May 11, 2018

Academic Libraries and Open Educational Resources: Developing Partnerships | ALA Annual 2016

1210px-OER_Logo.svgA number of higher education–focused sessions at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference touched on issues surrounding student retention and completion—and with the costs of tuition, housing, and materials constantly rising, saving students money is a major consideration. When the conversation includes state and community colleges, and a student body that may have less access to financial resources, finding strategies to cut costs becomes more important than ever. Open educational resources (OER)—freely accessible texts and media that faculty can assemble, repurpose, and package under open access agreements for teaching and research—are a rapidly growing option.

A quick survey revealed that most of those attending the session “Academic Libraries and Open Educational Resources: Developing Partnerships,” sponsored by ALA’s Association of College and Research Libraries Community and Junior College Libraries Section (ACRL_CJCLS), had minimal experience with OER but were interested in learning more. Moderator Robert Kelly, coordinator of library services at Hutchinson Community College, KS, was joined by panelists John Schoppert, director of library services at Columbia Gorge Community College (CGCC), The Dalles, OR; Jeremy Smith, digital projects manager in scholarly communication at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass); and Heather Blicher, online learning librarian at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), Fairfax, VA, who spotlighted examples of OER programs with strong library connections at their institutions, discussed the benefits and challenges to OER use from both student and faculty perspectives, and explored the implications of OER initiatives for academic libraries and their host schools.


The session led off with an overview of the concept, starting with an oft-cited definition from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a strong supporter of OER initiatives: “[T]eaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.”

OER can include open course ware, online modules, open textbooks, streaming videos, open journals, digital tutorials, and other learning objects, which are put into practice according to the five R’s of OER: retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute. OER materials are available under Creative Commons (CC) licenses, allowing their creators to share with others but retain copyright. Terms can vary across the CC spectrum, with CC0—free global content without restrictions, the most open license—preferred.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau, textbook prices have risen 945 percent since 1980, far outpacing the costs of medical care, new home prices, and the Consumer Price Index. The average undergraduate spends over $1,000 on textbooks per year, including students at public two-year commuter colleges. A 2014 student survey of textbook-related decisions conducted at UMass revealed that 53 percent of students had taken a class without purchasing the textbook because it was too expensive, and 23 percent had chosen not to take a class at all because of steep textbook prices. A 2016 study of students who were unable to purchase a needed textbook showed that more than 30 percent shared with classmates, 24 percent downloaded the materials illegally, and 27 percent used an earlier edition. Only 8.5 percent took advantage of library reserves, and 4.7 percent used interlibrary loan. The need to find workarounds or go without assigned material impacts student performance, noted Smith.


Blicher began working to help connect librarians to OER when she arrived at NOVA a year and a half ago. Her advice to librarians looking to effect similar change at their institutions is to start out by educating themselves—she began by reading whatever materials she could find, attending webinars, “anything that was free.” Conferences focusing on open education—as opposed to events for librarians only—are useful, noted Schoppert, as they tend to provide cross-disciplinary information.

Librarians should align their strengths to their contributions, said Blicher; in her case, she created a series of online learning items and reached out to faculty online. “It’s really about finding what you like and going with it,” she told the audience.

Then, she added, OER advocates should get involved and educate others. Librarians can play many parts in OER adoption: resources and guides, researchers, content creators, curators, and providers of go-to copyright information. Blicher also recommended creating a library-based OER resource page with libguides, courseware, open access material, and usage information, noting, “It’s great to have a stable place for your faculty to reach out to if they can’t reach you.”

Schoppert also recommends forming partnerships around OER efforts with campus bookstores, student government, and outside media such as radio and news sites. The media “love library stories,” he advised, and positive stories will bring in students to the institution as well as spread awareness about OER.


UMass’s Open Education Initiative (OEI), which began in 2011, is an incentive grant-making program that encourages faculty to create new teaching material and models, use existing open information resources and library subscription material, and develop open technologies—“a carrot-and-stick thing,” said Smith. The library worked in connection with the Institute for Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development and the Academic Computing department to develop an OER website with useful resources. “There’s no Google for OER at this point,” Smith pointed out.

Faculty members creating course materials for fewer than 200 students received $1,000 in funding, with $2,500 offered for courses of 200 students or more. Of the projects that have received funding, Smith reported, 74.3 percent combined existing OER, library resources, and newly created materials; 24.3 percent created entirely new open course materials, and a small percentage replaced their commercial texts with open textbooks.

Schoppert also found it useful to offer incentives to faculty in order to drive enthusiasm for OER. CGCC is a small rural community college, with about 40 percent of its students living under the poverty line; retaining students after their first year is an ongoing challenge. When he stepped into the role of director of library services in 2013, he was tasked with putting together an OER initiative. As a former bookstore owner, Schoppert said, he believes in the “shotgun approach”—acting first, asking questions later—and immediately reached out to faculty and adjuncts, offering them money to start exploring OER options.

After looking at the work being done by other institutions, Schoppert convinced CGCC administration to build an OER brand. The Gorge Open (GO) Commercial Textbook Alternative Program started in 2013, with funding from resources such as OpenOregon, Achieving the Dream, and the state of Oregon—HB 2871, known as the OER Bill, provides grant funding for four- and two-year institutions that designate OER classes in their schedules. To date, GO has saved students over $117,000 in textbook costs.

NOVA’s pilot OER project launched in fall 2013. Since then there has been a nine percent average increase of student success in OER courses, and some 10,000 students have completed at least one. Overall, students have saved some $1,500,000.


2000px-Global_Open_Educational_Resources_Logo.svgAs with any idea that’s good in theory, in practice OER adoption has a number of challenges.

There is still a lack of awareness on many campuses about the availability of OER materials and support. According to a 2014 Pearson-sponsored survey, nearly 66 percent of responding faculty were only generally aware or not aware at all of OER.

Putting together OER course materials takes time, which faculty members are not often reimbursed for—although initiatives such as the ones the panelists helped create are working to change that. However, along with funding comes the issue of sustainability—“You can’t live off grants forever,” noted Schoppert, and he foresees needing to add OER fees to class costs.

Faculty may also be resistant out of habit, and advocates need to encourage the early adopters to try and effect change throughout their departments. Outside partners, too, may remain unconvinced as to OER’s benefits. While campus bookstores are good allies to cultivate, they will often push back when it comes to getting rid of textbooks, said Schoppert. Publishers tend to be resistant as well, fighting to keep their piece of the pie.

Finally, there is a lack of a central OER “clearing house” location. However, the Open Education Consortium is working to promote awareness, collaboration, innovation, and development of OER. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education now recognizes 14 states and 40 districts committing to the #GoOpen initiative, including at the K–12 level, and Achieving the Dream, an organization devoted to community college student success, has launched a major initiative to help develop new degree programs using OER. At the local level, though, it’s academic librarians—as aptly demonstrated by Saturday’s panel—who are working to make sure their institutions have highly visible OER websites, support, and encouragement.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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