Open access introductory anthro courses?

One of my colleagues from the U of Kentucky just posted a request on our grad student listserv asking for advice about which texts people are using for intro courses.  I replied with the book that I used during the two intro to anthropology classes I taught while at UK, but then added that the book was lamentably expensive at around 100 bucks.  And that got me thinking.

I wonder if at some point there will be such a thing as an open access intro to anthropology course, where all of the texts and articles are not only current, but readily available.  Just an idea.  The cost of textbooks was one of the big frustrations for me when I was teaching–but I went along with things anyway because there were few alternatives.  And then there was the issue with articles: some are a lot easier to find and access than others.  Some articles are just plain not available.  Not to mention the fact that there are all sorts of restrictions about how articles can and cannot be shared with students.

I know that textbook publishers aren’t exactly going to be thrilled with this conversation, but what would an open access course look like?  I know that these kinds of things don’t happen for free, of course, so I am wondering how such a thing could be created, funded, and implemented.  Has anyone else out there been looking something along these lines?  I’d love to hear about it.  Or, if you think this is an insane idea that would never work in the real world, I’d like to hear what you think just as much.  Right now I am imagining a larger project along the lines of Wikipedia where different scholars write and publish open access articles specifically for introductory courses.  That of course could be combined with material that’s already open (like articles from AA that are more than 35 years old).  Hmmm.  Thoughts?


PS: Ya, when I start thinking about OA I get on a roll.  What can I say?  I have my streaks.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

15 thoughts on “Open access introductory anthro courses?

  1. Is there a reason why you can’t use the “Course Reader” format used is Australia? We take journal articles and excerpts from books and bind our own course readers. The cost to student for a paper copy is minimal at about $20 as they only pay for the cost of copying. For those really struggling financially lecturers often have a couple of “readers” to give away but we also have online access to all excerpts and journal articles through the library’s “e-reserve” facility (searchable by course code).

    Perhaps there are restrictions I’m not aware of in the US or perhaps it is a matter of technology and mindset. I’m unsurprised but still disconcerted that a book costing $100 is a compulsory course text in an anthropology course anywhere.

  2. I have been thinking about this quite a bit and have mined, sourced, and signed up for a host of open access courses in hopes I can learn enough to create or contribute to OA anthropology courses in the near future. I really like your the idea of a wiki-style collection of articles and use of existing OA materials. There is also a host of video that can be mined on the web to support written materials. As for organizing and funding something like this, I can think of at least one or two organizations that could bite if it were wired up just right (the Gates Foundation comes to mind first and foremost).

    In terms of existing OA anthro courses on the web this this slightly dated MIT intro to anthro course is all I have been able to find (note that the readings are all “available from Amazon”):

  3. I teach an intro to cultural anthronclass at a community college that is totally open source. I use a lot of blogposts (including ones from here)! A very large chunk of time and patience went into designing that syllabus, and I would advise anyone going a similar route to plan on a great deal of prep time.

    that being said, I did run into an interesting problem: the community college I teach at is in an area with a large number of impoverished students. because money is tight, some don’t have access like university students. it was easy to work around – I just ‘borrowed’ some printing from my home institution (they owe me for all those PDFs I read electronically and don’t print, right?). It’s just something to be aware of if your move to open access and online is in a similar context.

  4. Things just keep getting tighter and tighter – when I was teaching in the 1980’s it had just started and only a few people took it seriously.
    Now the publishers et al have sold it to the world. $100 !!!
    This is a racket – and it has to be resisted as all such rackets.
    Harvard’s library in 1950 was open to all citizens, then there was a small fee. And eventually there was a fee only for the rich.

    Free publishing is the only way. Why not start with a list of
    50 great books – difficult for recent regional coverage – but not for
    the basic ideas and experience of anthropology – some ARE in the public domain. Others should be or great pressure for permissions should develop.

    Criminal extortion has to be met with piracy.
    There is enough around.
    Textbooks rot the mind anyway – too much there for coverage instead of experience.
    Read an ethnography and start discussion.

    The whole idea of Journals as for profit enterprises – whatever they call themselves has to be undone. JStor and such like restrictions are also a crime. The universities originally sold themselves with the motto that knowledge should be FREE.
    It was a hypocrisy. But a mild one. When I went to Harvard it cost $400 dollars a year.
    Certainly Journal articles used for teaching purposes should be treated as free without asking for permission. That takes no profit away from the author.

  5. I feel the same way–I just started teaching an ancient civilizations class, and the textbook that I use retails for over 100 bucks. This is on top of the fact that the university of massachusetts charges more money per credit hour for online classes than it does for IRL classes. I feel bad about it, and have been trying to come up with material that I can get the students more cheaply, but a central open repository to draw from would be nice, as long as it was variable enough not to be too standardized.

  6. We should distinguish Open Access courses from low cost resources. I’m actually in the middle of taking Princeton University’s Introduction to Sociology on line – it’s a free 6 week course and includes video lectures, archived live seminars and all readings are free. There were approximately 30,000 (!) students enrolled at the beginning of the semester but my guess is the number completing the class will be very reduced. I’m doing this in part out of an interest in sociology but also to become more deeply informed about the move toward OA distance learning classes. I hope to write up a review of the class when it’s done – there is a lot to be concerned about here.

    As for course materials, I teach on line and on campus at UMass/Boston where most of my students are working, many raising families, the vast majority are cash-strapped. At some point I shifted almost entirely to free resources, at least for my intro classes – newspaper articles, journal articles available for free to students via our library, open source books and videos. There is so much content out there. Plus I like very much to control my own curriculum, and text books never quite match what I want to do in a class. (But Bryce is correct, this is time-consuming). As for printing costs, increasingly students read on line.

    Here are 2 general resources that may be helpful

    If your university subscribes to Alexander Street Anthropology, your students have access to 800+ ethnographic videos online and 140 books.  There are lots of DER films streamed – including tons of John Marshall films. Lots of archaeology, primatology, plus lots of books.

    Another is this one, where you can find many classic anthropology texts (by classic, I mean old):

    The Universal Library Project, sometimes called the Million Books Project, was pioneered by Jaime Carbonell, Raj Reddy, Michael Shamos, Gloriana St Clair, and Robert Thibadeau of Carnegie Mellon University. The Governments of India, China, and Egypt are helping fund this effort through scanning facilities and personnel. The Internet Archive has contributed 100k books from the Kansas City Public Library along with servers to India. The Indian government scanned the appropriate books. The Internet Archive has performed automated conversion of these scans into this collection.

  7. I taught a summer writing course using a collection of articles/book chapters that I posted on elearning (a course website program). I was hoping to find a good writing book available through the library online, but there wasn’t anything really set up for social sciences. It would have my life easier. In any case, everything was available through the library anyway, so I’m pretty sure I was within legal bounds. I like it better because it’s free and I’m not limited to a single book. The downside, however, is that you have to find all those articles.

    When I was an undergrad (about 5 years ago) the local printing shop would put together notebooks within certain copyright limits, and we would be charged for the cost of printing. Since sites like elearning have become more popular (it was Vista/Blackboard then, but is the same basic company) that kind of printing is less popular since students can print at home.

    I know that book publishers are trying to get around this by offering to conglomerate book chapters for you, under the guise of copyright. It’s more expensive than the print shops, but will at least guarantee you’re not stepping on the publisher’s toes.

    If I were teaching an intro course, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to find open access or otherwise free material – there is plenty of alternative material available out there, the problem is consolidating it yourself.

    This is pretty cool. The Archaeology Channel:

  8. Yes, we need more free and engaging materials online, if we want to raise the profile of our knowledge set and its relevance in the modern world. So often when I go to places like Coursera or Khan Academy, anthropology isn’t even highlighted as a field of knowledge.

    Like Amy, I’m benefiting from the open Princeton Intro to Sociology course at right now, and would recommend you each try a course there. For now, it’s a rather old-school static model (bandwidth-chewing video lectures and auto-transcribed subtitles, a handful of scanned articles for download?) and doesn’t really engage with the digital humanities movement. But as Amy suggests, the 30,000 student scale is new, and I’m impressed with the quality of work expected in the course, and the clarity of the peer review guidelines for students worldwide to grade each other on the midterm. It’s pretty much the same system as standardized testing firms use, collecting multiple scores and cross-checking them against each other.

    One of the students on Coursera there linked to, which has a free downloadable peer reviewed/open access sociology text, although it’s quite large. Quite unwieldy. There has to be a better format.

    Have you see ‘Human Japanese’ on the iPod/iPhone? A language text writer equipped his textbook with click-and-play audio for each new Japanese sound and then word or phrase, as well as drawable spaces for practicing handwriting. I tried the free version around a year ago, and was impressed; a significant improvement over the traditional textbook. Interactive apps/websites might be some of what we’re looking for.

    **And speaking of that, just today I was struck with an idea for improving kinship charts as a teaching tool. We’ve had colored charts for years (cf, and I found one site (choose “level 3”) that lets kids drag and drop names for Ego’s family in English (, but neither are fully interactive and exploratory. Has anyone made a fully interactive online resource for mapping kinship?

    It strikes me that we could develop a giant visual for possible relationships within a culture (using Flash? some sort of Java interactive script?), and the viewer could pick an interface language and then a cultural/linguistic group to explore. The relationships that don’t *count* would be greyed out [I know, this assumes that there’s one set of all possible relationships, and that’s probably not true], and then you could click on any two people to see a pop-up describing the kinship terms for the relationship between them, maybe a picture, and then a brief description of traditional relationships/roles. An open forum on the site could allow members of that group or anthropologists could add stories, or links to other resources that might explain more.

    For instance, I think that the wife of a Kazakh man’s older brother is the first man’s “jenge.” She calls him her “kayin-ini,” and they have a special joking-teasing relationship, as in many cultures. We’d call him the woman’s younger brother in law, and she would be the man’s older sister in law… if we got that far. This woman is also jenge to her unmarried younger sister in law, whom she calls “kayin singli”, and chaperones, at least traditionally. Well. I haven’t figured this all out myself, but interactive formats could make it a lot more fun to explore.

    Of course we’d also want to show place of the world (a small map in the corner, that changes highlight with people group chosen?) and change through time. Including medieval Europe, ancient Rome, 1800s USA, 2012 USA, etc would remind us that roles and expected relationship obligations/privileges change quickly. It could be an amazing resource for people to see the variety of who counts as family, or even to highlight whole lineages and see who “counts” for ancestry and descent. If a person could type in their own family member’s names for the tutorial and then keep them stored across cultural groups for that session, that could be even more amazing as it brings it home to them…

    Thoughts on how this could be done? I mentioned it to a Kazakh friend today, and she said she’d love such a thing — she doesn’t always get what her older relatives are describing, either!

  9. Celia, interesting we are co-students together! I imagine there are a lot of undercover faculty types in that class. I agree the rubric and peer review approach is impressive and the exams I reviewed were quite interesting but the format (read ponderous articles, talk about them) is very old-school, which I don’t mind much but it does seem there could be a lot more use of technology (for example, watching and responding to ethnographic/sociological films).

    My overall impression is that these open-source courses are kind of like book clubs or rosetta stone; wonderful for life-long learning, good for exposure to new material, keeps the mind sharpish, great for the truly self-motivated; but does it *actively teach* – I don’t know.

    Thanks for the Kinship resources.

  10. Right now, Coursera is mostly about the prestige of lecturers at top universities offering some open content online, not about the quality of the learning experience. It may also be more suited to computer courses – I took a CS 101 course from Stanford last fall, and it was great, with lots of practical exercises in programming throughout the lectures, regular weekly assignments, and immediate (mechanical) feedback on how your programming is going. Something like sociology may need to be much more interactive in nature to really get the point across.

    But as you say, there’s a great variety of people trying it out. We’ll see how long people stick with it in the long run. If you could build to subject ‘certificates’ eventually it might keep people coming back.

    Trying to think of what else is out there… It’s quite common for internet entrepreneurs to offer interactive webinars, and lets anyone offer or sign up to take classes online or in certain cities — it’s great that people can advertise courses there, but you’d have to use another platform to actually set it up.

    I got what seems like perpetual access to professional development/CPE courses by signing up with a temp agency about 5 years ago (!), mostly self-paced and tested training guides on business skills and competencies. The open university has open courses-lite (, but they’re more of a feeder to paid courses.

    IMO, the actual interaction possible on Coursera makes them one of the most promising attempt to date at getting open education out to the masses — even if old school, as you say. I wonder, though, what would happen if we all read some resource like Bain’s What the Best Teachers Do and then tried to design online learning experiences/apprenticeships based on this, rather than in digitizing the traditional format. Perhaps this could draw on group coaching techniques, as part of our classes are often in challenging students to think and perceive in new ways about the existing social world.

  11. We, at the Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges (SACC), are discussing what it would take to write an open access text book for introductory courses in cultural anthropology. We’d like to start on this project soon. Texts for other courses might be possible down the road.

    We are also putting more teaching-related resources on the section website, including a page of ethnographies and a page of films, each page organized by the course or courses in which instructors use them. Some of this is still in progress, but please visit the site. There is a page of syllabuses there already. The URL is:


  12. Tad – have to say that of all the anthro textbooks I’ve surveyed, most aren’t very compelling. However, I love Omohundro’s “Thinking Like an Anthropologist” (, because it gets students asking questions and doing exercises, rather than just absorbing information about past ideas on culture. Taking this kind of approach for open access resources may be much more powerful than just listing classic example and types of cultural formations (agrarian, pastoralist, etc). I’m only post-MA but happy to help collaborate as open resources are developed!

  13. Thanks for the comments everyone. Sorry for taking a while to post some replies…


    Ya, course readers can be a good answer. But they aren’t always all that cheap, and there are often certain issues with copyrights and such. Overall though, they can be a good way to move into content that is *more* affordable and accessible. Although I think they kind of skirt the main problem rather than address it head on.


    Thanks for the MIT link, and interesting idea about getting Gates to fund something like this. What OA courses did you sign up for?


    so your course was totally textbook-free? How was the student feedback? How did the course go? I think you’re right that the prep time is one of the main obstacles to going this route.

    @Amy Todd:

    “We should distinguish Open Access courses from low cost resources.”

    Really good point. And thanks for the sources.


    “I wonder, though, what would happen if we all read some resource like Bain’s What the Best Teachers Do and then tried to design online learning experiences/apprenticeships based on this, rather than in digitizing the traditional format.”

    I agree that a certain amount of starting from scratch or rethinking things for what might work online might be a better idea than just trying to just digitize ‘old school’ formats. Good point.


    Really cool that you are already working on ideas about putting together an OA intro for cultural anthro. I knew *someone* had to be doing it. I’ll be interested to hear more about this. Also, thanks for the link to the SACC page–as someone who started off in the CC system (which is what brought me to anthro), I have a ton of respect and appreciation for community college anthro.

    Thanks again for the comments everyone.

  14. Celia,

    I’ve often thought computerised interactive kinship charts would be a good idea, although I haven’t spent much time looking for existing programmes on the net. I’m not sure any such programme would be able to tell the diachronic story you want to tell, though, and I don’t see why an interactive kinship programme would be better at teaching changing roles in European/American kinship-based social structure than a historical narrative in a book. Still, might make a good resource anyway, if anyone ever gets around to making it.

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