A recently launched book has hooked many students and faculty across Virginia Tech. The new open textbook released in June, titled "Fish, Fishing, and Conservation," provides a look into the deep and fascinating lives of people and the fish life they pursue. “Fish matter. But our relationships with fish are as diverse as the fish and the many places they live,” said Donald Orth, author and professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment

Funded by a 2019 VIVA Open Grant with additional funding and collaboration from the Open Education Initiative of University Libraries, this peer and student-reviewed, freely available textbook brings to the surface discussions about ethical issues and evidence-based policy and regulations. The book is the only college-level textbook with a fish and fishing focus that is written for all college students, no matter their major. 

“How we understand, value, and deal with fish depends on our culture and our personal reflections on fishy questions,” said Orth. “The well-being and livelihoods of many humans are directly tied to fishing. The book was written for college students of all majors so they can live their lives in ways that respect the many values of fish and respect the perspectives of those with differing values.” 

It takes a village

The book was written in collaboration with University Libraries’ Open Education Initiative and Virginia Tech Publishing.  Anita Walz, assistant director for open education and scholarly communication librarian, and Kindred Grey, open educational resource and graphic design specialist, worked with Orth in a coaching, planning, and problem-solving role from start to finish. This included: 

  • Creating a chapter-level template to ensure coherence between chapters

  • Ongoing coaching, proofreading, and production management

  • Making the book available for a limited audience via Canvas to receive student feedback before it was released to the public

  • Recruiting and coordinating student beta readers

  • Implementing an anonymous classroom field study regarding student perceptions of the book

  • Original graphic design

  • Conducting copyright review, coordination of copyright, and ensuring that all Creative Commons’ licensed works were correctly attributed

  • Compiling release forms for third-party elements such as profile photos, figures used with permission, and recording artists for podcasts

  • Creating the front matter for the book and registering all International Standard Book Numbers and Digital Object Identifiers. 

Walz also recruited paid student reviewers to comment on draft chapters. Walz said, “The students brought a fresh perspective and many useful ideas to make the book more relevant to student readers.” As a result of students’ stated interests in audio material, Walz and Orth worked with Virginia Tech Publishing’s Joe Forte, manager of publishing services new media, to have the career-related profiles from each chapter also made available as podcasts on Spotify, a unique feature of this textbook. 

Off the hook

"Fish, Fishing, and Conservation" is a freely available open textbook that makes the cost of education more affordable for students. This book is intended for a general education course, is research-based, and includes many examples, stories, videos, and links to ensure that the content is as engaging and as relevant to students as possible. 

“When the new Virginia Tech Pathways General Education program was approved, I proposed a new course — Fish, Fishing, and Conservation,” said Orth. “The new course fulfills core concepts of natural science reasoning, social science reasoning, and ethical reasoning. The global world of fish and fishing provides many examples to apply these concepts.”

Sharing knowledge and encouraging dialogue are priorities with Orth’s students. “That’s why the open education approach to publishing resonates with me,” said Orth. “Instructors from throughout the world can easily find and browse the content as they assemble suitable teaching materials. There are no paywalls that block my students from engaging in debates about fishing policy and regulations. True ethics teaching takes place only when the individual student realizes that personal change has taken place.” 

Reeling students in

According to incoming Virginia Tech instructor Joshua Mouser, it is one of the most readable textbooks he has ever read. “I'm excited to use the textbook to teach Fish, Fishing, and Conservation this fall,” said Mouser.  “It is critical to have a free resource such as this that is authoritative yet simple to read — especially for someone teaching for the first time. Everyone plays a role in conserving fish through the choices they make, and this book will challenge students to think about their role in conservation. Dr. Orth's many years of experience and passion for fish conservation are evident when you read 'Fish, Fishing, and Conservation.'” 

A pool of student reviewers said the material was written in a more succinct and colloquial format than typical textbooks, it was easy to find the information they were looking for, and being able to get the information they needed easily and freely, lured them in.

The student reviewers also were hooked on the graphics and found the examples in the book very helpful. For instance, Orth said, “Fresh fish don’t smell bad. That’s a fact. However, fish flesh spoils quickly. That too is a fact. We cannot reason without knowing relevant facts to use in argumentation. The art of dialogue and argumentation is not appreciated enough. However, fish and fishing are surprisingly good subjects for developing our skills at argumentation.”

Walz said she is passionate about this project because of the value for students and value for the field. “Don Orth has had a long career at Virginia Tech and this effort speaks to his commitment to students and quality teaching. We hope that other schools will create courses that cover this material, as no book like this exists either in the open arena or on the commercial side,” said Walz. 

Ever since his college days, Orth has sought to see the big picture. “The value of a textbook should not be how much it’s worth when resold to the bookstore,” said Orth. “The value is in starting a conversation. The textbook uses ‘Questions to Ponder’ within each chapter to encourage verbal processing, which helps students remember and think through the themes of the book. Questions before, during, and after a session encourage comprehension. All chapters have learning objectives, key takeaways, and so much more for those who wish to explore deeper.”

A print version of the book is available for purchase on Amazon.