Building an OER Program
Case Study 2: Two Sides of the Same Coin: A Tale of Two OER Initiatives
Many OER initiatives in higher education have developed and grown within libraries and are increasingly led by librarians (SPARC, 2019, 6). I believe that librarians are natural advocates who are ideally suited to support, lead, manage, and implement OER programs. Because of this belief, I willingly took on the role of leading an OER initiative; originally at a community college and currently at a land-grant research university. What is notable about my work in these libraries is the contrasting nature of my position and job responsibilities. While both jobs entailed overall leadership and management of the OER program, in one role these duties were an add-on to my existing position, while in the other role I was 100% dedicated to OER. These contrasting experiences are the focus of this case study. It’s a personal narrative that is all too common among OER librarians. While we are committed to advocacy and support for OER, the demands imposed on us by our workload (often with OER as an added item to our already-full plates) need to be unpacked and interrogated because they’re often not discussed. On the one hand, we have to maintain our commitment to access and equity through the adoption of OER, and on the other, we grapple with the frustration of not having the support and financial resources needed to realize these goals.
Building an OER Program at a Community College
I came to work at Lansing Community College (LCC) Library in 2010 as the Head of Technical Services and Systems. This position was classified as an administrator, similar to the library director. Like many community college libraries, our staff was small and our work was always student-focused. I was in charge of a small unit where I supervised one librarian, two support staff, and two student employees. Our team was responsible for cataloging, acquisitions, collection management, collection development, resource sharing, interlibrary loan, electronic resources management, the integrated library system, and the discovery system.
In 2014, I became part of an Academic Senate committee tasked with considering innovative ways for LCC to make learning materials more affordable and engaging for students. At that time, I was already interested in OER from having recently heard a TED Talk by David Wiley and attended webinars by the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER). The more I learned about the promise and benefits of OER, the more I was inspired to pitch an OER project to the college. The timing could not have been better because a new provost had just started his tenure and a new strategic plan had just been drafted. Ultimately, in early spring 2015, and with the provost’s support, I became the lead of LCC’s fledgling OER initiative. As I encouraged faculty to explore and consider OER, I found several allies and champions willing to try something new. One of them eventually became Academic Senate president, and that paved the way for the Senate to pass a resolution that supported and encouraged the use of OER.
An important goal was to encourage and support faculty exploration and innovation in adopting or creating high-quality learning materials that improved students’ learning and engagement. The primary purpose of this goal was to reduce educational costs for students by providing free or low-cost learning materials that were available from day one of class as well as customizable to fit their learning needs. It was vital that I didn’t focus exclusively on affordability, but also to anchor the goals of the OER program on pedagogical improvement and faculty innovation. The good thing about leading an OER program at LCC was that I had the college administrators’ buy-in (president, provost, chief financial officer, and the deans), as well as the support of faculty. As a show of initial support, I was provided $25,000 from the Provost’s Office to jump-start event planning and professional development to help raise awareness about OER across the college. It also meant that I had free reign in setting the initiative’s goals and directions, which was very empowering.
I chose to focus on awareness and advocacy first. I believed that faculty needed to hear about the problem we were trying to address and how OER could be a possible solution. At the time, many were unaware of OER or the textbook affordability issues faced by our students. There were also a lot of misconceptions about OER and copyright. At the same time, the perception about the quality of OER as inferior to publisher textbooks was a constant concern to faculty.
A perfect place to start was the creation of an OER LibGuide since many academic libraries have access to the Springshare platform. I used the LibGuide as a teaching and training tool when I led workshops for faculty since most of the information they needed to know about finding, adopting, and evaluating an OER was located there. I also developed a partnership with the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), so I’d be included in the regular workshop schedule for faculty professional development every semester. This is very important, especially in community colleges where the majority of faculty are adjuncts. Adjuncts have heavy teaching loads and often don’t have time for in-person workshops, but since these OER workshops are done through the CTE, they receive payment for the training they attend. I led three to four workshops every semester and they were attended by both full-time and part-time faculty.
I still wanted to broaden my faculty advocacy, so I reached out to all of the Associate Deans and program faculty chairs. I asked them if I could attend their departmental meetings and give a short presentation about OER. Talking about OER in department meetings was an effective way to reach faculty and allowed me to tailor my presentations to their disciplinary areas. After I finished presenting, I received requests for one-on-one meetings with faculty who were interested in adopting OER. These meetings led to individual faculty OER adoptions and eventually to an entire department adopting OER. This was the case with the Intro to Psychology course (PSYC 101).
Upon learning about the OER initiative, the program faculty chair of psychology reached out to me about the possibility of adopting an OER for all PSYC 101 sections. I provided them with five open textbooks that they could review to replace the required course material they were using. A group of psychology faculty reviewed the OER list I sent them and assigned instructors to review each of these open textbooks. They approached the review the same way as publisher textbooks and rated each open textbook according to the evaluation criteria they created. The review and adoption decision was done in the spring 2016 semester. The faculty committee decided to adopt OpenStax Psychology as the required course material in all sections of PSYC 101 starting in the fall 2016 semester.
Additionally, having allies and champions from the Academic Senate was advantageous since I could regularly present at their meetings. These not only increased awareness among faculty, but also academic staff, advisors, financial aid officers, and instructional designers who were present during those meetings.
Perhaps the single most impactful event I organized was the first-ever OER Summit in September 2015, which paved the way for OER adoptions by faculty at LCC and at other Michigan higher education institutions. I used my initial $25,000 budget to bring prominent open education experts to LCC, including David Wiley, Nicole Allen, Nicole Finkbeiner, Una Daly, Lisa Young, Preston Davis, and Quill West. Each speaker talked about various aspects of open education (advocacy, open licensing, open educational practices, etc). The Summit also included an afternoon workshop with about 200 participants from both K-12 and higher education. We were able to make this a truly open event that was free to all attendees and open to everyone. It was a turning point for many of my colleagues; after the convening, several institutions were inspired to start their own OER programs. It was followed by three more annual OER Summits sponsored by LCC with Cable Green, Chris Gilliard, Daniel Williamson, and Alexis Clifton as speakers.
Reflecting on my past experiences, I cannot overstate the importance of aligning your OER goals with your institution’s strategic plan. Since the OER project was one of the critical initiatives in LCC’s strategic plan, we realized its immediate impact in the first year of implementation. We went from 21 to 120 faculty adopters in just one academic year. By the time I left LCC in June 2019, we had over $2.9 million in textbook savings. In addition, I successfully secured a one-time $500,000 budget from the Board of Trustees. This came about after I spoke at one of the Board of Trustees meetings where I talked about the goals of the OER initiative and how it could help our students succeed in their classes. Additionally, I talked about how the OER initiative could be an effective way to demonstrate leadership among the community colleges in Michigan. I believe that resonated with the Trustees and garnered the support of the LCC President who pushed for this funding as a way of gaining statewide and national recognition for the College. This financial support enabled me to create an OER award program which supported faculty in their OER adoption, adaptation, and creation. It was, by far, the most significant funding ever given for faculty grant support by any community college trustees. As a result, the OER initiative became the most successful and impactful project in the strategic plan and made LCC a state and national OER leader among community colleges.
However, despite the success of the Summit and the other initiatives, I want to highlight that leading an OER program at LCC was still an add-on to the job responsibilities I already had. Even though I had the support of the administration and was able to implement a successful program, creating a separate OER position was a challenge. For one, I did not have the support of the Library Director, to whom I reported. They considered my OER work as my “pet project” and disavowed any involvement with the OER program. There were also some financial constraints with the creation of a new administrator position. It was not considered a priority because I was doing the job successfully despite my multiple responsibilities. In hindsight, my commitment to taking on the additional role of leading an OER program proved a disadvantage. The perception was that I could do the job and deliver exceptional results. After all, LCC was leading the way in OER adoptions at community colleges in Michigan. Why should the College invest in a new position when they can clearly see that I’m doing an excellent job with it? Even if we got positive press coverage state-wide and nationally, my emotional and intellectual labor weren’t valued. It was exhausting and frustrating, especially since not many people knew of what I was going through at that time. Those who knew offered support, care, and concern. Personally, I thought that it was just a matter of time before I decided to leave.
Building an OER Program at a Research University
After nine years at LCC, and on the heels of a very successful OER program, I decided to move to Michigan State University (MSU) Libraries in July 2019. The decision was easy for me because it was a new position that was entirely dedicated to building, managing, and leading an OER program. When I accepted the job, I saw it as an opportunity to make a difference on a broader scale at a university with about 50,000 students. It all boiled down to the potential impact that I could make on students and the challenge of working with the university’s faculty: many of whom are notable scholars, researchers, and authors. Also, I believe that MSU’s land-grant mission dovetails with the OER program’s goals of access, equity, innovation, and student success.
When I was hired, OER was at a nascent stage at MSU. There was already an interest in starting an OER initiative within the MSU Libraries, but there was no full-time librarian to build and lead a more formal and cohesive program. Fortunately, library administration (our dean and the associate dean I report to) already paved the way to ensure that I had the necessary structural and financial support. MSU Libraries signed up as an institutional member of the Open Education Network (OEN), which provided a discounted subscription to Pressbooks: a publishing software commonly used in open textbook production. Most importantly, I was given a $50,000 annual budget to support faculty interested in adopting or creating OER.
Moreover, I have a team of colleagues, including a student employee, that I work with on Pressbooks publishing, copy editing, cover art designs, accessibility, and print-on-demand services. This is in stark contrast with my previous job at LCC, where I was a one-woman OER team who did the grueling daily grind of managing the program alone. This change was liberating.
Now that I was able to be laser-focused on OER work, I could do more than what would have been possible in my previous position. It worked to my advantage that I already knew what I wanted to do and had the experience of building an OER initiative from the ground up. Within the first three months, I formed a university-wide OER Advisory Committee that comprised faculty, students, learning designers, information technology, librarians, and accessibility and assessment experts. I was also able to launch our first round of OER award program funding, where we provided incentives to nine faculty in the adoption, adaptation, and creation of OER. As I write this, our second round of OER awards recently funded ten faculty teaching thirteen courses.
I’ve seen an increase in the number of courses using OER and instructors who expressed interest in creating their own course materials especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic that had us all working, teaching, and learning from home. Some of our faculty have found that OER are much more engaging and accessible for online learning and it filled the gap that traditional materials couldn’t address. I consider the first year of our OER program a success. In the academic year 2019–2020, we had 24 courses using OER, impacting 14,235 students. In the 2020-2021 academic year, we had 56 courses using OER, impacting 18,871 students. That represented a cumulative textbook savings of about $3.3 million. Owing to this initial success, our Associated Students of MSU (ASMSU) drafted a bill advocating for the use of OER across all undergraduate courses at MSU. The ASMSU General Assembly passed the bill unanimously on November 5, 2020. In addition, the student leaders spearheaded the programming and events for the March 2021 Open Education Week by moderating a faculty panel, giving awards to faculty for their OER leadership, and buying custom-designed OER swags to give away.
Furthermore, there was an enthusiastic group of faculty who wanted to go beyond adopting or creating OER and leveraged it to improve their pedagogy. This resulted in the convening of an open pedagogy and open educational practices learning community. It focused on helping all of us learn how to make our course materials more student-focused and participatory.
Straddling Part-time and Full-time OER Librarian Positions
As I mentioned earlier in my discussion about working at LCC, OER was an added responsibility that I sought and asked for because of my commitment and passion to open education as a pathway toward achieving access, equity, and student success. At that time, I didn’t mind having OER work as part of my already-full plate and one of the many hats I was already wearing, in part because I considered it a vehicle to demonstrate the value of the library. Being the OER program manager allowed me to collaborate and advise faculty in their course material selection in a way that put openly licensed materials as the first choice when pedagogically appropriate. However, as expected, this arrangement can’t be sustained in the long term. At some point, burnout will ensue, as it did for me four years after I started the OER program.
Many librarians, especially at community colleges, have been in this same situation, but with fewer resources and institutional support than I had. This is not only frustrating but has the unintended consequence of derailing the momentum of any OER program. The whole lifecycle of an OER project is a complex undertaking and requires a great deal of management and coordination with different groups. It’s a continuous cycle that involves what I call “The 5 A’s”: awareness, advocacy, adoption, accessibility, and assessment. These tasks are carried out—not just by the OER librarian but by many campus stakeholders—to ensure effective program implementation. Over time, as in my case, these responsibilities add up and morph into a whole new position by themselves. While the LCC administration recognized the magnitude and complexity of the work, and even though I proposed creating a separate OER project manager position, I continued to operate in this untenable arrangement.
Faced with this situation, how can we advocate for ourselves to ensure that we receive the necessary support to carry on this critical work? Dai and Carpenter (2020) provided suggestions on effectively advocating for ourselves as we negotiate these added responsibilities. The most important step is to begin by asking the right questions (Dai and Carpenter 2020, 14):
- How does OER align with institutional priorities?
- What percentage of my time will be spent on OER?
- What resources will I have available to support me in this work?
Of course, many more questions need to be asked, but the bottom line is that there needs to be initial and ongoing conversations with library and campus administrators to ensure that OER program managers are set up for success. This applies to both part-time and full-time OER librarian positions. All too often, the inherent excitement, commitment, and passion of the OER manager aren’t enough on its own to sustain and grow the program. In my case, the success of LCC’s OER program came at a heavy price that took a toll on my mental and physical health. I see much rhetoric in academic libraries of “doing more with less,” but this mentality privileges those whose positions are more secure, especially those librarians in full-time or tenure-track appointments. But what about those librarians working in community colleges as adjuncts, struggling to achieve the same success with fewer hours, lower pay, and no benefits?
Fortunately, there are now OER librarian positions in academic libraries of all types that have been created specifically to support these growing initiatives. While many are still added responsibilities, a growing number are full-time positions. No matter your individual situation, it’s crucial to reach out within your institution and externally as well. The success of an OER program hinges on institutional support and commitment to ensure sustainability. This includes providing staff and financial support, recruiting people who can help with advocacy and awareness, ensuring that there are technological tools and platforms to support the creation and publication of OER. Likewise, reach out outside your institutions. The open education community embodies the ethos of openness and sharing. Many have walked in your shoes and are willing to help. You don’t have to do it alone.
Ask the right questions:
- How does OER align with institutional priorities?
- What percentage of my time will be spent on OER?
- What resources will I have available to support me in this work?
Document your work:
- Update your position description to reflect the OER work
- Create a work plan
- Maintain a journal where you can document the work that you do. You can also use this to record your success and the outcomes of the work that you’ve done.
Build a community:
- Community of practice such as the CCCOER, SPARC LibOER, OEN (Open Education Network)
- Community of peers such as your institutional learning circles or communities (At MSU, we have our Open Pedagogy Learning Community that I facilitate)
Dai, Jessica Y., and Lindsay Inge Carpenter. 2020. “Bad (Feminist) Librarians: Theories and Strategies for OER Librarianship.” International Journal of Open Educational Resources 3 (1): 1–33. doi: 10.18278/ijoer.3.1.10.
SPARC. 2019. “Connect OER Report, 2018–2019.” Accessed January 29, 2022. https://sparcopen.org/our-work/connect-oer/reports/.