This guest post was authored by Taylor Davis-Van Atta, Graduate Assistant, Syracuse University Libraries
Last week I had the good fortune of attending the Library Publishing Forum and the Association of College and Research Libraries Conference in Baltimore, two gatherings that drew into focus the many ways academic libraries are helping to define and optimize the benefits of creating and adopting free, openly licensed course materials in higher education classrooms. The conferences happened to lead up to international Open Education Week 2017 (March 27-31), which aims to “raise awareness about free and open educational opportunities that exist for everyone, everywhere, right now.” While I have been paying close attention to the Open Access Movement as well as the creation and use of open educational resources (commonly referred to as OER) at community colleges, liberal arts schools, and universities for several years, it was inspiring to hear from academic librarians and faculty who are on the front lines of these efforts, collaborating with one another and their campus administrators to create innovative programs and new sets of resources that are transforming the ideals of Open Education into tangible and positive realities for their institutions and communities.
What are open educational resources? The Hewlett Foundation, a leading advocate and funder of open education initiatives for the past 15 years, defines OER as “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.” OER may include everything from a single article or textbook, video, podcast, or lesson plan to a complete online course or curriculum, and may also include the tools or software platforms needed to create, change, and share the materials. These open resources are typically offered to and utilized by educators in piecemeal fashion—a book chapter here, a lab manual there—and are used to fill in holes in their curriculum or more often are being adapted to suit the exact needs of a course or lesson. Other open resources are developed by instructors who are frustrated with the existing set of teaching resources available in their particular field. In some K-12 school systems, organizations and state and local education agencies are creating high-quality openly licensed resources that they hope will meet system-wide needs for curricula that cover entire subjects and grade levels. OER adoption is fairly common practice at community colleges as well, usually an effort to cut student textbook costs, and is a growing priority among major research universities.
In Baltimore, librarians and faculty testified to the powerful benefits that even small, pilot initiatives into OER creation and adoption have brought to their students—and to their instructors’ pedagogical practices. Not only are open textbooks and open course materials significantly lowering student costs, allowing them the freedom to choose their courses without concern over unaffordable textbooks, open course design models are allowing instructors to teach the way they want to teach by customizing course packets through the reuse, revision, and remixing of high-quality online materials. Each faculty member who presented discussed the joy of no longer being restricted to teaching from commercially available textbooks that did not suit the curriculum they wished to teach, and/or did not fit their needs as course designers. In some cases, librarians have helped faculty to create new open textbooks from scratch or through the compilation of OER; in others, instructors and libraries are collaborating to discover, vet, and modify open resources to best suit the exact needs of a particular course.
While most of these initiatives are still being piloted, in each case the presenters shared early indications of benefits for both faculty and students. Measures for student retention and engagement show improvement when OER are introduced in classrooms, but perhaps more exciting are the opportunities for students to directly engage with broader scholarly conversations while learning about the processes and principles that underpin the development and exchange of research, allowing them early entry into the professional practice of producing scholarly materials. When undergraduate and graduate students are introduced to OER as their primary course materials, they are being asked to think critically about the source and validity of the resources as well as how those resources have been made available for their use, including copyright, fair use, and licensing terms. For many students, this differs dramatically from the expectations they are accustomed to as consumers of traditional textbooks and articles, and placing information and digital literacy as the heart of course design is, for many instructors and institutions, a vital component of pedagogy in our era of “fake news” and the proliferation of misinformation. For this reason, information and digital literacy are often foundational elements of open course design and open education models. Further, in courses where students are encouraged to reuse and remix these resources as part of “open assignments,” they encounter many of the decisions that professional researchers face at the start of a new project: how am I allowed to incorporate given resources into my work? If a Creative Commons license is attached, how does that license dictate how I reuse that resource? What format might my final project take, and what digital platforms or venues exist that are capable of publishing the project? How will licensing decisions affect the potential use of my project once it is out in the world? Answering each of these questions gives students a new kind of agency and responsibility that they may not have encountered before.
The incorporation of open resources into course design often leads to student-led publishing projects that expose students to the complexities of copyright agreements, open publishing venues (typically their institution’s open repository), and basic issues around author rights. This work allows students to see their coursework and research not as a step-by-step process but as a long-term and evolving process that can engage others who are far beyond the walls of their classroom. Likewise, faculty spoke to their enjoyment of finding themselves engaged in producing legacy projects as their open courses generate new and dynamic sets of resources which, in turn, can be shared and further developed by future student cohorts. The result can be a living and evolving scholarly record, with the potential to be accessed and built upon by other researchers and apprentice scholars from anywhere around the world.
Presenters on their Open Education initiatives cited how their early programs were helping to advance institutional priorities, many of which included critical pedagogy, digital literacy competencies, and providing experiential learning opportunities for students. None of these collaborative efforts came without a fair amount of unanticipated challenges, frustration, and advocacy. An agile approach is required for even modest open education initiatives, as is a lot of planning among partners, but the creation and incorporation of OER into courses offers opportunities for faculty, students, and librarians to become deeply engaged in various steps of the research cycle together and in new ways, and to learn from one another’s expertise and experience.
Open Education and OER adoption on university campuses is in its infancy but the results seen by early adopters across the country are very encouraging. Not only does OER development and use help democratize education and knowledge on a global scale, it is helping define a new culture of teaching and learning that is now possible in the digital age.