Open education in practice

Emily Ragan, a professor at Metropolitan State University Denver and OER advocate, Angela DeBarger, and Nicole Allen, Director of Open Education at SPARC, in front of Auraria Library. (Photo credit: SPARC)

This is the third in a series of posts about the Education Program’s OER strategic planning process. Read the first post on “Exploring the future of open educational resources” and the second post on “Beyond access: Using open educational resources to improve student learning.”

I feel fortunate to meet so many wonderful educators in my work, and recently connected with Emily Ragan. Emily is an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver), and leads Open Educational Resources (OER) initiatives on campus at the state level through the Colorado OER Council. She adopted OER because she believed that her students will engage more deeply through active learning. OER made it possible for her to adapt and integrate multiple resources to address her students’ learning needs and interests.

We know that open educational resources alone are not enough to improve student learning. What matters most is how these materials are used and adapted to open up learning opportunities for every student. Over the past few months, the Education team at Hewlett has been learning more about what it takes to create the supportive conditions and contexts for OER to enable effective classroom practices like Emily’s.

There are a number of great examples of impactful use of OER in K-12 classrooms as well as higher education. As we rethink the foundation’s OER strategy, I wanted to get a grounded perspective about how this kind of systems change can happen at institutions, and the potential for institutions to support each other in this work.

What we’ve found is that change starts with campus leaders and champions – students, faculty, and staff. Like Emily, Ellen Metter is an OER leader and advocate at Auraria Library, which supports three institutions: MSU Denver, the Community College of Denver, and the University of Colorado at Denver. Ellen collaborates with faculty within and across these institutions to support them in using OER to improve their teaching.

Interesting fact – Auraria Library is the only tri-institutional academic library in the country. Together, these institutions serve over 47,000 students, many of whom are first-generation students. The library is committed to creating an inclusive culture and environment so that the diversity of student and faculty interests and identities are supported. OER and open access are key components of the library’s effort to create and generate diverse scholarly collections.

I had the good fortune to visit Auraria’s campus in September. Ellen was our amazing host for the visit and helped coordinate meetings with faculty, instructional designers, and students from each institution, as well as provosts from two of the institutions. My colleagues, Nicole Allen (SPARC) and Rachel Cowher (Redstone Strategy Group) joined for the conversations. When I reflect across all of the conversations, four ideas stood out.

OER is a vessel for connecting content with students’ lives. Faculty, staff and administrators in different disciplines and across institutions were excited by the potential of OER to make learning more relevant and meaningful. Cost and access to resources was certainly a factor in raising attention about OER on campuses, but educators shared that “student success” means more than completion. Many reflected that open educational resources and practices invited more opportunities for bridging to real-world experiences and service learning. Faculty and staff noted that access to relevant OER was sometimes an issue, particularly for advanced or specialized courses. At the same time, they appreciated that there are multiple entry points to get started – from adopting open textbooks, to inviting students to annotate readings, or co-constructing course materials with students.

As one of the educators we met at Auraria told us, our most vulnerable faculty are serving our most vulnerable students. Faculty reflected that their students who need the most support are often in the hands of educators who are paid the least, have extremely demanding course loads, and limited institutional support with instructional design and pedagogy. When we think about infrastructure for open education, a one-size fits all model or single set of “best practice guidelines” for institutions and educators will not work. We have to pay attention to people, their contexts, their community, and the extent to which their needs are being met. Then it will be possible to set goals and design an approach that builds on their strengths and targets areas for improvement.

Collaboration is necessary but difficult, both culturally and in practice. The idea of “expertise” needed for effective teaching and learning surfaced in multiple conversations. Who on campus has expertise in finding and creating OER? Who has expertise in instructional design? Who has expertise in the disciplinary content? Sometimes it’s a faculty member, sometimes it’s a librarian, and sometimes it’s an instructional designer. Creating an effective learning experience for students requires integrating these multiple skills, and expertise for new practices like open education is often distributed around an institution both literally and physically. This makes it incredibly difficult for open education to take hold and expand beyond the most dedicated faculty and staff, and we risk burning out our champions. We can celebrate shifts in policies that promote OER, but we need to support implementation that sustainability bridges and builds expertise for effective teaching.

Educators don’t want to be regulated; they want to be recognized. One faculty member leading open education efforts on his campus shared his concerns that institutionalization of open education initiatives may come with strings attached. Faculty appreciated being acknowledged as leaders by their institution. They were concerned that formalizing their work through a center on campus, for example, with funding requirements that compromise or constrain their exploration as learners in the work. This was a good reminder that funding for open education, particularly in nascent stages, needs to be flexible to allow for the evolution of practices that work for the people in those communities.

I am deeply grateful to colleagues at Auraria Library for giving their time and thoughtful contributions, and for helping me to see their reality. These conversations helped make concrete the different ways that educators and institutions are considering open education, and what supporting sustainable and equitable conditions for open education might look like at different kinds of institutions. It is clear we are at a point where the field has matured and is expanding—it is no longer possible for a small number of dedicated organizations to lead the work. As our strategy shifts to supporting institutions in owning this work, these lessons learned from Auraria Library are top of mind.

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