA.

However, it is not entirely clear to me that the SIGMAA structure under the auspices of the MAA is necessarily the right venue. There might already be a better mechanism for organizing a community with common interests within the AMS, SIAM, AIM or possibly other organizations. I've let my membership in all three lapse so I don't know. I know that AIM is a bit ahead of the curve on this since they have already begun organizing reviews of openly published textbooks. Could someone else, more knowledgeable than me, comment on the possibility of organizing the open courseware community under the auspices of one or more of these?

Also, it might just be too early to be thinking of any kind of formal organization. I invite discussion.

My Comments and Opinion

Everything that follows is predicated on the assumption that an MAA SIGMAA is the right structure under which to organize ourselves. If that is not true there is no need to read further.

I believe many of us would be willing to be part of an existing open courseware organization, but I'm not so sure that very many would be interested in taking on the task of starting one up from nothing. This is a pretty large undertaking, not to be taken on lightly. The officer structure of a SIGMAA would consist -- at a minimum, I think -- of a Chair, a Director of Programs, and a Secretary/Treasurer. So just to get started we would need at least 3 people willing to fill those offices. Since this is my idea I feel compelled to volunteer to serve either as the initial Chair or Director of Programs, even though I don't feel particularly well qualified for either position and would be happy to step back in favor of anyone more qualified. (I won't serve as Secretary/Treasurer because putting me in charge of keeping records is a very bad idea.)

There are at least three questions that need to be addressed: (1) What would OCWSIG do for us?, (2) What would the MAA require of the OCWSIG? (3) Is it worth the effort?

The easiest question to answer is (2): OCWSIG would be required to hold regular meetings, report our activities and expenses to the MAA, hold elections for officers and conduct the activities we define for ourselves in our charter.

The first question is harder to answer, but a few things come to mind immediately. We would have funding for programs and activates. These would come primarily from dues (most SIGMAAs charge $10 per year, per member), but also we could apply for additional funding through the MAA, and we would have a platform from which to apply for other grant funding. Membership in the OCWSIG would also qualify as a credible professional service activity with our respective local administrations, something we don't get now.

More tenuously, the organization would exist to serve the needs and desires of this community, so we could conceivably organize the repository Jim Hefferon and others have discussed on other threads in this blog. In Baltimore someone mentioned that by publishing without a commercial publisher we lose some of the valuable services that commercial publishers provide, like editing and promotion. The OCWSIG might be able to fill that gap, at least in part. I confess this is only an idea and that I have no specific plan for how this might be accomplished. I mention it only as a possibility for further discussion at the appropriate time.

Finally, I can not answer the third question: Is it worth the effort? That will have to be answered by all of us as a community. Again, I invite discussion.
Any comments including but not limited to criticisms, suggestions, or even ridicule, are welcome. (Well ok, ridicule would not be welcome. But if this is an entirely ridiculous idea I hope someone can find a polite way to tell me, so I can stop wasting my time on it.)

Eugene Boman
Penn State, Harrisburg campus


  1. Bud,
    Thanks for this post. You've obviously done a lot of good thinking about this. I think your 3 questions are the right questions to ask.

    I like what you say in answer to question 1. I would especially be interested in the SIGMAA fostering textbook writing and adoption. You address the adoption side with promotion; good editing would also help. The SIGMAA could also serve as a meeting place for those interested in contributing in part to writing texts, moving the burden of textbook production from one person to many. As you mentioned, having the formal structure of a SIGMAA would lend legitimacy to these endeavors, increasing the likelihood that they would count towards tenure/promotion of younger faculty.

    In answer to your third question, I say Yes!, it is worth it. I would love to be a charter member. I would also take a baby step forward towards volunteering to serve as an officer, gladly stepping aside if more competent people are interested.

    Thanks for this post.
    Greg Hartman

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    2. OK, well I can't say I'm too surprised there hasn't been much response to this post. (Thanks Greg.) This late in the year everyone is busy of course.

      But I expect a larger reason is that while there might be interest in joining a SIGMAA if it is in place, there is less enthusiasm for volunteering to start one. A couple of people have told me privately that they'd join but have no interest in creating a new SIGMAA, or in serving as an officer if one is created.

      So let's do this: As a way of measuring the interest without asking anyone to commit I have created a one-question survey on SurveyMonkey.You can find it here.

      Everyone reading this please open the survey and click on the appropriate choice. It will literally take 5 seconds. In a week or so I will read the results and report back on this thread. It looks like there is sufficient interest we can discuss how to proceed from there. If not then I'll drop it.

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