The Life Changing Magic of OER

By Heather Dodge, Berkeley City College

Sparking Joy

New Year’s resolutions are my soft spot. I love to make them, I love to hear resolutions from friends and family, and I try to hold myself accountable to them for as long as I can (with varying degrees of success). This January, my husband and I (along with many, many others) started binge watching Tidying Up on Netflix with religious dedication and madly adopting Marie Kondo’s principles. Heaps of clothes appeared on our bed and we rapidly sorted them into piles (keep, donate, mend), we purchased square and rectangle drawer boxes from Ikea to hold our neatly folded socks, and I brought stacks of books (yes, books) out to our little free library. 

I am particularly struck by Kondo’s dedication to the idea that if possessions don’t spark joy you shouldn’t keep them, and in 2019 I am applying this principle to both my home and my work life. I can fully attest that my tax records do not spark joy but I am keeping them. However, as I take inventory of both my personal and professional life, I am prioritizing and making more space for activities that spark joy for me. 

One professional activity that sparks the most joy for me (and for many others) is Open Educational Resources (OER) advocacy and assisting faculty on my campus to find and convert their textbooks to ZTC (zero textbook cost) materials or OER. Why? Many of the skills that we have as librarians--search, discovery, curation, organization--are assets that can be applied directly to helping faculty find suitable OER for their classes. Additionally, if we want to make community colleges truly accessible and equitable for all students, then we cannot ignore the role textbook costs play as barriers to student access and success. 

Getting Started

Until about two years ago, I knew very little about OER. A former vice president of instruction forwarded me and my librarian colleague, Jenny Yap, an email about a grant opportunity to promote OER to faculty through professional development. We applied for the grant and got it. Then we applied for a ZTC planning grant and got that, too. Then we actually had to start doing something.

Starting from scratch, we went to our reserves collection and looked at circulation records--not surprisingly, many of our high circulating textbooks also had high price tags attached to them in the bookstore. When I looked into our book expenditures, I noticed that we often spent approximately ⅓ of our books budget on refreshing and maintaining reserves, which felt unreasonably high to me. 

Within a few months after learning about OER, Jenny and I hosted our first introductory OER workshop. We had pizza, we had a PowerPoint, and we had a handout about where to start looking for OER. Twenty-five faculty came--which is a good turnout for our campus. There were many false starts and dead-ends as we navigated through the best ways to promote OER on our campus and thoughtfully shepherd our faculty to adopt OER and ZTC materials. Without getting into the weeds, here are several recommendations I would make to librarians who are spearheading or thinking about spearheading an OER initiative on their campus.

Six Tips to move from OER Dabbler to OER Advocate

Educate yourself

OER is about as straightforward as most acronyms in the California Community Colleges--which is to say that it’s not. The landscape is constantly evolving with new materials coming on the scene regularly and new platforms emerging as fast as you can say C-ID. Because of this, I suggest that you start out by joining the Community College Consortium for OER (CCCOER) mailing list. Although this is a nationwide list, the resources shared and questions posed are mostly relatable to California Community Colleges. Lurk for a little while and then dive in with your own questions--the group is incredibly supportive. In addition, sign-up for one of the ASCCC OER Webinars offered this semester or view one of the archived webinars on CCCOER. If you are still hungry for more, consider attending the OpenEd Conference in 2019 to be inspired by leaders across the country who think deeply and act loudly on the issue of open access and open pedagogy.  

Find your campus allies

In all likelihood, there are probably several faculty on your campus already using OER or ZTC in their courses. You should be able to find them in your class schedule by searching for classes that have no textbook cost associated with them. Another suggestion is to reach out to faculty through an e-mail or department meeting visit to see who is already using OER and find out what they are using. One of the biggest influences for many faculty to convert to OER is through recommendations from colleagues in the same discipline, so if you can find an “early adopter” who is willing to help you advocate, you might consider recruiting them to join your cause. In addition to faculty, staff and administrators can be allies as well--so be sure to include your accessibility folks and deans in the conversation. 

Go for low hanging fruit

To make the biggest impact, consider targeting courses that have robust existing OER and multiple sections on your campus, so if adoption occurs across sections you can show big cost savings. For example, at Berkeley City College, we had a lot of success with promoting OpenStax books to our chemistry and history faculty. You can also look at the Cool4Ed course showcases for courses that have C-ID numbers to see what faculty across the state are adopting. 

Search and discovery = strategy and curation

When you first start searching for OER (or teaching another librarian/instructor to search) treat it like a reference interview. Find out what types of material the person is looking for, what they are currently using, and what their timeline is for finding material. Then come up with a search strategy and start looking through some of the tried and true OER search engines and repositories. Feel free to use this handout I created to start that search. Consider curating lists or suggestions for faculty to search themselves, or create a LibGuide as a starting point for faculty. 

OER is an opportunity to exercise intellectual and academic freedom

Once in a while, when I’m giving a workshop on OER, I will hear the argument from an instructor that they don’t want to be told what kind of materials to use for their classes. I spin this argument: OER is an opportunity to move away from canned material you find in textbooks because most creative commons licensing allows adopters to remix, adapt, or change material in ways that best suit their audience. If you don’t like an image or an example, replace it. If you want to swap out chapters between two OER texts, you can. This seems to be more powerful than just accepting the publishers interpretation of your subject matter. 

The “E” in OER is equity

Well, not really, but the heart of OER is equity for our students, and building OER into initiatives and plans that address equity (Guided Pathways, AB 705) is a key to moving it forward. A big question right now in the OER community is how to make our work sustainable after grants run out. It is integral that we make OER a ubiquitous part of conversations around student access and success. We’ve become complacent to the idea that college textbooks are expensive and students must shoulder the burden of those costs. When you are in meetings about educational master plans, Guided Pathways, AB 705 and equity, consider framing OER as an issue of equity and request that professional development funding be set aside so that faculty can have the time and incentive to make their courses as low-cost as possible for students. Make it part of this year’s resolutions. Trust me, it will bring you joy! 

Heather Dodge is Head Librarian at Berkeley City College.