Robin Camille Davis
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OER17 report-back: Four takeaways

April 25, 2017
Tags: OER

OER17 the politics of openI attended the OER17 Conference in London, April 5–6, 2017, with my colleague Ellen Sexton and with support from the Teaching & Learning Center here at John Jay. Though I'm relatively new to the OER (open educational resources) conversation, issues of open access and open knowledge are dear to my heart.

Here are my 4 biggest takeaways from OER17.

Note: the R in OER typically stands for resources, plural, so much of the literature has phrases like "OER have the benefit of..." But that sounds so wacky to my American ears, so I'm just going to go with OERs (plural) and an OER (singular). Most of the time.

What is open? Is "open" actually open?

In the United States, the discussion of OERs is inseparable from the conversation around the sharply rising costs of college textbooks. OERs, like this textbook from OpenStax, are pitched as one solution to this problem, and (in my experience) that's the bulk of the conversation around OERs. So at OER17, I was surprised and pleased to hear international perspectives on OERs well beyond college textbooks: the general focus was contributing to and reusing public knowledge and public resources. Many sessions centered on Wikipedia and Wikidata, and MOOCs were even mentioned.

The keynote speaker, Maha Bali, opened the conference with important critical questions regarding "open." Though the intentions of creating open materials may be good, she said, the result can end up reflecting biases and inequities that already exist. Perhaps the biggest example is the clear Anglo-centrism of existing OERs. We must ask ourselves when creating or using OERs: whose content is privileged? What language is it in? Whose culture is reflected? What is being implicitly taught in the "hidden curriculum" (a new term to me)?

Unless we ask ourselves these questions, we will simply reproduce these biases. "Inclusion must be engineered," Bali quotes Sherri Spelic's Digital Pedagogy lab post.

Moreover, open ≠ free (or libre). OERs aren't free to create. They aren't free to distribute (e.g., all web domains are rented, not owned; plus, IMO, free services aren't really free). And regarding living "in the open" online, Bali pointed out that we are not equally vulnerable to trolling, harassment, and surveillance.

Maha Bali's excellent slides and the recording are online.

OEP: curriculum as a process

One more thing Bali quoted that has stuck with me: "...the demand for access is ... also the right to participate as producers in ... creation, manipulation and extension" (Rizk & Shaver 2010, p.6, emphasis Bali's). To me, access was distinct from participation; rethinking this assumption has been fruitful.

OEP, Open Educational Practices (or Pedagogy), came up again and again throughout this conference. OEP is new to me, but at its heart is a flexible approach to curriculum, active learning, and collaboration, particularly in online projects.

Virginia Coleman-Prisco and Emily Seibert, who studied faculty adoption of OER, found that faculty strongly believe that student learning outcomes improve with OER. Anecdotally, I've heard from several instructors that while "free textbooks" is the message that got them to the OER table, they've stayed because changing up their approach to teaching has been productive and even fun.

Moreover, opening up one's curriculum in this way can model some of the conventions of scholarship. Stefan Lutschinger, a Wikimedian in Residence, discussed a course he teaches at Middlesex University that focuses on writing for Wikipedia. Writing for Wikipedia helped students overcome writing block, he said, because it demonstrated that writing doesn't just "happen." It's a gradual process, they learn, and the production of text is a result of social negotiations and constant improvement. Another bonus of learning to write Wikipedia articles: the citation requirement. Rather than understanding citations as just a feature of a professor's rubric, students learn a social approach to the importance of references.

OER & platforms

Claudia Lehmann presented initial experiences of the MOIN project, which cast lots of light on some of the biggest problems facing OER projects: the need for legal certainty when creating OERs and the need for institutional infrastructure to promote sharing OERs (e.g., a repository). Regarding platforms, she noted that instructors will rely on known resource-finding skills. So OERs won't be used if they aren't findable. And (this is my 2¢ here) a repository will only help the findability of OERs if it's got great SEO. If an OER is listed in a repository or database, but doesn't pop up in a Google search (or library discovery layer), its reuse will be limited.

Speaking of platforms, we encountered many at OER17. Anna Page presented the OEPS (Open Educational Practices in Scotland) project, focusing in part on upgrades to the OpenLearn Create platform. One major UX consideration they had was ensuring that OERs were mobile friendly. As someone noted in a different OER workshop at CUNY, students want to access their textbook on their phones... and in print... and on laptops, and library workstations, etc.

Faculty adoption of OERs

I lied, there are 6 takeaways, but the final 3 are all related to how and why faculty might adopt OER/OEP.

Faculty adoption of OERs: support

The study (abstract, slides) I previously mentioned focused partly on what (U.S.) faculty consider to be meaningful support around the adoption of OER. Two themes emerged: resources from their home institution (like an instructional designer) and projects/grants for faculty time and effort. None of that is surprising, but without meaningful support, the presenters pointed out, creating and implementing OERs are essentially volunteer projects.

The study also brought up challenges facing faculty adoption of OER: too much time/effort, materials aren't plug-and-play, support hindered by the LMS, and the limitation of academic freedom (in the case of some adjuncts).

In other sessions, more challenges were brought up, especially a perceived lack of question banks and other supplemental material for STEM courses. There are some OERs to fill this need, but curation would take time. And of course, not every course can be fully OER-powered — contemporary literature courses, for instance, can't be.

Faculty adoption of OERs: engaging campus activities

A fantastic lightning talk (video) from Ann Ludbrook and Michelle Schwartz covered their experiences in creating an effective faculty workshop around OERs. What works best: fun hands-on activities that are relevant to instructors' needs. Also: don't shy away from issues of access, cost, and social justice. One of their activities was specifically designed around empathizing with students (but not in an accusatory way). The workshop culminated in a group project wherein each faculty member wrote a chapter of a textbook about bears.

In another lightning talk (video), Claudia Zimmerman discussed strategy for supporting OERs from the ground up for the Open Education Austria project. First, workshops were held at each institution. Then faculty participated in a cross-institutional MOOC, designed in part for networking purposes. Third, to celebrate and share experiences, there was a large one-day Austrian OER Festival. Finally, faculty members could receive their certification. (Interestingly, some faculty were contractually obliged to participate. Another incentive was encouragement from "campus multipliers," a phrase that came up repeatedly in the conference when discussing faculty adoption of OER.)

In Meredith Moore's very fun hands-on workshop, we discussed how most of the activity surrounding OER is the reuse of existing resources, rather than writing a textbook from scratch (which is what it may sound like to a newcomer). One reason faculty may be hesitant to approach OERs is that it seems like yet another thing to learn, conquer, and spend time doing—but putting together an open curriculum involves many of the same activities as any curriculum.

Faculty adoption of OERs: language

One of my goals in attending OER17 was to pick up on language surrounding OERs. How do librarians, teachers, publishers talk about OER? It was hard, at first, for me to separate language regarding Open Access from language around OERs, as the two camps are related and perhaps equally enthusiastic. As a librarian, I know I will be discussing OERs with other faculty members at my institution, so gaining an understanding in how to talk about them is important.

Mainly, I needed to curb my librarian defensiveness. OER is the buzzword, but libraries have been providing free access to high-quality materials for ages! It seemed to me that the conversation around OER and open textbooks avoided mentioning the library, since library resources aren't necessarily "open." But they are still zero-cost for students. It would be shame not to take advantage of the wealth of high-quality information in our libraries, not to mention freely-accessible but non-open materials on the web at large, in the rush to claim the label of OER. How do we discuss OERs and library materials in a clear way without focusing too much on the stressful topic of licensing/copyright?

One librarian I spoke to noted that she uses the phrase "affordable learning solutions" on campus to encompass OERs and library materials. The library at BMCC promotes "open/alternative materials," including materials on the open web. I'm partial to using the phrase zero cost, since that's how many courses are indexed in CUNY's course search.

Other helpful terms I picked up on: "share," "curate," and "adapt" are friendlier terms than "create" and "find [the perfect resource]," I learned in discussions with other participants in the aforementioned hands-on workshop.


The general mood of OER17 was enthusiasm tempered by a critical lens. As support for OERs builds at CUNY, I hope the same critical questions keep popping up. I'm looking forward to seeing how the library can participate.