Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey Response: Open Educational Resources – Turning Awareness into Action

by | Oct 29, 2019 | 0 comments

By Lauren Slingluff, Associate Dean, UConn Library

The Ithaka S+R Faculty survey has been conducted triennially since 2000 to capture “changing researching, teaching, and publishing practices of higher education faculty members.” (p. 4) The 2018 results were released in April of this year, and marked the first year faculty were asked about open educational resources (OER). One of the six key findings from the report is that there is significant interest in the use of OER, particularly among younger faculty and that “about six in ten respondents are very interested in using open educational resources (OER), and roughly half strongly agreed that they would like to adopt new instructional approaches with OER.” (p. 5). As a librarian and OER advocate, it is heartening to see this high rate of expressed interest but there are still many barriers to overcome before we can effectively translate that interest into impact.  We must strengthen and supplement the mechanisms of support we make available to faculty members, including funding, staffing, and training. Equally necessary, but more complicated, is the need to shift the higher education culture around promotion and tenure so that the work of transforming pedagogy is recognized and valued. Until then, rates of actual OER adoption and authorship will continue to lag.  

In the survey OER were described as “teaching, learning, and research materials used for educational purposes that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license such as Creative Commons, that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation, and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.” (p. 46)  Language and definitions of what qualifies as OER continues to highlight philosophical differences among advocates and policy makers and is one of the first hurdles I see to faculty engagement. The adoption of low- or no- cost materials in the classroom, open or otherwise, creates for more equitable learning spaces for students.  The vagaries of language used to promote and define OER have made it easy for traditional publishers to co-opt OER marketing language to peddle inclusive-access models to faculty who often don’t understand the functional difference between OER and inclusive access. We cannot successfully advocate for and educate about OER when we can’t agree on a common definition and unifying call to action.

Given the complexities of course material selection it was reassuring to see the survey included a number of options beyond the provided definition of OER. Indeed, they shared that “87% of faculty often or occasionally give preference to assigning low- or no- cost textbooks, while 59% give preference to assigning course text or materials that are available through the library.” (p. 47). Often, new faculty members are empathetic to high textbook costs and seek to reduce course material cost to improve equity of access in the classroom. When partnering with a faculty member to identify alternative course materials, an ebook with non-restrictive DRM was often what they identified as meeting their curricular needs. Particularly for professors who teach upper level seminar courses, there isn’t a ready OER textbook, but linking to ebooks and journal articles helps them achieve their teaching goals while also improving the experience for students. It’s in our students’ best interest for librarians to support both “OER only” and hybrid models.  

Many courses, particularly large enrollment sections, rely upon online homework and grading modules, as well as tests and test banks, and supplementary practice material such as videos for foreign languages. When advocating for OER I always met with the most resistance from faculty that teach in disciplines that require large test banks or practice problems and solutions. An ongoing challenge that I have seen that was not articulated in the survey, is the best mechanism for providing ancillary content for students. Not only are there fewer option for ancillary material than for textbooks, but faculty regularly express concerns about the security of OER test banks and increased potential for cheating.

The faculty work of transitioning a course from a traditional textbook to an OER resource needs to be supported. While stipends for faculty as recognition of their intellectual labor is meaningful, institutions also need to provide faculty with time for authorship. Sabbatical or course releases can help balance the load of creating OER on top of their teaching and research responsibilities. There are many successful models for doing this. In the past I’ve had good luck with having people apply for either individual or group adoption stipends. Even modest amounts (between $100 and $250) help support faculty in doing the work of reviewing and selecting materials, as well as updating the syllabus. Having a higher amount for group adoptions incentivizes collaboration and consistency with multiple course sections transitioning to OER together.  It’s beneficial for faculty to form cohorts and engage in larger scale discussion of OER and course transformation. 

Support for faculty must be more robust if we are to move them through the pipeline and translate their interest into impact. One significant challenge is the lack of recognition of OER adoption and creation as legitimate scholarly activities.  Faculty members in the age range 22-34 consistently demonstrated the greatest interest in creating and using OER materials, but unlike more established faculty must choose between investing time in adapting pedagogical practices and creating scholarly works that are validated by the promotion and tenure process. Only 14% of the survey respondents agreed that their institution “recognizes or rewards faculty for taking the time to integrate open educational resources into their reaching.” (p. 14)  While this varies from institution to institution, and even from one department to another, we still prioritize original scholarship within academia, and course transformation work is only accounted for in P&T through course observations or student evaluations. While students in courses with OER often respond favorably to having a course with no textbook cost, the first semester or two of using OER may be rocky. Having student evaluations drop until you hit your stride is a risk many faculty seeking tenure may wish to avoid. Those faculty who express the highest rates of interest, and who from my experience are most open to experimenting with their syllabi and learning materials, are then the least supported to take those kind of risks or challenges. 

The Ithaka S+R report highlights providing more training and incentives as a possible way to increase overall faculty use. Unfortunately, only 14% of faculty strongly agreed that their institution provides such. At many institutions, there is still not a formal role for OER support and it is instead maintained by a volunteer corps of staff who are juggling multiple responsibilities. When I grew an OER program at a liberal arts college, it was in addition to my regular responsibilities. It was helpful to have one person take the lead of coordinating outreach activities, but ultimately, success depended on all members of the library staff having knowledge of OER and able to generate enthusiasm as well as provide front-line support for a number of general copyright and publishing tool questions. OER librarians serve a vital function in spreading awareness, facilitating learning communities, locating materials, and providing both the knowledge and technical expertise to assist and guide adoption and authorship efforts.  Given increasing interest, more libraries need to dedicate funding to specialized staff in support of OER. The skills required are varied and for institutions that are able, multiple staff lines may be needed to support the advocacy, promotion, publishing support, and copyright knowledge needed. Institutional support ought to be additive: not an either-or, but a both-and, only by taking this approach can we meaningfully grow OER initiatives.

 Making the switch to OER is daunting. It requires finding and selecting new textbooks, and vetting the quality. Faculty often have to recreate test banks or supplementary material that is included in traditional textbooks but less often available for OER.  Given the proliferation of federated search tools, locating OER for use has never been easier and can be undertaken by faculty independently. Authorship and creation on the other hand continues to require more significant support in terms of staff and monetary compensation. The percentage of faculty who have used open materials continues to be 2 to 3 times higher than the percentage of faculty who have created or authored open materials; signaling again that more robust support and recognition is needed for the pipeline to expand. I’ve seen increasing interest from faculty and librarians alike in forming publishing cooperatives to make the work more efficient and sustainable and to generate more open materials.

% of faculty who have used % of faculty who have created or authored 
Open textbooks 32% 7%
Open Course modules 24% 14%
Open video lectures  32%  11%
average 29.3% 10.6%

Table 1: Rates of faculty use and creation of open materials by material type as shown in the Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey represented in table form with average provided by author. 

Any college or university committed to student success should be looking at increasing equity for students in the classroom, and use of OER in particular. Deans and department chairs need to work with faculty to make OER options available to students. Student groups, academic advising, and centers for student success all have a role to play in OER and educational equity. At many institutions, mine included, the library serves as a central resource for those interested in working on adopting OER. This may include helping faculty in finding materials, interpreting licenses, or even creating new material.  In addition to staff support, many institutions offer stipends or awards to faculty who take on this work. Library sponsored workshops can facilitate communities of practice and spark necessary conversations.  For faculty who are already aware of financial need and disparate educational opportunities, they may require significant and meaningful institutional support to transform their awareness into action. Academic libraries can play a vital role in facilitating OER adoption and creation. Often, just by doing what libraries have always done: connecting people with high quality resources and information. Faculty need support to make the work sustainable, and librarians have expertise they can bring to bear as champions and advisors in the process.

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