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Open Educational Resources (OER) for Beginners

April 19, 2018

It seems that every other month another news report about Open Educational Resources (OER) pops up. The most recent story was the federal appropriations bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump on March 23, which included a $5 million Open Textbooks Pilot, “a pilot, competitive grant program to support projects at institutions of higher education that create new open textbooks or expand their use in order to achieve savings for students while maintaining or improving instruction and student learning outcomes” (p. 67).

The OER movement seems to be on the radar of most institutions of higher education, and librarians are well-placed to lead the movement because of our knowledge of publishing and copyright. But there is a lot of work ahead and many issues to sort out. Some of us are very new to the game, including myself and my colleagues at Bloomsburg University. So I thought I’d write this post to briefly share our experiences with OER at Bloomsburg University, where we are beginning to take baby steps toward OER adoption in the hope that it might encourage others to embark on the many-step journey ahead.

Open Educational Resources first crossed our campus radar last year when our library director Charlotte Droll asked our temporary librarian Jenn Zuccaro to develop a research guide on the topic. The Open Educational Resources Special Topic Guide,, was born, and its usage has been surprisingly robust. The guide defines OER thus: “Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching and learning materials that you may freely use and reuse at no cost, and without needing to ask permission.” Content ranges from open textbooks to open courses, including including syllabi, course activities, readings, video, audio, assessments, and so on.

The next step for us seemed to be to offer a faculty workshop on the topic. So in March 2018, three Bloomsburg University librarians, Katie Yelinek, Rubayya Hoque, and I, offered a workshop session for faculty titled “Open Educational Resources: Keeping Student Textbooks Affordable.” We structured our presentation into three main parts – what OER is, how using OER can benefit both students and faculty, and how faculty might begin using OER. Attendance was decent, despite some last minute cancellations due to bad weather.

We began our workshop by briefly discussing the soaring costs of textbook, which have risen at more than 4 times the rate of inflation in the last 12 years, adding significantly to students’ financial burden (Student PIRGs). We also briefly discussed the surprisingly high proportion of students who either delay or avoid purchasing course textbooks altogether because of financial constraints (Study confirms costs lead students to forgo required learning materials; grades suffer as a result). This is of great concern to faculty and administrators alike, particularly as it affects student success and retention.

Next we discussed how to determine if something truly is OER. We used Steven Bell’s ‘Textbook Affordability Spectrum’ (no longer available on the web) to illustrate the range of OER. It may not occur to us to think of academic libraries’ resources, including course reserves, as a variation of ‘open access,’ but it is. We also touched on publishers’ response to OER, which may fall into the ‘Faux-Pen’ (get it?) range. In fact, publisher response to OER is a topic that bears its own discussion, since publishers are stakeholders and are seeking to influence the changing market to stay viable. So we noted that simply because an item is labeled OER by a publisher does not make it so. For something to be a true OER, it must meet the ‘5R’ OER criteria: the user must be able to 1) reuse, 2) revise, 3) remix, 4) redistribute, and 5) retain the content.

Textbook Affordability Range

Open (Really open)

  • True OER (SUNY OPEN, Open Stax, etc.)
  • Open Repositories (MERLOT, OTN, IRs)
  • Web Content (Kahn Academy, YouTube)
  • Library Content (Open to BU community)
  • Textbooks on Reserve (Also rentals, used copies)
  • ‘All Inclusive Access’
  • Hybrid Platforms (B&N BNED, McGraw Hill SmartBook)
  • Code Access Content

Closed (or ‘Faux’pen)

(Adapted from Steven Bell’s PALCI Presentation, Nov. 2017)

An exciting local development is the LSTA grant recently awarded to the Pennsylvania Academic Library Consortium Inc. (PALCI) for their project called “Affordable Learning Pennsylvania.” Charlotte Droll, Bloomsburg University Library Director, serves on the PALCI steering committee for the project and has kept us apprised of its activities. Evidently the LSTA grant will pay for Open Textbook Network membership for all PALCI institutions and for some training activities, including the ability of selected PALCI-member trainers to attend the OTN Summer Institute and for members to attend regional and virtual workshops. Steven Bell and Joe Salem provide valuable insight into the background behind the PALCI grant in their article “It’s Up to the Librarians: Establishing A Statewide OER Initiative”  published in the fall issue of Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice (‘must’ reading).

Since we didn’t want to assume faculty were not already using some OER-like practices, we asked them to reflect on which practices on Bell’s OER Adoption Spectrum they used:

OER Adoption Spectrum

Open Pioneer

  • OER Creators/Authors/Advocates
  • Adopts Open Textbook
  • Uses an Alternate Textbook
  • Uses Hybrids, Inclusives, Access Code
  • Places Textbook on Reserve
  • Recommends Print Text but Allows Open Counterpart
  • Will NEVER Stop Using Commercial Textbooks


Adapted from Steven Bell’s PALCI OER PPT, Nov. 2017

Not surprisingly, no one had used an Open Textbook yet nor were any of our attendees OER creators/authors/advocates, but most had experience with using an alternate textbook (i.e., an older edition), using hybrids, including access codes, and placing textbooks on reserve.

Finally, faculty were given time to explore some OER materials online in our computer lab. We introduced a number of resources including the OER Commons, the OTN Library, and the Mason Metafinder, which searches across multiple OER repositories, after demonstrating how they work. Most of them expressed a desire to spend more time ‘digging’ into the actual resources to find suitable materials for their classes, and exploring how they might be able to modify the resources.

So what are our next steps? We librarians will continue to learn about and explore OER and keep in touch with our subject faculty. Since those attending the first workshop had expressed an interest in being able to modify the OER resources, we will probably offer another workshop on that aspect. Certainly the upcoming PALCI webinars and training sessions across campus will provide us with more opportunities to learn and lead our campus. Last but not least, we know the CRD Spring Workshop on OER on May 24th at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania will be another excellent opportunity to get ideas from other librarians. Here’s the newly released brochure, and you can find more info and register here.

For us, OER adoption will likely be a slow build, because our campus is in a leadership transition right now, and faculty and administration are stretched for time. But we expect that interest in and use of OER will grow thanks to members of our community who are genuinely concerned about our students’ learning and success.

Linda Neyer, Bloomsburg University

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2018 12:17 am

    We are presenting a workshop on OER to our faculty later this Spring. Thanks for this informative post. I will keep it in mind as a resource when planning ours!

    • lsn5383 permalink
      April 27, 2018 12:32 am

      Glad it was helpful! Good luck with your workshop.

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