What are Open Educational Resources (OER), and what might using them mean for us here at UW Tacoma? These are questions I’ve spent a lot of time on in the last year, including during a recent series of interviews with nine stakeholders across campus. This summary of conversations with students, faculty, staff, and administrators provides a little insight into what people know about these materials and where we should go from here.
I did this work as part of the SPARC Open Education Leadership Program, which I’m participating in as part of the Library’s efforts to build support OER on campus. This program includes course work, mentorship, and project based learning focused on Open Educational Resources and practices. For a recent assignment, I was asked to interview a range of stakeholders at my institution to get a sense of campus perspectives.
I asked each person the same four questions — What do you know about OER? What opportunities or benefits do these resources bring? What concerns do you have, or what challenges do you anticipate? And what questions do you have that would help you make decisions about this?
Here’s what I learned:
What we know about OER
“It’s the idea of making education available to everyone — or as many people as possible.” – Whitney Reeve, UW Tacoma Master of Social Work Candidate
There was a range of responses to this question, but most people had at least some awareness of what Open Educational Resources are and what they do. In particular, the stakeholders I spoke to understand the philosophy behind these materials. Specifically, these materials can reduce barriers (financial or otherwise) for people pursuing an education.
In short, OER are learning materials (including textbooks) that are free to students and not bound by traditional restraints that prevent copying, sharing, or adapting content. These limited restrictions make OER much easier to access and use.
Reducing these barriers can make a big difference when it comes to the cost of education and other aspects of student success. “I know that [OER] have a significant impact on students, especially our students,” said Assistant Chancellor for Strategy & Assessment Joe Lawless, noting that many UW Tacoma students don’t come from the extremely privileged background of a stereotypical college student.
What people are less aware of is the technical aspects — for instance, where to find OER, how to differentiate them from other kinds of free or low cost materials, and exactly how to begin using them in courses on campus.
Opportunities and benefits
Time is money
It’s no surprise that reducing costs for students was a common theme when I asked stakeholders about possible benefits. Nearly everyone pointed out that these materials have the potential to remove financial burdens. Several people also saw opportunities to remove other barriers to student success.
“If textbooks are taken care of, students are able to focus more on the classroom.” – Nedralani Mailo, UW Tacoma Center for Equity and Inclusion Program Support Support Supervisor
The observation that less money spent on course materials might mean more money to spend on food, housing, or other expenses is a common one. “It’s more money that they can use for other necessities in their lives,” said Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Success Bonnie Becker.
Using these materials could also save students time. Reeve pointed out that the Library’s textbook reserves program is helpful, but you have to be on campus to use it. For many of our students, this means commuting in, paying for parking, and putting other activities on hold. “It takes something to get here, and time is money,” Reeve said. OER would allow each student to have personal copies of course materials, and to keep those copies after the course has ended or the student graduates.
Money isn’t everything
There are also curricular advantages to using these materials. “OER presents an alternative [to commercial textbooks] that allows teaching to be more responsive,” Library Access Services Manager Hannah Wilson noted. Copyright restrictions prevent traditional materials from being customized, updated, or changed as needed by instructions. Most OER allow these activities, opening up loads of possibilities for teaching and learning. Students can contribute materials and insights to the curriculum much more easily when they can literally help adapt the textbook.
This ability can also increase access to perspectives beyond those a commercial publisher might choose to focus on. Giving users control over whose voices are included in course materials creates an opportunity to incorporate perspectives that are often silenced or marginalized, pointed out Associate Professor and Interim Co-Director of the School of Social Work and Criminal Justice Jeff Cohen.
The cumulative effect of these benefits can be huge. “Long term, OER removes a barrier for students to continue their education,” said Dennis Adjetey, a senior in the Bachelor of Science in Urban Design program.
Concerns and challenges
Whose time? Whose money?
Open Educational Resources are free to students — but that doesn’t mean they’re free to produce. There are up front costs to be paid in terms of both time and money.
“Efficiency matters and instructor time matters,” Becker said when asked about potential challenges of OER, pointing out that faculty have to make tough choices about how they spend limited time. For her, the important thing is protecting faculty ability to provide timely feedback and to work directly with students as individuals or in small groups. Often this means that other major time commitments may have to take a back seat, and integrating OER into a new course can certainly be a major time commitment. Assistant Professor and Faculty Assembly Vice-Chair Sarah Hampson reiterated this message, noting that faculty research agendas also draw a significant amount of time and focus, and effort in these areas is more likely to be rewarded in the promotion process for tenure track faculty.
Other interviewees pointed out the inherent tension of asking part-time or more junior faculty to take on this work, or asked questions about the best way to compensate authors. Using untested course materials can be risky and time consuming, which can deter faculty whose positions are less secure from trying out existing OER. Similarly, creating new materials from scratch is a big job that must be fairly compensated. While there are examples of models that provide one-time payments for using or creating OER, getting funding for these programs can be a significant hurdle.
Finally, there is the question of how to support and sustain OER use on campus. Interim Library Director Justin Wadland pointed out that doing this work well also requires staff time, technology, and know-how that aren’t always baked in to the structure of colleges and universities. Questions about what that might look like at UW Tacoma haven’t yet been answered.
The question of quality
Quality of course materials matters, and for many instructors (including several of those I talked to for this project) the quality of OER in their disciplines is fairly unknown. Many haven’t spent much time exploring these resources, and they don’t know of other faculty using them who can help them along. If faculty do find the quality and availability of OER isn’t up to their standards, they usually have the option to adapt and improve them — but that takes (you guessed it) time.
Creating cultural change
When it comes down to it, there is more to this work than simply selecting a different book. “To actually adopt OER requires a culture shift,” Wadland pointed out. It may also require some pretty big changes to how we think about teaching and learning in higher education.
Several interviewees pointed out that faculty can be invested in traditional publishing models both professionally and financially. University structures can encourage working with recognized publishers, and while not every faculty member has written a commercial textbook those who have receive ongoing royalty payments when the book is sold. Using OER can result in massive savings to students and more inclusive instruction, but it also asks colleges and universities change the way they think about authority and prestige in academic publishing and the educator’s role in selecting or creating course materials.
These are not small challenges — but I think the benefits of expanding access and equity in education are worth the effort.
I finished each interview by asking what questions people had for me, and what information they would need to move forward and make decisions on these topics. Some of these I had ready answers to. Others were a little more difficult. I’ll share more of these in a future post.
Click the heading above to see previous posts about OER, or check out the UW Tacoma OER resource guide.
- Dennis Adjetey, Bachelor of Science in Urban Design student
- Bonnie Becker, Associate Professor, Sciences and Mathematics division of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences; Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Success
- Jeff Cohen, Associate Professor and Interim Co-Director, School of Social Work and Criminal Justice; Executive Director, Office of Global Affairs
- Sarah Hampson, Assistant Professor, Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs division of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences; Vice-Chair, Faculty Assembly
- Joe Lawless, Assistant Chancellor for Strategy & Assessment
- Nedralani Mailo, Program Support Support Supervisor, Center for Equity and Inclusion
- Whitney Reeve, Master of Social Work candidate
- Hannah Wilson, Access Services Manager, UW Tacoma Library
- Justin Wadland, Interim Director and Head, Digital Scholarship Program, UW Tacoma Library