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Why Open Educational Resources (OERs) are Important for Critical Pedagogues

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Reviewed by Rolin Moe and Valerie Robin
you won’t remember this” by Fio; CC BY-NC 2.0

Few things annoy me more than burning time on bureaucratic paperwork. Frankly, as an educator, my time and attention should be centered on students and learning — and that includes  modifying and selecting readings and resources. Finding fresh critical pedagogical articles that connect pop culture and critical thinking, for example, is not only more interesting to me professionally than revising course outcomes to match accreditation evaluation rubrics, but such articles are more useful and engaging for my students. Plus, such articles can support critical thinking skills and connecting these skills with media in students’ lives. While some administrators might disagree, few educators would. Making this  “idealistic” hope happen is a challenge. One possible path to this solution: reconceive how we as individuals approach Open Educational Resources (OERs) and our use of educational technologies. UNSECO defined OERs in 2002 as “technology-enabled, open provision of educational resources for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for non-commercial purposes.”

Thus OERs are centered on being created by and for, as well as being adapted by, learning community members regardless of where the learning community happens. If we align with Critical Pedagogy (CP), OERs can help us do more than apply our passion and engagement to create or curate anti-racist, liberatory, and conscious texts for our classes. If we couple CP’s  goals with OERs and treat OERs as convivial tools, we can also help reduce textbooks’ financial burden, support communities-outside-our-classes learning, and potentially amplify voices that might otherwise remain unheard.

In Tools for Conviviality, Ivan Illich defines convivial tools as technologies that “serve politically inter-related individuals rather than managers” (emphasis in the original; xii). Some characteristics of convivial tools include usability, reliability, simplicity, open access, and social friendliness; these all serve to “enhance the user’s capability to work with independent efficiency.” In other words, Twitter can be seen as a convivial tool because it allows learners or workers to communicate and share with each other without having to consult a boss. No authority figure (Twitter, Inc.  aside) can limit or control access to the tool. Additionally, Twitter is a usable and reliable tool. This allows individuals to connect when and where they want. Because Twitter can be accessed on virtually any device that has Internet access, the tool is not platform dependent and thus more accessible than most closed or private communication networks.

OERs are arguably convivial tools for several reasons. First, since the resources are open, learners are free to select and use any texts that they want. No purchase or permission is necessary. Learning can take place when, where, and how the learner wants. OERs can also be recycled and used modularly — additional characteristics of convivial tools. Most importantly, perhaps, is that OERs promote autonomous learning. There is no single source for OERs online. Instead, learners can go to their communities of interest and seek out the OERs most relevant to their own work or learning goals. Because OERs are essentially a philosophy and practice for framing documents and texts and how they can be used, OERs can be created, shared, and found in any community that wants to use them.

OERs can be found in a variety of ways. The first is via a traditional Google search for the term “OER” or “open educational resources,” but the results can be overwhelming. Second, a user could search “OER teaching with Minecraft” or “OER essay writing” to find OERs that were developed for teaching with Minecraft or for writing essays. A more reliable approach is to find sites that have indexes or lists of OER resources and sites. A few examples are the SPARC list, Creative Commons list, and OpenSource’s list of resources. For independent learners, there is plenty of material. Learners can bring one or many lenses in their search for OERs. Those lenses can be media (text, video, audio), content (coding in Linux or writing an essay), and learning level (are they beginners, is the material for an 8 year old?). Similarly, learners are free to create and share OERs on any topic that interests them.

OERs can also serve formal learning institutions, and traditional higher education students, in several related ways. First, OERs reduce the financial pressures. Second, OERs expose students to potentially more diverse texts than they might normally see in traditional textbooks. Third, students can literally write, revise, and republish the OERs with their own information, ideas, and content. After they have created the content, all they technically need to do is go to Creative Commons, study and choose an appropriate license, and put that license on their work. This is the most important step in allowing others to use and revise their work. Making sure others find the OER is another matter. That entails locating relevant OER resource pages, uploading to document sharing sites like ScribD, and potentially sharing across blogs and relevant social media.  Each of these points works to not only broaden students’ notions of what makes an acceptable, authoritative, or legitimate text, it also empowers them to revise and remix the very authorities they are reading and learning.

The ability to remix and author can open doors for college students and help them see how they can deschool themselves even while participating in institutional schooling. As Illich indicates in Towards a History of Needs, “Free educational establishments share with less free establishments another characteristic: they depersonalize the responsibility for education. They place an institution in loco parentis” (77). While students will use OERs in formal classes and assignments and the structural authority of certify-granting institutions remains, the presence of OERs provides faculty and students an opportunity to not only discuss authorship, power, and authority as it comes to the documents, OERs offer an opportunity for students to personalize responsibility for their own education and control and awareness of educational resources. Students and learners can literally revise and rewrite OERs. They can excerpt, change, share, and modify texts for use in and out of class. When students take responsibility for modifying and creating their own educational materials, they are taking responsibility for their education, too. Instead of working with the traditional banking model of education where students passively receive information or education, the students become much more engaged and create the texts to teach themselves and each other.

Whether faculty are incorporating OERs into class or students modifying them in and out of class, both are contributing to a larger project, one of deschooling. In Deschooling Society, Illich clearly distinguishes schooling from learning:

“The pupil is thereby ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is ‘schooled’ to accept service in place of value.” (1)

While participation in formal institutions works to reinforce schooling’s importance, incorporation of OERs helps to build the network necessary to deschool society: the learning web. As McAndrew and Farrow write, the learning web “can now be mapped on to achievable technology” (74). Few things could be more exciting than knowing we now have the technology to make a vision of one of the 20th century’s strongest advocates for autonomous learning happen!

Illich’s learning web (not the World Wide Web — Illich conceived the learning web in 1971) is an alternative to formal education or learning. The web’s goal is to address three purposes:

“it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.” (75)

The web has four components: educational objects, skill exchanges, peer-matching, and educators at large. These four components are important because they do not remain centered on just the teacher, learner, or material. Instead, the web balances the components while asserting the value of peer-matching and peer instruction. (Readers interested in these pieces are directed to Deschooling Society.) OERs help support the development of a learning web by generating and sharing — without restriction — educational objects and texts. In this way, teachers and learners who are struggling with how to offer students authentic, life-long education outside of schools while themselves actually remaining employed, or enrolled, in educational institutions, can look to OERs as a small part of a larger solution.

Since OERs first started to gain public attention and traction, they have faced an uphill struggle within higher education. While OERs might save students money, many people have questioned the quality of the text, the time invested in locating resources, and the applicability of OER texts to individual instructors needs. Audrey Watters, in her 2012 research project into the state of OERs, identifies four obstacles to OERs. These obstacles are discoverability, supplementary materials, licensing confusion, and remixing as the four key challenges that face greater adoption of OERs. Knowing the ongoing public skepticism towards seriously including OERs in higher education, as well as the problems Watters identifies, it’s important to present positive case studies where OERs have been successfully adopted. Below I present a case study that shows the successful adoption of OERs at Tacoma Community College (TacomaCC). Readers interested in more evidence of effective and successful OER adoption are directed to the OER Research Hub.

TacomaCC has overcome all four obstacles Watters identifies.  In terms of discoverability, TacomaCC offers aids for finding OERs online. While there are many such link collections online, the e-learning shop at TacomaCC also has an Instructional Designer whose other responsibility is to keep growing OER use on campus. This role provides faculty not just a guide for how to find resources generally speaking, but also professional support and insight on how to incorporate OERs appropriately into the class for the content.

This ID/OER position also helps to alleviate the second and third challenges: supplementary materials and licensing confusion. By having staff familiar with both OERs and instructional design, questions about where and how to use OERs to support teaching, create worksheets, or develop quizzes can be more rapidly addressed. Similarly, this expertise can help remove the problems that licensing confusion raise. By providing external, expert support to faculty and thereby removing much of the confusion or concern raised by the first three issues, faculty can focus their time and attention on selecting and remixing the material.

Between 2012 and 2014, faculty, students, administration, and e-learning staff collaborated to make OER adoption a reality on their campus. In 2012–2013, 27 faculty taught 22 courses (91 sections) using OERs. While OERs are not yet in every course, TacomaCC has made great progress.

TacomaCC made OERs happen by having campus-wide cooperation. Soran’s shop and TacomaCC demonstrated that students, faculty, staff, and administration can cooperate, split expenses, and work towards a worthy goal: enhancing learning materials, addressing students needs, and redirecting funds to projects more worthy than buying textbooks. Together, as a community, they spent  just over $200,000 to save their students $1 million in two years. That is awesome. If that was the only success out of this project, it would still be a win. Fortunately, the text creation and use will continue to save students money in the coming years. Anecdotally, Soran related how many students who saved money on textbooks could spend that same money on taking an additional course at TacomaCC. Rather than the institution losing money, that money was being directed towards students’ learning goals.

TacomaCC was inclusive of all faculty developing OER resources. OER development funds were available for contingent academics as well as tenure-track faculty. No priority was given to either population. If faculty wanted to bring in OER resources to their class, they would get funding and support. (It is important to note that different types of courses (new & fully online ones) received higher levels of support than a traditional face-to-face course moving online with OERs.) This is a great example of providing fair and equal compensation for equal work instead of determining pay by academic caste.

TacomaCC’s performance need not be a one off. Fortunately, they have documented and shared their resources — and expenses — publicly. For OER advocates, this provides an excellent and successful model to take to our schools, colleagues, administrators, and students. We can do this! Just look at TacomaCC! For additional inspiration, be sure to also see the OER Research Hub.

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5 Responses

  1. Pingback : Editors’ Choice: Why OERs are Important for Critical Pedagogues | Digital Humanities Now

  2. Pingback : Why OERs are Important for Critical Pedagogues — Hybrid Ped | Flexibility Enables Learning

  3. Well done

    I’ve tried to make similar connections over the years myself . I’d value a connection with authors linking these ideas . I have tags for Conviviality, OER and P, illich and other relatedness such as colonialism. I hope your author is alerted by comments here. Thanks.

    1. Hi Leigh,

      Thanks for your comment. Apologies for the long delay in reply–I was not alerted by/to the comments. I’m @drgbz on Twitter. I’ll try and find you & hopefully we can share some ideas/thinking!

  4. Pingback : Episode 5 – OER w/ Dr. Gregory Zobel | EdTech.FM

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