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)? 

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

ITP II Project Idea: Labor in Academic Libraries

For my ITP project I would like to focus on precarious and contingent labor in higher education,  specifically in academic libraries. In the hierarchy of scholars, academic librarians are marginalized and rendered invisible on multiple levels. Despite the fact that librarians at many institutions of higher education, including CUNY, are faculty members, they are considered second tier faculty members, likely due to their service orientation and to the apparently gendered nature of the profession. During the pandemic, librarians have been asked to continue working while their teaching faculty counterparts were working from home. Librarians have been called “essential workers” and are expected to provide unlimited access to materials, but a significant amount of library labor is done by disposable contingent library workers and libraries are chronically underfunded. This is unfortunately not talked about enough in the broader conversation about labor in higher education.

While there is a dearth of scholarly literature on contingency and precarity in libraries, there has been increasing interest in the topic on social media, at conferences, and in working groups within professional library organizations (including the Digital Library Federation Working Group on Labor in Digital Libraries, Archives, and Museums), so I think it’s a great time to work on this project.

I am not yet sure what form my research on contingent library labor will take, but I have a few ideas (also open to completely new ideas from the group!): 

  1. My first idea is to create concrete guidelines for management and coworkers of contingent workers about best practices when working with and advocating for adjunct librarians. This would be an extension of or supplement  to the Collective Responsibility Labor Advocacy Toolkit put out by the Digital Library Federation (though honestly I’m not sure how much I have to add to this – it’s a pretty great resource).
  2. My second idea would be an organizing resource for contingent library workers. There has been a push from some in the library community to create a national organization for contingent workers in GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums). I’d like to investigate what such an organization might look like and how digital tools might be used to spread awareness of the effects of contingent labor in higher education and to build connections with contingent library workers across the United States and with workers outside of the academy. 

  3. My third idea is perhaps slightly less practical than my previous two: a site that hosts oral history interviews of contingent library workers. I have experience with audio recording/editing and with oral history, so I would organize and record the interviews myself. 
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