OER is Growing at Religious Colleges, But Raises Unique Challenges

Digital Learning

OER is Growing at Religious Colleges, But Raises Unique Challenges

By Sydney Johnson     Oct 24, 2018

OER is Growing at Religious Colleges, But Raises Unique Challenges

One popular draw to open educational resources is that these openly-licensed learning materials can—and are often encouraged to—be tailored for a particular professor or course. But at religious institutions, adapting open materials for a faith-based curriculum can be trickier.

Scholarly communications librarian Kristen Hoffman oversees much of the OER work at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian university in Washington. It’s still the early days for open education at her institution, and she’s found herself increasingly curious about how faculty can best adapt open materials to incorporate elements of the university's faith-based curriculum.

“All faculty—not just those in theology—are expected to integrate faith into their teaching and be able to give a faith perspective in their discipline,” explains Hoffman. “Each faculty member does that in their own way, but our question was, ‘What does that look like in terms of a textbook?’”

Hoffman recently brought her question to the gathering of open education resource users and advocates at the OpenEd conference in Niagara Falls, NY earlier this month. She and her colleague John Robertson, a digital education librarian, sought advice on how faculty at a religious college could add religious components to an existing OER textbook and then share that back with the OER community, without having it perceived as ulteriorly motivated.

The critical part, Hoffman says, is “really trying to clarify what it is that you are sharing back.” Something added in for one faith may not work for another denomination, she added.

Hoffman’s interest in exposing faculty at Seattle Pacific University to free and open learning materials is largely due to expensive textbook prices and the interest she hears from students for cheaper alternatives.

Pricey textbooks and access codes are a national challenge. From January 2006 to July 2016, the price of college textbooks increased 88 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (those prices are slowly creeping down). Still, it can be even harder for students at private schools like Seattle Pacific where, Hoffman says, the library doesn’t purchase course textbooks to keep on reserve. Why? “The short answer is that we don’t typically consider them a good investment, since they tend to be expensive and new editions are published so frequently,” Hoffman wrote in an email.

Several attendees at the OpenEd conference, including ones from non-religious institutions and who identified with different faith backgrounds, suggested one simple solution: clearly label the content after it has been adapted. That way, instructors who want that kind of material can more easily find it, and those who want to avoid religious materials can do that as well.

In researching her own question, Hoffman had trouble finding many open textbooks on religious studies or theology, when compared to popular courses like math or biology. She sees that gap as one opportunity for religious universities. “I thought about working with theology faculty and religious studies faculty, like creating their own and sharing their own [materials]. Is there anything out there that faith-based institutions can have a place in this OER ecosystem to contribute to those kinds of resources?”

Faculty and libraries at Brigham Young University are also experimenting with open educational resources. In fact, David Wiley, who co-founded the open education provider Lumen Learning, and who has been referred to as the “godfather of OER,” was previously an associate professor at the Mormon university.

Despite Wiley’s enthusiasm, open educational resources have been slower to catch on at the university than one might expect. “The campus as a whole is still not behind OER,” says Michael Whitchurch, digital learning services librarian BYU. “It's a very frustrating thing for me, partially because as a church we are also all about sharing with the world—especially [to our] membership around the world—and yet it's not happening yet.”

One course at the university is completely using OER, Whitchurch says. It’s a course on “eternal families,” and it is taught as both a religion course and a family-studies course. Whitchurch isn’t concerned about sharing the materials back with the OER community—but he does feel that the course’s narrow religious scope could fall outside of most faculty member’s interest.

“People would know it's a specific course for a specific purpose. I don't think they would see any reason to keep it from the world other than it's very specific to our institution and no one else teaches a course on that,” he says. “It uses content from our church almost solely because it's taught based on the principles taught by the prophet and other church leaders.”

Interest from students and faculty at BYU is growing, according to a 2017 study published in Open Praxis. The report found that 66 percent of students at the university said they did not purchase a textbook due to cost. It also found that 91 percent of faculty “would be willing to use OER alternatives.”

But the study also showed that only about half of faculty surveyed would “welcome assistance identifying and adapting materials for their course.” Whitchurch attributes this challenge to a common theme at many institutions, religious and private or public and nonprofit: Academic freedom. "You just don't tell faculty what to do,” he says.

Whitchurch’s found a sweet spot by working with departments and individual faculty interested in using OER. “We are at a point now where we can go to different departments and help them explore [OER], but we can't push this,” says Whitchurch. “It has to be a grassroots effort, and as a library we support them in what they need.”

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