I just wrote a proposal to present a case study of the process I’ve begun observing and participating in this year, at a conference in the fall. I’m trying to move my campus, Bemidji State University, part of the Minnesota State (MinnState) System toward a more open education process. I became aware of OER in 2018 when I began creating open content, adjusting my teaching away from using expensive textbooks, and began to advocate for change on my campus. As I began discussing open resources with different people on my campus and in the state system, I became aware of a variety of different constituencies that are interested in and affected by OER in different ways. Among them are:
- Students, who bear the cost of expensive textbooks. In many cases, textbook expense results in avoided courses, fewer courses taken per semester, lower grades (especially when students try to power through courses without texts), and increased time to completing a degree which reduces odds of finishing. Students express their frustration with textbook expense to their representatives in campus and system-wide student government organizations and statewide and national advocacy groups (PIRGs) that often have the ear of state and national legislators. Occasionally this frustration manifests in the form of legislative proposals designed to break logjams and spur action, which can be a valuable corrective to an overly cautious approach to change by other constituents.
- Faculty, who are often already trying to minimize textbook expense by compiling course-packs or posting readings online in the campus LMS. Some are concerned about additional job expectations. Many see the potential of using technology to not only reduce student cost and reorganize courses, but to bring students more actively into the processes of learning and knowledge creation. There is a wide range of faculty engagement with OER, including adoption, remixing, revision, and full-on authoring; and there is still a degree of confusion regarding what is being asked of faculty when they are directed to consider OER. Most faculty understand their roles as teachers are changing in a variety of ways and that they have a choice of how they will respond to change. Many, when given the chance, would prefer to help direct change rather than simply react to it.
- Administrators, who want to reduce expenses for students to help improve their learning outcomes, and often also want to encourage faculty to adopt evolving best practices regarding issues like accessibility, new pedagogy, and a more active learning environment. OER is a natural addition to a more digital approach to education and is a less restrictive and expensive path than “inclusive access” or “first-day adoption” digital solutions offered by publishers. Administrators are typically sensitive to faculty concerns regarding academic freedom and are aware that shifting to OER entails significant academic work, but would also like to encourage faculty to make the effort to shift to a more open approach. In many cases, administrators can provide incentives that are more effective than mandates and find early adopters with carrots rather than sticks.
- Textbook publishers sometimes portray themselves as players in the open education field. Often they provide access to texts or ancillary learning materials that may be technically free to reuse, remix, revise, and redistribute under an open license such as CC. Usually, that access is supplied in the context of a service that restricts access to a certain population of subscribers for a fixed duration. Since not all academic publishers are for profit businesses, it is not impossible that some may more fully embrace elements of open education. But the other constituents of the OER community need to remain vigilant of “deals” that appear to offer openness within a “walled garden” or promise to reduce costs per student in return for monopoly privileges in departments, colleges, or entire campuses.
Since these various constituencies have different perspectives and immediate concerns, there is potential for disagreement where interests or priorities do not match. Some potential conflicts of interest:
- Student frustration with the slow movement of change.
- Faculty concerns over academic freedom in the face of calls either to adopt turnkey learning management from publishers or to approve OER alternatives to standard texts in their courses.
- Administrative interest in quantifying outcomes such as student savings or additional enrollment in courses advertised as low-cost or zero-cost, when anecdotal accounts of improved results may have seemed sufficient to instructors.
- Publisher (or bookstore) concerns over reduced share of the textbook market.
A program to increase OER acceptance in a State System should include an attempt to understand the interests and priorities of each constituency and to find compromises and synergies whenever possible. For example, student frustration over slow change that spurs student advocacy groups to back legislation including mandates is generally resisted by faculty (and their unions) as challenges to academic freedom. While these concerns are valid, so is the student frustration. The fact that students and their organizations often have access to legislators can be used to help motivate faculty to move outside their comfort zones and increase the pace of change.
I’m going to be engaging in a program to increase OER acceptance at Bemidji State University next academic year. I’ll be documenting my process of trying to understand and engage with each of these constituent groups. Some of the issues I experience may be unique to BSU and the MinnState System, but I suspect many will be more generally relevant to statewide Higher Ed systems in America. So I expect my documenting this case study will be useful to others seeking to promote OER in other systems.