Where Are All the Faculty in the Open Education Movement?

column | Digital Learning

Where Are All the Faculty in the Open Education Movement?

By Jasmine Roberts (Columnist)     May 16, 2018

Where Are All the Faculty in the Open Education Movement?

Open educational resources (OER) are gaining increasing popularity. And as an active member in what advocates define as the “open education movement,” I frequently hear about the growing dissatisfaction of textbook costs and pedagogical concerns among faculty about outdated course materials.

When I attend professional gatherings on open education, however, instructors like myself are often the minority. Yet open educational materials impact faculty and students alike, and many instructors are using these resources today. So why are there so few practitioners actively involved in increasing open education?

To answer this question, I have to examine my own experience with OER and its advocates. I first came into the open education field as an educator frustrated with many traditional textbooks in my discipline. Therefore, I had the simple mission of writing an openly-licensed textbook that not only addressed my students’ learning needs, but would be accessible to anyone. To me, using OER felt like a no-brainer.

That mission led me to connect with other professionals who shared the same passion and ideology—that a high-quality education should be accessible and affordable to everyone, regardless of their upbringing or background. Soon I started to attend open education conferences in order to gain a better understanding of the issue, and those in the field welcomed me with warmth and excitement.

However, I began to notice a discouraging theme at these professional gatherings: I was consistently one of the few college instructors present. Many working in open education praised me for being so involved in the movement as an educator dealing with OER on the ground. But their praises were also minced with a bit of visible surprise or even confusion about my motivation or interest in open education issues. Even more, it felt odd to listen to discussions about faculty use of OER and barriers against adoption in the classroom without a strong faculty presence in the room.

We know that many educators today are using OER. Nine percent of faculty at two- and four-year institutions used openly-licensed materials during the 2016-2017 academic year, a near double increase from the previous academic year, according to a survey by the Babson Survey Research Group. So when I ask, “why are there so few practitioners actively involved in open education?” I am not referring to OER usage in the classroom. Instead, I want to know why few faculty are driving the open education movement.

James Skidmore, associate professor and director for the Centre for German Studies at Waterloo University, is currently investigating the diffusion (or lack thereof) of open education at his university.

He argues that the lack of faculty thought leaders in open education might be partly due to what the instructor is already focused on their current role. “People who are interested in the teaching aspect of the job certainly like the notion of sharing materials,” says Skidmore.

But staying on top of innovative teaching methods and adopting new course materials is not at the center of every faculty member’s work. In some cases, Skidmore says research, publishing and other interests and professional duties presents obstacles to adopting OER—let alone advocate for it.

Skidmore explains, “For some people, it’s a question of how much time they want to put in their teaching. So typically at a research institution, faculty are told to not overdo it on the teaching. [The notion is] do enough to be good, but don’t do more than that.” Joining a movement around open education, he adds, “won’t help in securing tenure.”

Dr. Clayton Funk, senior lecturer in the Department of Arts Administration, Education and Policy at The Ohio State University echoes this sentiment: “OER are not typically counted toward research requirements, because they are seen as lacking the vetting process that comes with, for example, peer-reviewed articles.”

Many non- faculty open education advocates are aware of this enormous barrier presented by systemic policies and the tenure and promotion process. A faculty member like me, who is non- tenure or holds a teaching-intensive role, might have an easier time to participate in critical open education discussions.

But it’s important to note that at times, faculty are also at fault for sustaining these policies, buying into them, and sometimes creating them. If faculty are unhappy with the limitations that the academy enforces, they have to push for a change and not accept the status quo.

There is an even deeper social issue to explore in trying to figure how to get more faculty thought leaders in open education—the fear of sharing among faculty and advocating for this practice. Even making something as simple as syllabi visible to the public can receive pushback. For faculty nervous about public backlash and scrutiny, sharing your course materials with the world can also be intimidating.

“I know a professor who didn’t want to post materials into an open context for his teaching because he was afraid that if he made a mistake and gets caught, his reputation would be hurt,” Skidmore recalls. “The fear of sharing has been drilled early on in our careers, and faculty members are so cognizant of being rated and ranked and looked over that it’s affecting our ability to share what we know [to the public].”

I find this mindset particularly problematic for faculty members who teach at public institutions that are funded by taxpayer dollars. Faculty should feel compelled to share their work publicly and step outside the academia vacuum, while simultaneously supported by their respective institution and department to do so without reprimand. Failure to do this perpetuates the structural, social, and economic barriers that higher education is (supposedly) called to eradicate.

Communicating the Message

Knowing the challenges that exist for instructors who use OER, what can non-faculty OER advocates such as librarians, policy advocates, administrators, instructional designers, edtech professionals and others do better to appeal to faculty? Clearly communicate and evolve the message.

As Laura Killam, a nursing instructor and open education advocate at Cambrian College puts it, “It’s marketing. The textbook giants are really good at selling their products and faculty sometimes fall for it, preventing us from even wanting to delve deeper into the issue of open education.”

Yet, major textbook publishers are taking notice of the increased interest in OER, which has, among other factors, affected their profit in recent years. In response, publishers such as Cengage and MacMillan adapted their products to be more affordable, but have been justifiably accused of engaging in deceptive marketing tricks to exploit OER (ex: creating a paywall for “open content”). This is often referred to as “openwashing” or the attempt to market a product as open source when it is quite the contrary. Faculty need to be aware of these misleading messages.

Open education advocates also have to be aware of language used in discussions with faculty.

“I get nervous with calling this a movement,” says Skidmore, although he supports open education. “When you have a movement, you then start creating those people who are orthodox and those who are not. Then we get into the political questions such as ‘well, are you open enough?’ or ‘are you following all the rules of [the open education movement]?’ That is not appealing to instructors,” argues Skidmore.

Instead, Killam suggests to, “offer open education as one of several solutions to a problem that faculty have.”

Open education advocates who are not faculty should also attend discipline-specific academic conferences to spread the word about open education and create a stronger presence. The traditional textbook publishers will surely be there—why not open education advocates?

It’s equally important to highlight ways in which faculty are already engaging in open-like practices such as collaboratively curating materials or sharing their work via blog posts. This helps to normalize “openness” in academia. I also call on a push to create more space and time for faculty to develop course materials and engage in teaching development. This has to receive better recognition institutionally. The implications are critical for our students, who desire strong educators, not just researchers or scholars.

This all could speak to a “complete cultural overhaul” as Funk sees it. “But I do think it can happen over time because the students love it [open educational resources],” he goes on to say.

These social and cultural barriers are extremely challenging, but cannot be simply ignored because of their unique difficulties. The livelihood of open education hinges on tenacious efforts from all angles to combat this.

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