My adventure with OER (or drinking from a firehose)

I began my OER journey with a lot of questions. OER seemed to have a steep learning curve, a lot of jargon, and a small community of very enthusiastic proponents. But let me back up a bit.

I began my teaching career at Bemidji State University as an emergency adjunct replacement for a professor who went on sick leave just about two weeks before the beginning of fall semester (2017). That semester I had the opportunity to pick a textbook for the World History II survey, but no time to really evaluate one. I took a stab in the dark and picked one. It was fine, but not spectacular. I added a lot to the content in my lectures, which I sort-of figured was an instructor’s job, after all. The following semester the professor expected to come back but about two weeks after classes began, she concluded she would not be able to return to work. I was rehired to cover her classes, and in this case to use the textbook she had chosen and that most of the students had already purchased. This textbook was different from the one I had chosen, but not really better or worse. In both cases I assigned students readings from the textbook each week and supplemented the material presented there with additional information in lectures covering the issues and events I thought had been missed or inadequately covered. The professor had ordered a companion reader, so in addition to lecturing to cover and supplement the textbook chapters, I had weekly discussions with students about the material in the reader.

Much of the companion reader’s content consisted of primary sources from modern world history, surrounded by a brief biographical or historical framing sketch to make the passage understandable to the student reader and some questions to provoke discussion afterward. There was nothing wrong with these passages or their frames. But there was nothing earth-shattering about them. They were the expected primary sources with the expected padding. In some cases, they were a bit too abbreviated for my tastes and I wished the editors had spent less time setting the scene and instead had provided more of the original document. I suppose they felt pressure to “add value” as all these readings are in the public domain.

Adding to my dissatisfaction, of course, was the fact that the textbook was costing the students $150 and the companion reader an additional $50. I was teaching two sections of World History II with caps of 75 each. Although each section only filled about halfway, that was still 75 students spending a total of $15,000, and it could have been much worse. I realized I was being a bit hard on the publisher with my dissatisfaction. No textbook is perfectly satisfying in its interpretation or theme, or contains exactly what you want to focus a class on. But for that kind of money, I felt justified in being highly critical.

I also had a number of students who I was aware did not have a copy of the textbook, or who waited a significant number of weeks at the beginning of the semester for financial aid funds to become available so they could buy it. The campus bookstore had ordered a number of used copies, but they tended to be bought first, leaving people buying later with only the choice of an expensive, new textbook. When the professor retired and I was hired to replace her, I determined that I’d do something about the expense. I applied for a grant offered through the state system office, to join a learning circle devoted to course redesign or authoring ancillary materials or OER. I announced in my application I’d be redesigning my World History survey (when I arrived in the learning circle I discovered Pressbooks and changed my first project to porting my American Environmental History textbook to an OER, but that’s another story).

When I joined the course, I discovered that the learning curve for OER seemed a bit steeper than I had anticipated. There seemed to be quite a bit of jargon and quite a bit of history that people within the movement had shared and used as a basis of discussion. I began hearing references to David Wiley, and when I googled him I was inundated with material to try to absorb quickly. It felt a bit like drinking from a firehose. I looked for a photo or image of that to illustrate this post, but couldn’t find one with CC license (I also took a CC Certification course that fall, which ultimately helped A LOT).

In time, I realized that the OER learning curve seems steeper than it actually is. Although there are plenty of jargon-rich pockets for pedagogy and praxis fans, a lot of this OER stuff is pretty straightforward. Even the second-generation open learning ideas people like Robin DeRosa are moving toward (beyond the initial discussion of OER as a way to save students money on textbooks) can be expressed in plain English and implemented by regular folk like myself, I think. Bring students into the process of creating knowledge, both for themselves and others. That seems pretty basic and doable. It also fits into my general interest in making all info I create available for any punk like me anywhere in the world, and not just behind campus LMS walls.

As I get going on my plan to begin talking to faculty at my school (we’re having a lunchtime introductory thing during finals week this semester and then kicking off bi-weekly brunch-and-learns this fall), I’m reminded of my own initial reactions. I was a volunteer and pretty motivated to climb that hill, and I still found the OER world daunting. According to the 2016 analysis of 16 major studies, only about a third of faculty who haven’t used OER have any idea what it is. So how are they going to feel when they discover that a first-year Asst. Professor hoping to make a name for himself has gotten the attention and backing of some administrators who want to promote this new thing for faculty to work on?

As I see it, there are basically three constituencies involved in OER: students, faculty, and administration. There’s a potential fourth, textbook publishers, but their involvement is complicated and I’ll save it for later. Each of the three have different perspectives, priorities, and concerns. There’s potential for conflict, but conflict isn’t inevitable or necessary. There’s an equal potential for synergy, if the path is planned and executed thoughtfully. That’s what I’m going to try to do, and I’m going to document it here.