Building an OER Program
4 Talking about OER
Abbey K. Elder
This chapter was adapted in part from The OER Starter Kit by Abbey Elder, licensed CC BY 4.0.
Whether you’re an OER program manager or a staff member with no official OER duties in your job description, you’ll likely be asked to answer many questions about OER as your program develops. In this chapter, we will be sharing some tips for answering common questions you may hear when talking about OER across your institution.
Addressing an Audience New to Open Education
- Explain that there are many options for adopting open educational practices (OEP). Instructors can use open supplementary materials, such as slide sets or lecture notes, offer open content to students as self-study materials, or integrate an open pedagogy assignment into their course. An open textbook is not the single expression of the “OER experience.”
- Don’t assume ignorance from your audience. Ask if the instructor or staff member you are working with is familiar with open education or OER before reviewing the basics with them. Approach meetings with faculty as a conversation between peers rather than a lecture.
- Alternatively, don’t assume that your audience understands OER just because they have adopted open textbooks in the past or mentioned OER in passing. For example, librarians are often aware of trends in scholarly communication, but that doesn’t guarantee that every librarian at your institution is well-versed in open licensing.
- Emphasize the support available at your institution. Is there a way you can make finding and adopting OER easier for your instructors? Provide instructors with existing OER resources at your institution, such as those found in OER library guides. You don’t want instructors to duplicate efforts or attempt to do all of the work on their own.
- Conversely, make it clear what you cannot or will not do, and the required work faculty will need to do to locate and adopt OER for their courses. This will help you set expectations early, something we discuss in more depth in Chapter 12, Managing OER Consultations.
- Adopting OER may not be the best option for all instructors. Talk less, listen more. Rather than continuing to pitch a particular resource or set of resources to a reluctant audience, listen to the needs of the instructors at your institution and provide options for meeting those needs. You may be able to connect faculty with library licensed ebooks for their course, or find other alternatives that meet your faculty members’ needs.
- Avoid “us vs. them” language when discussing the pros and cons of open education. Many faculty members peer review or serve on editorial boards for traditional publishers, and some have written their own textbooks. These instructors often do this work because they care about advancing their discipline. Talking about any organization (i.e., a publisher, vendor, or institution) as if it is a monolith is likely to alienate your audience.
The Benefits and Challenges of OER
If you’ve ever skimmed through an OER library guide, you’ve probably seen a list of “benefits and challenges” to using OER. These lists are useful to have on hand when working with individuals new to open education. Below, we’ve compiled some common benefits and challenges, and a description for each.
No-cost Access Online and Low-cost Print
By definition, OER are free in perpetuity. Once you access content, you can download and keep a copy for as long as you’d like. This gives OER a leg up on commercial electronic textbooks and homework software that might be utilized in a course once and then locked after a period of time. Instead of worrying about the cost of content and its effect on their well-being, students can access open course materials at any time without having to worry about the cost, even after their course ends. This not only supports students who may need to revisit content from an earlier course before diving into higher level content, but also empowers lifelong learning for nontraditional students and others who want to learn from the content, whether they are taking a related course or not. Additionally, the fact that OER start as digital materials allows students to access their course content on their phones and other mobile devices, allowing for a more flexible experience for users with diverse needs.
Some critics have leveled the concern that because OER are digital, they can’t support students who prefer their content in print; however, this is a fallacy. In addition to being free to access online, students can print as many pages as they want. Many open textbooks can be printed at a relatively low cost (under $50), and some OER platforms have made it even easier to obtain print versions of materials. For example, LibreTexts offers a print-on-demand option for the books in its libraries, and OpenStax has print versions that can be ordered in bulk by campus bookstores through the same systems they use to order traditional print books.
To review other options for getting access to affordable print OER, see Chapter 15, Making OER Available in Print.
Adapting and revising content is both possible and encouraged thanks to the open licenses applied to OER. This freedom to adapt content allows instructors to more accurately match the materials they use with their course needs by adding or removing content. In addition to these simple edits, instructors using OER can also remix multiple materials by combining them to create something new. The adaptability allowed by the open licenses on OER can help instructors make a piece of content their own, whether they’re making small changes or bigger ones. Simple adaptation examples include:
- adding “Key Takeaway” boxes to the end of open learning modules,
- showcasing a diversity of perspectives that might have been missing from the original source, and
- highlighting specific concepts or keywords that students will be tested on.
Multiple Formats May be Available
Depending on the resource, OER may be available in multiple formats for use and reuse. The breadth of formats will differ depending on the content type (with most videos only being accessible as streaming HTML or MP4 content, for example); however, the breadth of formats provided for many OER has been increasing as many publishing platforms for OER now provide tools for exporting content in multiple formats. For example, the popular OER publishing platform Pressbooks allows PDF, EPUB, XML, HTML, and ODT formats, among others.
Open educational resources, when integrated into a course with care, often have the same or better outcomes than traditional, commercial course materials (Ross, Hendricks, and Mowat 2018; Fialkowski et al. 2020). Additionally, having free or low-cost access to course content may increase retention and progress toward degree completion for students who would otherwise be required to juggle course material costs and other expenses (Zhao, Satyanarayana, and Cooney 2020).
Interactivity and Student Engagement
Regardless of an OER’s format, the technologies and practices utilized in open education often provide opportunities for students to participate in more active engagement for learning. This might be possible through the implementation of open pedagogy or through the help of tools that can encourage student engagement such as Hypothesis and H5P. Students who participate in open pedagogy in the classroom have partnered with their instructors in the co-creation of content for their course, updated and added content to the Internet to bring forward stories about underrepresented individuals, and built innovative learning materials that showcase not just content proficiency but also technical prowess. These examples and more are explored in the excellent resource, Open Pedagogy Approaches: Faculty, Library, and Student Collaborations (Clifton and Davies Hoffman 2020).
Issues with Content Findability
Faculty have often complained that it’s difficult to locate open content compared to traditional materials (Seaman and Seaman 2018). This is true for several reasons. First, textbook publishers often send out review copies of new textbooks or even work with instructors directly to get commercial textbooks adopted into a course. This type of active and present marketing makes discovering new textbooks easy; however, marketing tactics like these also require staff time and a willingness to alienate your audience if they don’t want to be marketed to, two things that are not common in open education circles.
Another reason why faculty may have difficulty locating open content is because of the various methods by which OER are produced and published. Some OER are self-published and shared on free tools like Google Drive or WordPress websites, while others are produced within OER repositories like OER Commons, and still more are produced on third-party platforms and shared through various other means.
In the best scenarios, open content is shared on popular OER referatories like the Open Textbook Library or OER Commons, regardless of where it was first produced. Referatories “point” to content that is housed on external sites, facilitating the location of content that might otherwise go unnoticed. This can help centralize access and findability for resources that are made through less popular means. However, it can also lead to “content bloat,” wherein a single platform is filled with so much content that authors want to share, it becomes difficult to locate something specific. Being aware of these challenges can help OER program managers relate to their community and better support faculty who might run into these findability issues before seeking support from your team.
Finally, the actual act of finding OER may be more difficult due to a lack of robust metadata for OER repositories. Although some groups have created in-depth metadata schema that can meet the needs of a diverse OER ecosystem, there is still no single agreed-upon metadata scheme adopted by the majority of OER repositories or platforms (Bothmann 2020).
There is currently low OER coverage for some subjects, particularly in niche fields or for upper-level courses. While this issue is not as prominent as it once was, with OER in nursing, agriculture, and other specialized fields growing every year, subject availability is still a noticeable problem in the open education discipline. Because of this, there won’t be current, complete lists of OER available for every course at your institution. Similarly, some courses may have one relevant OER available but nothing else.
In these circumstances, we do not recommend asking faculty to create content unless that is something they’ve expressed interest in themselves. Instead, use this as an opportunity to discuss other options that are currently available for their courses, like your library’s Course Reserves program or other free-to-use materials available to supplement or replace the commercial content that the instructor currently uses. If you’re interested in supporting the creation of more OER in a specific discipline, it’s always better to start from a place of supportive encouragement rather than asking authors to do more work on their own.
To support the creation of more OER in a specific department or topic area, you should consider securing grant funding to pay authors, asking for administrative support if you are interested in offering authors course release time, and utilizing platforms like Rebus Community for soliciting co-authors from around the world to work with your institution’s instructors on their project(s).
Although some OER are exceptional, not all open content is adaptable. The reason for this is simple to see: open content is often created by individual faculty members in their free time for a specific course and outcome. So long as the materials they create work for their needs, these faculty members have no incentive to make their work adaptable or even accessible. This is particularly true of content that came out of an institution with no official OER program. Don’t demonize these OER with your instructors. Instead, explain how the licenses allow end users to customize them to fit their specific needs. These OER aren’t bad – they’re just built to someone else’s preferences and needs.
Acknowledge this variability in the quality and depth of content rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. Ignoring this problem could lead to faculty distrusting your team in the future, whereas acknowledging the concerns with these issues and explaining how they might be overcome in the future can help you make progress over time if you choose to continue to partner with the same faculty.
Age of Content and New Editions
Interest in OER began growing in the early 2000s and a boom of content was created at that time. Much of that content still exists, and some resources have new editions as well as adaptations. This can lead to confusion and consternation about versions and the age of the OER available. Although attributions will be present in new editions, checking to see if there is a newer version of an OER available requires time and effort on the part of the faculty member or OER program manager doing that search.
While the age of open content is becoming less of an issue now with more content being developed annually, there is a need within our community for a standard for creating and supporting new editions of open content. Keeping track of older editions of OER that require updates, particularly open textbooks, should be part of an OER program manager’s work. How you handle that work, though, may differ from institution to institution based on your funding and the technologies you use to track and manage your publications.
Tips for Talking to Administrators
Much of the advice in this chapter is applicable to discussions with anyone at your institution, but there are considerations to keep in mind when talking about OER with administrators. To help you navigate higher level discussions about your OER program, some key tips have been pulled out below.
Match Institutional Priorities
Tie your OER program to your institution’s goals. Look for keywords that you can connect to your work (e.g., affordability, access to education, equity, or student success). If your institution’s strategic plan, vision, or mission statement mentions these keywords, you can mention how OER and open education more broadly help facilitate those goals in discussions with administrators.
Present Case Studies
Take note of successful programs to share as illustrative examples. If you want to talk to the head of your institution or department about expanding your OER program, share how the work you want to promote has been handled at other institutions, and explain how the impact of the work could benefit your institution specifically.
Be clear about what you mean when you talk about your OER program, and where your work is making an impact at your institution. As we mentioned in Chapter 1, Introduction to Open Educational Resources, there are many definitions for OER, and your program may reach beyond OER alone. If you are advocating for the use of a wide range of affordable or no-cost course materials through your program, explain the range of materials you support and how OER are unique among them and deserving of support. Likewise, if you are working toward a broader pedagogical shift on your campus to help instructors who want to embrace open pedagogy, you should explain how open pedagogy and approaches like it can leverage the expertise of your institution’s educators to bring a more personalized learning experience to students.
Share Program Data
Finally, data is often a necessary component of discussions with administrators and other campus officials. While faculty and staff are often excited to discuss theoretical projects and individual case studies, administrators prefer having concrete data with which to judge your work’s impact. It may be useful to begin discussions with administrators by sharing the number of courses supported by your program, the funding given to faculty, and the money saved by students enrolled in OER courses before diving into more complex topics surrounding your program’s continued growth. You can learn more about collecting and reporting on your OER program’s impact in Chapter 21, Data Collection and Strategies for OER Programs.
This chapter does not give you a template for talking about OER. Every conversation you have about open education will be different, guided by the history and knowledge of your conversation partner. What we wanted to do with this chapter was to bring forward the importance of respecting your conversation partner, and giving them the benefit of the doubt in your discussions. Be up front with faculty when there are barriers to adopting OER in their discipline, and conversely, make it clear when there are exciting possibilities for moving a course to be more open. Perhaps an instructor has never heard of open pedagogy, but wants to explore examples from other instructors who have delved into this pedagogical practice. Guide them through that work, and be ready to answer questions as they arise.
- Crafting a Message (West 2015)
- Tough Question Cheat Sheet (Open Education Network, n.d.)
- OER FAQ (Open Oregon Educational Resources, n.d.)
- OER Mythbusting (SPARC 2017)
- Be ready to respond to tough questions as they arise and prepare answers to common questions, like those listed in OER FAQs online.
- OER should not be viewed as a monolith. These materials come in many different sizes and formats. Be frank with your institutional partners about the variability present in OER, and how this variability can be an asset to your instructors.
- When discussing OER with faculty, emphasize the support available to help them locate and adopt OER, and the fact that personally creating and sharing content isn’t required to participate in open educational practices.
- When discussing OER with administrators, tie your program’s work into institutional priorities and be clear when discussing your work’s potential and continued impact.
Bothmann, Bobby. 2020. “An Annotated Bibliography of Scholarly Articles on Best Practices for OER Metadata.” Accessed January 29, 2022. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1zFf8lyhOB7SVBptl8n8-jjEFe-Q9XLoG/edit
Clifton, Alexis, and Kimberly Davies Hoffman (eds). 2020. Open Pedagogy Approaches: Faculty, Library, and Student Collaborations. New York: SUNY Geneseo. https://milnepublishing.geneseo.edu/openpedagogyapproaches/
Fialkowski, Marie K., Allison Calabrese, Beth Tilinghast, Alan Titchenal, William Meinke, Jinan C. Banna, and Jennifer Draper. 2020. “Open Educational Resource Textbook Impact on Students in an Introductory Nutrition Course.” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 52 (4): 359–68. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2019.08.006
Open Education Network. n.d. “Tough Question Cheat Sheet.” Accessed July 12, 2021. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sahW2dOmtxyTCeuGOkYcSeABnaxJvzJZLhvBSnnMvKI/
Open Oregon Educational Resources. n.d. “OER FAQ.” Accessed July 12, 2021. http://faq.openoregon.org/
Ross, Heather M., Christina Hendricks, and Victoria Mowat. 2018. “Open Textbooks in an Introductory Sociology Course in Canada: Student Views and Completion Rates.” Open Praxis 10 (4). http://dx.doi.org/10.5944/openpraxis.10.4.892
Seaman, Julia E., and Jeff Seaman. 2018. “Freeing the Textbook: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2018.” Babson Survey Research Group. https://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/freeingthetextbook2018.pdf
Solera, Jose. 2009. “Project Decelerators – Lack of Stakeholder Support.” Silicon Valley Project Management. Accessed January 29, 2022. https://svprojectmanagement.com/project-decelerators-lack-of-stakeholder-support
SPARC. 2017. OER Mythbusting. Accessed January 29, 2022. https://sparcopen.org/our-work/oer-mythbusting/
West, Quill. 2015. “Crafting a Message.” In Librarians as Open Education Advocates. Library as Open Education Leader. https://openedadvocates.pressbooks.com/
Zhao, Yongchao, Ashwin Satyanarayana, and Cailean Cooney. 2020. “Impact of Open Education Resources (OER) on Student Academic Performance and Retention Rates in Undergraduate Engineering Departments.” Paper presented at 2020 Fall ASEE Mid-Atlantic Section Meeting, Virtual (hosted by Stevens Institute of Technology). https://peer.asee.org/36048