by A.J. O’Connell

The adoption of OER (Open Educational Resources) is on the rise. According to a report from Babson Research Group, almost half of the faculty surveyed for the report are aware of OER and, for the first time in its history, more faculty report a preference for digital rather than physical class materials. In a recent Campus Technology survey, faculty members singled out proprietary publisher content as something they’d like to see disappear.

Among instructors, OER has an increasingly passionate following. Type the hashtag #OER or #OpenEducation into Twitter and you’ll tap into a massive conversation among educators about how best to use open resources, which resources to use, and how open education has helped students. 

It’s a conversation that has grown over the last few years from a small group of vocal supporters to a bigger group that includes instructors, librarians, and administrators. Instructors, however, should not have to make the shift by themselves. To switch campuses over from proprietary content to open course materials, they need administration’s support.

For that to happen, administrators must be aware of several things: 

  • The importance of open resources to students
  • Faculty on your campus are probably already engaged in open teaching and learning
  • Faculty need financial support
  • Faculty also need professional development
  • The new structures needed to support open teaching and learning
  • Everyone who uses OER should be given a voice

The Importance of Open Resources to Students

“The size of the community we’re supporting doubles every year, “ said Kim Thanos, founder and CEO of Lumen Learning, an organization that creates class materials from open resources. Lumen served 200,000 students in 2018 and is projecting that it will serve 400,000 in 2019. 

For many of the most passionate OER supporters, open resources are about much more than free lesson plans and textbooks. OER has been embraced by institutions because it answers an access problem for students and allows both campuses and individual instructors to directly address the affordability of college.

“Open is not a collection of resources or artifacts,” said Robin DeRosa, director of the newly founded Open CoLab at Plymouth State University. “Open is an orientation towards making learning more accessible, the knowledge commons more inclusive (and therefore stronger), and educational infrastructure more directly tied to the public good.”

OER is tied to a larger affordable learning initiative at California State University.

“In California,11 percent of our students are homeless at some point in the year; 41 percent have food insecurity during the year,” said Gerry Hanley, assistant vice chancellor for academic technology services at California State University and executive director of MERLOT, a free and open library of online teaching and learning materials. “Tell me how an institution is going to enable a student to complete their degree when they’re hungry and homeless and they have to pay $200 for a textbook to complete a class.”

Faculty are Already Leading the Way

Administrators interested in OER adoption would do well to first examine their own campuses for open initiatives already underway. If you’re interested in OER or OEP (Open Educational Practices), chances are, at least one of your faculty members is as well. 

“OER (and OEP) has become the backbone to the content I cover, and I’ve had the opportunity to choose what that content looks like,” said Sybil Priebe, associate professor of English, Communication, & Performing Arts at the North Dakota State College of Science. Priebe and two colleagues co-wrote the textbook she uses in College Composition 1, and compiled the OERs she uses in two other courses. 

In some cases, like that of Heather Miceli, an adjunct at Roger Williams University who teaches introductory science courses, instructors are using open-enabled pedagogy in courses—having students create their own texts.

“I work with my students from day one in the course to create openly-licensed websites on the topics we cover in class that can and are used by future students in the course (or for anyone that wants to use them),” said Miceli. “The students get to spend the semester delving deep into a topic of their interest and walk out being the author of something that won’t end up in a trash bin at the end of the semester.”

Faculty Need Financial Support

Miceli’s work with open teaching and learning would not be possible without help from her institution. Although she is an adjunct, she is an OER fellow, a position that’s supported by a $500 stipend and instructional support from the university’s scholarly communication librarian—Roger Williams’ point person for OER—as the fellows work on their Open projects. 

She also had administrative support in making major changes to her course—like ditching exams because she was running out of class time to support the students while they worked on their projects, using topic reflections and extensive feedback on their websites instead.

“All of these approaches are ‘radical’ shifts in pedagogical thinking in science departments,” said Miceli. “It was important to me to have the support of the administration—in my case an assistant provost and my dean—in making these changes without there being negative repercussions; for example, if this project fell flat and the students gave me overwhelmingly negative reviews, would this jeopardize my position the next semester/year?”

While Miceli was using OER before she became a fellow, the administrative support is what drove her to become a passionate advocate for OER and open.

“I am currently being supported to begin disseminating my work,” she said. “They are paying for travel and conference registration for a conference. This is almost unheard of for adjuncts.”

Providing Comprehensive Professional Development and Support

Grants and stipends are important, but Thanos cautions administrators against throwing money at OER without being clear about what faculty members are expected to do with a grant.

“As you’re kicking off a program, start by saying, who are the people on our campus who today might know most about OER…and invest first in making sure those individuals are building out the right supports for faculty members,” she said. 

An example of such support is Plymouth State’s Open Co-Lab. Also called the Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative, was founded earlier this year to support Plymouth State’s “Cluster Pedagogy,” an approach to learning that includes interdisciplinary inquiry and research, project-based learning, and open infrastructures that remove some of the barriers between teachers and students. One of the CoLab’s mandates is open education. 

DeRosa and her team are a resource for the faculty—they help instructors design assignments, courses, and programs with open resources and active pedagogies that help students become contributors to course materials. They also help professors understand copyright law. 

It’s important to make open-related professional development easy to access. For every trailblazing instructor who is an OER advocate, there are several more who are cautiously interested or confused about how to get started. 

“My line is ‘give a gift, not a burden’,” said Hanley. “If you don’t make it convenient for people to learn about it, people won’t do it.”

Another important part of a successful open program, says Hanley, is making sure that faculty are recognized for their work with open teaching. “There needs to be an active participation and recognition of faculty behavior changes and administrators need to reinforce that.” 

Read our In-depth Guide to Technology

The New Structures Needed to Support Open Teaching and Learning

While faculty are often the biggest advocates for open resources, money and teaching resources aren’t always enough to encourage OER adoption campus-wide. Even the most passionate, active faculty member may run into obstacles when attempting to implement OER, some of which can’t be surmounted without help. That’s where department heads, deans, and provosts come in.

“The administrative role is very important, because there are structural barriers in institutions,” said Thanos.

She gives the example of the professor who wants to assign a $300 textbook in class. It’s very easy for the professor to assign that book because there’s already an administrative process in place to help faculty order textbooks through the campus bookstore. 

But say the professor wants to use open resources instead, subscribing to an open textbook available online. Adding a $25 OER fee to the course instead of a required textbook is a process that simply doesn’t exist at many institutions. 

“That might need to go to a board of trustees for approval,” said Thanos. The commitment of a dean or department head can make a big difference to a faculty member who simply doesn’t have the tools to change the way the process currently works. 

Other hurdles may include building different structures of support. For example, faculty members who use online open resources may need help from an administrator in overcoming resistance from a college’s IT department, which may be naturally concerned about the information security of free online resources. 

Image courtesy of Campus Technology

Image courtesy of Campus Technology

Listening to All Stakeholders When it Comes to OER

It’s important that administrators are willing to learn from those who are already engaged in the work of open teaching and learning. One of the most common mistakes Thanos sees is administrators who get excited about OER, but put their own processes in place or dictate course materials to the faculty. 

“A heavy hand in this doesn’t ever work well,” she said. “Just the lightest support helps faculty members identify what they need and puts administrators in a much more helpful role.” 

This means reaching beyond the full-time faculty and including everyone who is using OER in class. It means including adjuncts in calls for proposals, grants, or workshops because like Miceli, many adjuncts use OER in their courses and might not have access to professional development. 

“Adjuncts typically spend all their time teaching, and could use the resources as well and have things to contribute,” said Miceli. 

Administrators would also do well to listen to the students who use OER in their classes. Student feedback can help administrators understand how OER works in real life, what its impact is, and where a program might need improvement.

“They are the ones benefiting on Day One—they have immediate access to the book, it’s free, and many studies are showing that student learning is not negatively affected [by OER],” said Priebe. 

When it comes to creating a culture of open learning on campus, the job of an administrator is one of support. It’s the administration’s job to ask what faculty and students need, to listen, and try to remove barriers when those barriers stand in the way of open learning. 

“Letting open learning grow from the enthusiasm of experienced teachers and scholars and the needs of real learners is a great way to make sure your initiatives really serve your community,” said DeRosa. “To generate grassroots support, you need to seed and support people who are already there trying to build capacity.” 

About the author:

A.J. O’Connell is a journalist, author, and former adjunct who lives in New England. She’s written for Campus Technology, Electric Literature, and The Establishment.


Campus Technology 2018 Teaching with Technology survey

Babson Research Group: Freeing the Textbook: Open Education Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2018 (pdf)

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