Open Educational Resources in the Time of Trump

In the run-up to Open Education Week, I’ve been thinking a lot about what open access and open education might mean over the next four years. We’ve gone from a past in which the Department of Education had a #GoOpen campaign, and from a potential future in which tuition-free college degrees and investing in minority-serving institutions were a priority, to a present in which Betsy DeVos is in charge of education and the only promise being made about college is that it will be “easier to access, pay for, and finish.” Given, well, the state of everything, I think it’s safe to say that on a national level, the future viability of open educational resources hangs very much in the balance.

I wanted to take the space of this blog post to percolate a few ideas about that future. All of them depend on a deep investment in the community of stakeholders in open educational resources, starting with the people we’re working for: students. We already know that open educational resources save students money. And almost all the studies show that using OER increases student success and reduces attrition. The question we should be asking is, “And now what?” How can we engineer both the form and the content of open educational resources to explicitly focus on expanded notions of openness and accessibility in order to ensure their success?

Form, first: If access to the Web is a basic human right, are we checking that our open educational resources are accessible, viewable, and usable by students with suboptimal internet connectivity? Are OER designed in such a way that they’re easily navigable? Are we paying attention to user experience and user interfaces? Are resources—and the platforms where they are made available—ADA compliant?

And then content: how much attention is being paid to what’s going into these resources? Having their creators ensure that everything is actually OA (and not just on loan from a library subscription that could end at any moment) is one thing. Looking at who is authoring, being cited in, and being referenced in these resources is another. Are there women and people of color in that bibliography? Are the examples relevant to a global community or do they take whiteness and privilege as a default? Are all collaborators—including those in the libraries—credited? Is the resource written in academese, or in an accessible way, one that ?

And then, are we empowering our students to be creators and knowledge producers? In one possible future for OER, collaboration would not just take place between institutions or teachers, but between teachers and students. I’m thinking here David Wiley’s call to “kill the disposable assignment” and include students in the act of resource creation and dissemination. And I’m thinking of Robin deRosa, who took his suggestion a little further, and actively engaged her students in the writing (rather than the remixing) of the textbook. Encouraging faculty members to involve students in this creation of resources that speak to other students, in their own voices, should be a part of the work ahead.

But it’s going to be work. Many, if not all, faculty members are overworked and not necessarily motivated to spend valuable time experimenting with things unless they’re going to help with the promotion and tenure process. Encouraging them to take up and create OER is going to take a lot of education and outreach. Instead of trying to rely on altruism, we need to think about institutional practices and structures that will reward open behavior, which means advocating for open as an institutional benefit with the provosts and deans and presidents. And then there’s the fact, as Emily Drabinski has argued at an ACRL session on open access, labor, and knowledge production, that the labor required to create open resources is often invisible and unrecompensed. How do we ensure that it is given recognition? At SUNY Albany, development of teaching materials or new courses is one of the areas in the “teaching” bucket of the tenure and promotion process. Perhaps there one could advocate for greater weight being granted to the creation of open materials and courses. And at a teaching-intensive university, where faculty members’ everyday work is in the classroom but there’s still a small scholarship requirement, could the development of open educational resources as scholarship itself, complete with DOIs and ISSNs, be considered scholarship? (But then what of the truth that the majority of today’s faculty members are not on the tenure track? How can we incentivize contingent faculty members’ adoption and creation of open educational resources? Given the fact that many of them are “highway flyers,” racing between institutions to cobble together a living, how can we legitimately ask them to take the time to consider new alternatives?)

The answer, I think, lies in a more complete understanding of resources. There’s a curious act of acronym transliteration that often takes place when OER are discussed: the R (resources) gets reduced to T (textbooks). We need to think about OER as part of an open ecosystem, alongside open educational practices and pedagogy, open source software, and open access. (In Sarah Crissinger’s Critical Take on OER Practices: Interrogating Commercialization, Colonialism, and Content she asks if we should even be focusing on textbooks at all. Indeed, their use even in North America is limited to first-year classes in many disciplines, and outside of North America they’re often not used.) How can institutions ensure that all their faculty members have the time to explore new teaching modalities, or even to read journals such as Hybrid Pedagogy or CUNY’s Journal of Interactive Technology? Encourage them to use open access works in their courses, even before they make a full shift to OER? Extending the “resources” part of OER beyond textbooks will be essential to the wide-scale adoption of the textbooks themselves. Faculty members, especially those who teach online, are accustomed to complex publisher systems that give them access to test banks, review materials, exams, and so on. In my view, we’ll need to be supplying such materials alongside the textbooks if we want faculty members, and in particular the increasing number of contingent ones, to take the risk of taking this on. By means of a practical example of how this might work, at OpenCon last year I heard from Rajiv Jhangiani, who works at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia (which admittedly has some groundbreaking open education policies). The psychology department held a two-day test bank sprint to engage their faculty and encourage them to adopt their open textbook. All 13 faculty members participated, and because they had skin in the game, all 13 faculty adopted the textbook.

Such an example only hammers home the importance of community outreach and institutional involvement. There is no point in us replicating work that is being done elsewhere, or trying to develop platforms and collections and outreach strategies in a vacuum. How can we collaborate and learn from one another in a way that not only increases awareness of OER but also makes them better, more usable, more discoverable? I was talking with CUNY’s scholarly communications librarian Meg Wacha recently, and we started to wonder what would happen if, instead of partnering with for-profit companies because it’s easier in the short term, the institutions working towards an open future pooled their resources and built a centralized, user-friendly, well documented, not-for-profit repository, with a dedicated preservation strategy. What if the people at Open Oregon State actively collaborated with the California Community Colleges system, or the Open SUNY folks with BCCampus Open? What if they were to be frequent contributors to the discussion forums of the Rebus Community and made sure all their resources were shared in the OER Commons? A focus on community also necessitates paying attention to discoverability—open in the sense of access. How easy is it to find OERs? Will they continue to be available to communities to come? How are we ensuring the digital preservation of our open educational resources? And given that textbook content in particular can become outdated quickly, how can we ensure that individual sections will continue to be easily exportable, editable, printable, remixable by others?

Crucial to a future in which OER are the norm are instructional designers, deans and provosts, user experience designers, faculty members, policy makers, students—and librarians. There is no doubt that libraries are going to be central to this community of makers and partakers of OER. It is the library that houses the infrastructure of the institutional repository. It is librarians that have the metadata knowledge to help make these resources discoverable and that can help preserve, archive OER for future generations. It is librarians who can educate students and faculty members about creative commons licenses, permissions, and copyright. (This is a bit of an aside, but I think we’re going to need to invest in a significant amount of Creative Commons outreach and education when it comes to getting past some faculty members’ resistance to the CC-BY licenses that the OER community understandably endorses. The suspicion isn’t unreasonable: why would a faculty member create something with the express purpose of making it freely available and then have a for-profit publisher or bookseller such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble, who have open textbook programs now, remix it, package it up, and sell it for a substantial fee? And then there’s the issue of student work: if we involve students in their creation as part of their coursework, that’s one thing, but then allowing the results of their labor to be co-opted and resold by commercial entities is another.)

Aside aside, it is librarians whose community, as I saw at DLF last year, has already shown itself willing to bring critical self-reflection to its own practices, and learn from previous mistakes. And it’s that sort of ongoing assessment and iterative reflection that’s going to be crucial to the success of OER. For this to work, open teams are going to have to check in with themselves at regular intervals and ask, is this working? Is this approach right for our faculty, for our students, for our business model? Can we set clear benchmarks but be willing to revise them, implement the OER success framework but be ready to adapt it to meet a particular initiative’s needs? The future for open education is not bleak if it is collaborative, flexible, and cooperative. Open Education Week is a good place to start.

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