Is Open Content Enough? Where OER Advocates Say the Movement Must Go Next

EdSurge Podcast

Is Open Content Enough? Where OER Advocates Say the Movement Must Go Next

By Sydney Johnson     Oct 30, 2018

Is Open Content Enough? Where OER Advocates Say the Movement Must Go Next
Kent McGuire (left) and Jess MItchell (right)

It’s not uncommon to stumble upon headlines about students spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on course materials. In response, open educational materials, or OER, have emerged as an alternative to expensive textbooks that disproportionately affect low-income students.

OER have been around for more than a decade, and the sheer number of these materials—in the form of textbooks, courses, videos, software and other public-domain resources—are increasingly available online. But as more open materials become accessible, advocates for open education still see room for improvement.

This week on the EdSurge On Air podcast, we hear from Jess Mitchell, a senior manager of research and design at the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University, and Kent McGuire, director of the Education Program at William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, who both keynoted the OpenEd conference in New York earlier this month and shared ideas on where the open movement is headed.

Listen to highlights of the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen. The transcript below has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: Much of the conversation at the OpenEd conference was around how free materials does not always mean open or accessible. Where is “free” falling short for students?

Mitchell: I think that open education resources for many years have been focused on textbook costs. Those are not to be diminished. Those are prohibitive, and really create a barrier for access for learners. In many ways, it doubly marginalized the marginalized students, especially the low-income students who are coming into school. Now they have additional costs that are above and beyond what the tuition cost was. Those are very significant issues.

What open education is saying though, is “yes, and.” Meaning, yes, the economic issues and the availability of access to materials is a problem. And it’s also a problem the way the materials are presented—the format that they’re in, what kind of mode they’re in… Is it text? Is it audio? Is it video? Is it done in some didactic way? Is it done in a kind of experiential way? This is where I think some really interesting work is happening around critical digital pedagogy.

Kent McGuire is the program director of education at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has provided grant support and investments to the creation of various open educational resources. He shares some similar opinions with Mitchell about that “yes, and” idea.

McGuire: Yes, bringing the cost of materials down is a big deal. But there are ways we can engage new groups of students, content and perspectives that we can get at more clearly, and really do more to involve students so that they have a sense of agency and ownership of the content. If we can get there, then I think the sky’s the limit in terms of the impacts we can have. That’s what really excites me.

But despite the excitement, there are obstacles to using OER. McGuire’s team is researching some of them.

McGuire: The kinds of things that are being discussed [around using OER] are hard for many of institutions to access. For instance, are there supports and structures we could bring to minority-serving institutions that might help them take fuller advantage of OER?

There are a few problems: One: awareness levels vary widely, and neither the faculty nor the institutions are well-represented in the community called OER. Two: with teaching loads and administrative duties tacked on top, the faculty’s ability to take on almost anything new, especially if that will also require time and energy to adopt and adapt OER, will [limit] broader use. And three: the kind of infrastructure to support OER at the institutional level is thin and weak, and many of the faculty might not benefit from the kind of institutional support they would need or want in order to make effective use of these materials. I think these are surmountable challenges, but they are challenges nonetheless.

Mitchell argues that effectively teaching with OER requires taking into account the broader challenges happening inside and outside of classrooms.

Mitchell: The way that the room is set up has an impact on the way that conversations and sharing happens. So thinking about the way the classroom is structured should be a part of education and a part of what we’re talking about.

If openness is what we’re aiming for, and open education means saying we’re not comfortable with leaving anybody behind, we want to educate everyone, then we need to dive into [barriers to education beyond textbook prices] as well.

We need to think about the context that we’re teaching in. Not just the classroom, but the historical context. If we’re teaching in a historically underserved community, if we’re teaching in a community of immigrants, if we’re teaching in a community where people were imprisoned, we need to acknowledge that these things all have an impact on people who are learning.

We often think about education as, “if you want to improve your life, then pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you get and education.” But we know that the people coming in for an education sometimes don’t even have boots. So how is it possible that we can expect that as an outcome?

In Mitchell’s keynote at OpenEd, she asked the audience of educators, librarians and other open education enthusiasts to think about their “tolerance for failure” in education. Here’s what she means:

Mitchell: When we make decisions about what we’re okay with in our society, in our world in education, we’re fundamentally making ethical decisions. This is how I think about growing from the seeds of the open movement and open education, and the way it can break down barriers to access. Then what has followed for me, because I’ve been always interested in the ethical questions, is: where do we stop and why do we stop there?

Each of us are making decisions about where we are okay with failure happening. And fundamentally those are ethical decisions that create or limit access for people. What I wanted people to do is think about where they’re drawing the lines. Are they captioning their videos? Are they putting multiple modes of the same content out there, so audio, not just text? Video with interactive transcripts? We have the tools to be able to do these things now. What I wanted to ask people is, “Where are you not doing these things and why?”

The first point of making some sustainable change to what we’re doing is to acknowledge where we are and why we’re there. It’s too easy to absolve ourselves of responsibility and say it’s the policy of the institution, or I don’t have time or I don’t have the money to do this.

What’s the role of technology in all of this? Big strides have been made in the last decade to create more open digital materials. What’s next on that end?

McGuire: I think that years ago, the energy and attention went largely to building out the technical and legal infrastructure for OER. There was less attention on the question or matter of its thoughtful and effective use. There are still issues with regard to infrastructure—policy, the technology required, the updating and expansion of the licenses and so forth. Building awareness for all of that, there’s always going to be work to do. But I’m hopeful, optimistic even.

[Technology] will continue to move and we’ve no choice but to try to keep pace with the affordances that technology brings. But as you move from the technical to the social, cultural and political dimensions of this movement to open things up pedagogically, that stuff feels both harder, more multi-faceted and more important to get at. If we only get at the technical stuff, I worry about whether or not the divides and the variation and the stratification in access and outcomes don’t actually get magnified.

Mitchell: I’m very optimistic. I am an apologist, actually even. I like to look at technology and see what it allows us to do. Then I’m critical of what it’s not allowing us to do. But I don’t think you throw out the baby with the bathwater. I think that there are great advances, no doubt. I think what we’re lacking is again, the conversation and the ability to have the criticality towards [technology] that comes in.

How do faculty, staff, administrators and students begin to have conversations about issues around the issues we have been talking about—issues beyond textbook prices that can create barriers to education or ever OER?

Mitchell: This is what I’m spending my time focusing on now, asking: What does it look like to do something like what I’ve been calling “open dialogue”? It’s not to put a new process in place. It’s not a new HR policy. It’s not a new campus policy. Codes of conduct are helpful, but sometimes they even fall short of accomplishing what they aim to do.

How do we get through the discomfort and have these really tough conversations? I think that the first thing that we do, is we acknowledge that this is not a new process. It’s a new mindset. about creating the space for open dialogue, where it’s safe to share ideas and thoughts but it’s a challenging space too. I think that we’ve gotten away from that.

The other issue is sometimes we have diversity week, or we have a speaker who comes in and raises some of these things, and then leaves. I really think that we’ve got to build a capacity to have these conversations and continue having them. This isn’t something that’s going to start and stop. This is a practice and I think that the only way that you have an impact is by continuing to do it.

McGuire shares some of that optimism around technology and the potential for open pedagogy, but he says if faculty are expected to address these challenges in their work, they’re going to need some support.

McGuire: If we don’t have institutional support, that’s going to slow things down. I’ve yet to find a teacher-education program that is actively using OER as a part of helping teachers think about who they are and how they think about content. It seems obvious to me that if the teachers and administrators are themselves enculturated in these ways, [OER] will find their way into classrooms.

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