Provocation: What can OER do?

(A bit of stream of consciousness here, so I apologize for the length and any scattered thoughts…)

I really enjoyed the readings this week and am excited to talk with everyone about a topic that is on my mind all the time. In particular, I appreciated the reflection and critique in Chan’s “Confessions of an OA Advocate,” and would like to continue to think about a few other issues present in the open landscape, with an emphasis on Open Educational Resources.

As an OER librarian, I find OER and the open “movement” in general to be valuable. Every day I see and hear about the ways that OER positively impact students’ learning experiences and lead teaching faculty members to redesign their courses with an eye towards greater equity. That being said, we ask OER to do a lot. I often question whether OER really do all that OER advocates claim, and whether OER content and labor practices in OER work reflect the purported values of openness. I want to move away from the assumption that all things “open” are inherently good. 

Let’s start with some claims about OER. OER (and openness/“universal access to information” in general) is said to “contribute to peace, sustainable social and economic development, and intercultural dialogue,” (UNESCO) advance social justice, be a “social equalizer and pedagogical disruptor,” (Almeida 2017), and to somehow solve the systemic issues in higher education and knowledge production and dissemination. But does OER (or OA, open data, etc.) actually accomplish these things? 

I am not totally convinced that OER represent a meaningful challenge to the status quo in education. OER do not remove the significant barriers to learning and wellbeing that exist in many of our students’ (and our) lives. I wonder if, by using OER as a marketing tool, higher education administrators benefit from OER just as much (if not more than?) students. OER can be a wonderful enhancement to learning, but they are not a replacement for a well-funded (tuition free!!) system. 

I sometimes feel that the open “movement” has placed too much emphasis on access, with the assumption that with the right information, there is nothing holding us back improving the quality of our learning and the quality of our lives. But greater access to information does not equal liberation. 

At CUNY, the vast majority of OER initiatives, including faculty course redesign initiatives, are funded by a New York state grant that is renewed yearly. While this funding has a meaningful impact on CUNY faculty members’ ability to develop and curate open resources, the funding structure and relatively short timeframe limits what faculty members are able to do. Typically faculty members are paid to redesign individual courses with open materials, but are  not given the time or money to develop original open content in their field of expertise. This leaves significant gaps in OER content. 

Content-wise, OER are not necessarily more likely to include more diverse voices than commercial textbooks. In my experience, many open textbooks in fields like history uphold the status quo and often provide a whitewashed, colonial version of history. I can probably count on one hand the number of open textbooks about topics like LGBTQ+ history. Of course, OER give faculty the flexibility to add these perspectives to their courses, but there is already a lot of labor involved in redesigning courses with open materials, so in practice I see very few teaching faculty members adapting or remixing open resources. 

All of this leads me to the next issue in the CUNY OER world… labor (surprise!)! I’ll preface this by saying that, as far as I know, all of the OER programs run out of CUNY libraries do pay both FT and PT teaching faculty to redesign their courses with open materials and (sometimes – see above) to create open materials. Still, finding open materials, updating courses, adapting and remixing materials, and especially creating materials is a LOT of work. Given that the labor required to create OER is largely not valued in tenure and promotion process, it’s not sustainable for faculty to invest time and energy on OER. 

In addition to faculty labor, there is of course the labor of training and maintenance, which is largely done by individuals working in libraries and teaching and learning centers across CUNY. At CUNY, *adjunct* librarians do a lot of this labor! These adjuncts are paid through the aforementioned state grant, so we can also have a conversation about the undervaluing of OER and openness by New York state and CUNY, and, by extension, the sustainability of OER programming. 

Further complicating matters, there is also the issue of unseen and uncompensated student labor in the case of student-created OER.     

I’ll end this provocation by encouraging us to think about what OER and other open materials can and do actually accomplish, and how we can make the whole system of openness more equitable locally and globally. What other issues and inequities might come up when information (/knowledge) is free (as in beer or as in speech)? 

References
Almeida, Nora. “Open Educational Resources and Rhetorical Paradox in the Neoliberal Univers(ity).” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1 (2017).

4 thoughts on “Provocation: What can OER do?”

  1. Hi Jonna, I appreciate your perspective here and am very much looking forward to your lab:). I appreciate your point that the ” ‘movement’ has placed too much emphasis on access, with the assumption that with the right information, there is nothing holding us back improving the quality of our learning and the quality of our lives. But greater access to information does not equal liberation”. What I wonder about the most when I encounter all of the amazing free content available is whether every student who has previously been denied access due to financial constraints would be able able to take advantage of all the free stuff available now. I know from a K12 perspective, there is a great problem with wifi access limiting the ability of students to take advantage of OER/OA materials. However happy I am that there are actual science textbooks available on Open@Cuny, I do wonder about the fact that many students cannot simply absorb information easily from a dense textbook which brings me to your other point about the cost of labor. I had no knowledge of how the system works with CUNY professors / students doing the labor for OER but I think that if they are encouraged to/ paid to make their own, more would. I was surprised to learn that the labor needed to create OER undervalued within tenure & promotion processes, making it not a viable pursuit. It makes no sense actually because I think that many teachers probably would be willing to do the work if it was sustainable- this would expand what we mean by “access” in OA/ OER because beyond relieving the cost burden, experienced professors/teachers would likely make things more accessible in terms of diversity of formats/ student needs. The tendency to undervalue the creative aspect of knowledge production is remnant of oppressive pedagogy/ Freire’s banking concept system of education, which as it turns out, is alive and well despite OA/OER making so much content freely available to those with sufficient wifi.

  2. Hey Jo! Thank you for sharing your take on the readings as well as your experience as a librarian. I learned a lot about OA. In your provocation, you said something that stood out to me: “Content-wise, OER are not necessarily more likely to include more diverse voices than commercial textbooks. In my experience, many open textbooks in fields like history uphold the status quo and often provide a whitewashed, colonial version of history. ”

    I’m glad you named how colonial histories get reproduced even in projects/movements that seek to challenge the capitalist exploitation of knowledge. You have given me something to think about, and that is the invisibilization of Black, Indigenous, forced migrants, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and other ‘historically oppressed’ groups in the area of knowledge ‘production.’ I’ll be marinating your provocation over the weekend.

    Thanks again for posing such juicy critiques!

  3. Thanks for this provocation, @jothompson (“juicy” is the right word, @joannabeltrangiron!). Hard agree that nothing about “openness” necessarily transforms the structures of our disciplines. Really looking forward to our discussion today.

    A couple of relevant links:

    1. “Building Open Infrastructure at CUNY,” a collection of essays by GC staff/students about the state of OER in their fields, as well how some of us are working to make the state investment in OER at CUNY more sustainable and transformative.

    2. Upcoming OERxDomains Conference — https://oer21.oerconf.org. Unfortunately, not free, but there will be a lot of open content and conversation around the event.

  4. I found your responses really compelling! This especially: “I am not totally convinced that OER represent a meaningful challenge to the status quo in education. OER do not remove the significant barriers to learning and wellbeing that exist in many of our students’ (and our) lives. I wonder if, by using OER as a marketing tool, higher education administrators benefit from OER just as much (if not more than?) students.” I am relatively new to the world of OER, but the zeitgeist around open=good/better is something I can easily see progressive educators and students latching on to (perhaps without the full investigation on the wider effects of the reform). The nuances around the creation of OER, the limits of it’s use in the field (dissemination of more hegemonically-minded publications), and the limits of short-term state funding offer a lot to level with. Thanks for sharing!

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