A Quick Guide to Open Education
My Path to Becoming an Open Education Librarian
My OER journey began in 2013. I had recently transitioned from a library administration role as Special Assistant to the Dean to a position that combined liaison librarianship and project management. The Dean of UA Libraries asked me to serve on a campus-wide eContent Pilot, testing an eReading platform. That 2013–14 pilot was almost derailed by technology problems with the platform, but two great things resulted from the project:
- The library, bookstore, central IT, and teaching and learning center formed stronger partnerships through the pilot’s challenges, and
- OER’s clear advantages over commercial/proprietary content became evident.
Our project team advised campus to scrap the eReading platform and pursue OER instead. In 2014, the library formally added OER coordination to my job description and I attended my first-ever OER conferences: OpenStax’s CNX and the Open Education Conference. At that time, my primary job responsibilities were to lead the library’s discovery service implementation and to serve as a business liaison librarian. I lobbied for the OER coordination role because I saw it as an unfilled need on campus, but the percentage of time dedicated to OER was never specified in my job description. In hindsight, I should have pushed for this.
In 2015, the University of Arizona joined the Open Education Network (OEN) and I organized a full day of OER workshops and sessions for instructors, librarians, and instructional designers. Meanwhile in 2015, architecture liaison responsibilities were added to my job description.
As my passion for OER grew, I wanted to focus on it full time. In 2017, I had the opportunity to move from liaison librarianship to a newly created department, Content & Collections. I envisioned working primarily on OER and I adopted the title of Open Education Librarian. Instead, my job description increasingly expanded to include much more than OER. By the end of 2020, I also was responsible for oversight of Course Driven Acquisitions (our ebook program that serves hundreds of classes a semester), streaming video, the setup and administration of our Pressbooks site, expanded web content, and supervisory duties. These responsibilities diluted the time I could devote to OER.
As our library engaged in Future State planning in 2020–21 by looking closely at work we should stop doing and where new/additional resources need to be focused, I made the case for redirecting more personnel to course material initiatives. Our library’s return on investment with these programs has been substantial. Additionally, these initiatives directly support goals related to student success, innovation, equity, inclusion, and global engagement in the university’s strategic plan (University of Arizona 2021). In early 2021, library leadership decided to spin off some of my current responsibilities. Oversight of Course Driven Acquisitions and streaming video will be reassigned to others. I’ll keep leading OER, open pedagogy, and Z-Degree/Z-Major initiatives (the Z stands for zero course material costs), as well as managing Pressbooks, but I’ve moved to the library’s Research Engagement Department and realigned with scholarly communication.
Advocating for yourself and your OER program is critical work. Competition for limited resources in libraries is fierce. You’ll need to develop allies, clearly communicate why this work is important and deserves prioritization, and demonstrate its impact. In this case study, I’ll be blunt about my biggest hurdles and lessons learned. OER program management definitely has its challenges, but it’s also the most rewarding and impactful library work I’ve done.
When I graduated from library school in 2008, none of my courses covered copyright, fair use, scholarly communication, Creative Commons licenses, OER, or ebook licensing models. As I became more involved in OER program management, it became clear that I’d need to educate myself. I turned to webinars, conferences, workshops, listservs, a Massive Open Online Course on copyright, and the Creative Commons Certificate for librarians. Newcomers can tap into a wealth of learning opportunities:
- Creative Commons Certificate materials are openly available, including an ebook version (Creative Commons 2020).
- OEN offers a Certificate in OER Librarianship and course materials are openly available in Canvas.
- OEN’s Publishing Curriculum is openly available in Canvas.
- OEN and the Rebus Community host monthly Office Hours webinars and previous recordings are available on YouTube.
- The Community College Consortium for OER (CCCOER) maintains a list of upcoming open education conferences and events.
- The Association of College & Research Libraries will offer the Open Educational Resources and Affordability RoadShow.
In talking with other OER program managers, it’s common to feel overwhelmed by the scope of work. Challenges arise from both the breadth and depth of the workload. It often feels like drinking from a firehose.
OER projects are expansive and intersect with many other areas of library work—discovery, preservation, publishing, and open access, copyright and fair use, faculty outreach, marketing and communication, and more. It takes time to build expertise in these various areas and/or to coordinate with those colleagues. It’s also time-intensive to work 1:1 with instructors on OER. The course material marketplace is continually evolving, so there are always new products, business models, and complexities to learn about.
Meanwhile, OER responsibilities are frequently piled on top of existing work. I’ve struggled to end legacy assignments and expand my OER focus. My project management work on the library’s discovery service gradually diminished as the library replaced it with another system, but I had to actively resist being pulled into the new project. I had to convince my department head and library leadership that it would be more advantageous to the library and campus for me to concentrate on OER and course materials. I pointed out peer institutions’ full-time OER positions and the positive outcomes of their grants, publishing initiatives, and course marking projects (which we lacked the bandwidth to do).
Be prepared to present a clear vision of what’s possible for your initiative. The Certificate in OER Librarianship offers Action Plan templates you can adapt and present to leadership (OEN 2020). The Certificate also requires participants to meet with library leadership and ask questions such as:
- What resources will the library commit to our OER program (personnel, funding for grants and/or events, travel to OER conferences, etc.)?
- How do you envision my role in our OER program? How does that fit into the scope of my current job description? What percentage of time will I be able to devote to OER or affordability programs? Is there anything that can be moved off my plate to make more time to focus on OER?
- What’s the most important thing for me to accomplish in the next year?
- What would you consider measures of success for our OER program?
I suggested several of these questions based on my own experiences.
Cross-training is important for program sustainability and expanding bandwidth. One person can only do so much—together, we can accomplish much more. From a sustainability standpoint, it can be risky to have course material initiatives consolidated in a single position. If that person leaves or retires, the program could be set back or abandoned altogether. When my six-month sabbatical was approved for Spring 2021, backup coverage during my absence posed a challenge for the library. A campus hiring freeze due to COVID-19 had already left us understaffed and my department had no funding for a temporary hire. My course material responsibilities were redistributed to a number of different people and I left resources to help them answer questions. I can tell that their expertise grew during my absence. That’s a good thing for our program and its long-term future.
In Fall 2020, several faculty asked me to help them apply for the national Open Textbooks Pilot (U.S. Department of Education 2020) and produce OER. Lacking the bandwidth, I had to decline. This is a necessary aspect of OER work when you have limited staff to support your program. Our Pressbooks publishing platform was quietly rolled out as a “self-service” model. We provide help (University of Arizona, n.d.) in the form of Pressbooks guides and videos but don’t have staff available to support publishing projects in depth. The university could be doing much more with Pressbooks. It’s frustrating but important to set boundaries and manage expectations. Prepare to have to prioritize what you’ll support.
Like any workplace, academic libraries can struggle with internal politics, communication breakdowns, and power struggles. Moving OER and Course Driven Acquisitions from Research & Learning (the liaison librarians’ department) to Content & Collections created some problematic silos and workflow issues. When faculty reached out directly to me for help with course materials, it sometimes caused conflicts with liaisons who preferred to be the sole point of contact with faculty in their subject areas. My best advice in these situations is to prioritize the customer, try to keep communication channels open, and work toward win-win solutions.
Buy-In From Administration
When the university revised its strategic plan a few years ago, the library dean and I pitched the idea of Z-Degrees and Z-Majors. We were unable to convince administrators to adopt this as an institutional strategy, so we instead started working with individual faculty and deans. Our biggest success so far has been with the newly formed College of Veterinary Medicine. Its leadership was committed to keeping the cost of course materials as low as possible, so I worked with newly hired faculty on selecting course materials for inaugural classes. We weren’t able to find OER, but the library provided free, unlimited ebook access to 38 of 41 required textbooks for Fall 2020. Several instructors are creating OER in Pressbooks. New programs and courses can present great opportunities.
Lack of Money
My library has no ongoing budget for OER work. I can apply for one-time library funding for events, and other library accounts cover our annual OEN community fee and Pressbooks plan, but we don’t offer faculty any financial incentives to participate in our learning communities or to switch to zero-cost course materials. When faculty tell me they can’t create or use OER without a grant, stipend, or course release, I explain that we lack the funding and infrastructure for such incentives. So far I’ve found enough volunteers, but “free” labor raises concerns about privilege, equity, and diversity. While it’s possible to run course material initiatives on a shoestring budget, that effectively limits the number of OER adoptions, adaptations, and creations. Be creative in pursuing funding, which could include grants, donor gifts, or even crowd-funding.
Assessment is Hard
It’s been an ongoing challenge to find out which instructors are using OER. OpenStax notifies me (with instructor permission) when it gets inquiries. Our bookstore features a box on its textbook adoption form for instructors to check if their course doesn’t require materials, so I can follow up with those instructors to ask what they’re using. However, faculty often confuse library-licensed ebooks (and occasionally pirated textbooks) with OER, which requires some tactful emails or phone calls to explain the differences. Additionally, I’ve run into bureaucratic hurdles in getting access to centralized data on student enrollment; I haven’t yet been able to access student grades, drops, or withdrawals. Still, it’s important to have current data to share with administrators. I coordinate with our bookstore to jointly report estimated savings from OER, Course Driven Acquisitions, and inclusive access (automatic billing). For OER, I use the OEN’s formula of $100 per book multiplied by student enrollment in the course. The OEN offers member libraries a useful Data Dashboard to help tabulate and track OER outcomes.
Lesson 1: Networks are Extremely Valuable.
The University of Arizona was among the first 10 institutions to join the OEN. That was in 2015; the network has now grown to more than 1,560 institutions and expanded internationally to Canada and Australia. I learn a great deal from the OEN’s active listserv, webinars, and Summer Institute. As a member of the network’s Steering Committee, I also got to see its inner workings and help shape its guiding principles (Open Education Network, n.d.). I highly recommend becoming involved in national, regional, or state organizations. Valuable networks include:
- SPARC Libraries & OER Forum: Open to all, it features a listserv and monthly calls.
- Rebus Community: Facilitates global OER collaboration and provides useful resources.
- OpenStax Institutional Partners Program: I participated in the program and found it valuable.
- CCCOER: Although I’m not at a community college, I lurk on their listserv.
Lesson 2: Campus Relationships are Key.
When I became involved in OER work, I joined a range of campus groups to meet faculty, staff, instructional designers, and IT and accessibility resources personnel. I’ve been elected four times as a member of Faculty Senate and now co-chair its Student Affairs Policy Committee (which often deals with textbook issues). The connections I’ve made have been invaluable. They have led to a textbook resolution by student government (Student Body Senate of the Associated Students of the University of Arizona 2019), updated course material policies in the faculty handbook (University of Arizona 2018), and a presentation to Faculty Senate on library/faculty/bookstore collaborations and why our campus bookstore shouldn’t be outsourced (Cuillier, Shively, and Hawk 2020).
Lesson 3: Team Up and Share Invitations.
Going to conferences and events with campus partners can be mutually beneficial. In 2017, I invited the Assistant Director of the UA BookStores to co-present with me at an Open Education Conference. I’ve attended several Textbook Affordability Conferences with her. Instructional designers from UA’s Digital Learning unit attended an OERizona pre-conference in 2019. The head of Digital Learning stayed for the Open Education Conference, where she learned about Pressbooks and got excited about the open pedagogy possibilities for her classes. I told her that I loved Pressbooks but didn’t have funding for it. She struck a deal with the library dean to pay for half so we could pilot it. We recently renewed the license. In Summer 2020, I partnered with a learning technologist in Digital Learning to offer beginning and advanced Pressbooks learning communities. These collaborations have expanded the reach of my OER efforts.
Lesson 4: Go for Low-Hanging Fruit.
I wish I could remember who taught me this, but we’re never going to convince every instructor to switch to OER. That’s OK. When you’re starting a new OER program, reach out to faculty known as innovators or champions at your institution. Contact faculty who teach subjects covered by OpenStax books, which offer free or low-cost ancillaries. Look at the courses with the largest enrollments or the most expensive textbooks at your institution. Start there. Word will spread.
Lesson 5: Encourage Pilots.
To busy instructors, it can seem overwhelming to revise an entire class that they’ve built around familiar content. It’s less intimidating to pilot OER for a term, even as a supplemental resource, and see how students like it. Pilots can lead to full OER conversion.
Lesson 6: It’s Better to Be Proactive than Reactive.
We typically found out about textbook adoptions after they’d been submitted to the UA BookStores. By then, it was too late to explore alternative course materials with instructors. In 2020, I launched a Check for Ebook Availability form on the library website that allows instructors to see if an unlimited-user ebook license is available through the library before they submit required books through the BookStores’ textbook adoption process (see Figures 1 and 2). We’ve found that less than 20% of adopted textbooks are available to academic libraries as ebooks, so the form invites instructors to consider OER, alternative ebooks, streaming video, or chapters and journal articles through fair use. We also refer instructors to the UA BookStores’ inclusive access program and explain its pros and cons. Instructor responses to the form have been positive so far, and we’ve had success finding free-to-use alternatives.
Lesson 7: De-Emphasize Events.
After a series of poorly attended Open Education Week and Open Access Week events, I now avoid investing a lot of time and money on panels and guest speakers. One talk by Cable Green of Creative Commons, a superstar in the OER world, only drew eight people! Still, I have had success with the OEN’s workshop model, providing lunch and a $200 stipend to faculty who attend an OER training and write a review of a book in the Open Textbook Library.
Low turnouts aren’t necessarily a failure, as you never know which planted seeds will later bear fruit, but I’ve had better results going to faculty and administrators than by inviting them to come to events. I recommend asking for time on department/college agendas and tailoring presentations to their specific needs. I have a set of OpenStax print books to show faculty and have set up an Open Textbook Petting Zoo at events. When in-person events and meetings were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I pivoted to online learning communities, webinars (live and recorded for later viewing), and Zoom meetings with individual faculty. Partner with other units that offer ongoing workshops so you can leverage their marketing channels. I’ve learned that it helps to ask for RSVPs (we use Qualtrics). Once I have attendees’ email addresses, I can send reminders and follow up with additional information after the event. I can also invite them to join our OER listserv, where I share the OER Digest and other news.
Lesson 8: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel.
So many people are running incredibly successful OER programs. Adopt, adapt, and reshare ideas as much as possible. If you want to start a grant program, faculty awards, or a learning community, reach out to people already doing them. The OEN Summit 2020 YouTube videos have great advice for this. The OER community is extremely generous and happy to share resources and tips. Tap into listservs when you have questions. Twitter is also a great place to learn about OER happenings. Find additional resources in my OER Toolkit.
What I Wish I’d Known
Roadblocks come in many different forms (financial, political, systemic, relational, etc.). Each institution has its own unique culture and set of challenges. Finding ways around roadblocks takes creativity, initiative, and determination. Pivot. Pilot. Learn from what didn’t work. Find champions. Build allies. Be a strong advocate for your program. Loudly publicize your successes and positive impacts. As Dory says in Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming!”
Creative Commons. 2020. Creative Commons for Educators and Librarians. Chicago: ALA Editions. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1w2Kz8c7xpf-fRIqRvkUjqt9drSRl7MRG/view
Cuillier, Cheryl, Debby Shively, and Cindy Hawk. 2020. “Faculty, Library, Bookstore Collaborations Vital to Student Success.” https://facultygovernance.arizona.edu/sites/default/files/Library%20and%20bookstore%20collaborations_Senate_11-2-20.pdf
Open Education Network. 2020. “OER Action Plan Template & Resource.” Accessed March 15, 2021. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Cpadnvd9jdABvkmgp50qi1xw-kQmrXinMAgQfF5xKUY
n.d. “Guiding Principles.” About. Accessed March 15, 2021. https://open.umn.edu/otn/about/
Student Body Senate of the Associated Students of the University of Arizona. 2019 [2018 date on document is incorrect]. “A Resolution to Advocate for the Use of Affordable Textbooks and Class Materials.” Last modified March 27, 2019. https://arizona.app.box.com/s/rovsj82dztmm3mqxaolhjrt320dz8oos/file/429144292283
University of Arizona. 2018. “Course Materials” policy in University Handbook for Appointed Personnel (Section 2.11). Last modified September 14, 2018. https://policy.arizona.edu/employment-human-resources/course-materials
n.d. “Help.” UA Open Textbooks: Pressbooks Publishing Platform. Accessed March 15, 2021. https://opentextbooks.library.arizona.edu/help/
n.d. 2021. “Strategic Plan.” Accessed August 18, 2021. https://strategicplan.arizona.edu/
U.S. Department of Education. 2020. “Open Textbooks Pilot Program.” Last modified September 21, 2020. https://www2.ed.gov/programs/otp/index.html