Open Educational Resources on the frontlines

My New Gig: SUNY OER Services — March 26, 2017

My New Gig: SUNY OER Services

OST-SOS-SUNY-logos-HiRes_SOS orange

March 9th marked my first month anniversary as Executive Director of SUNY OER Services. Looked at in retrospect, these first weeks have been a blur of activity, introductions, travel, and exploration. Add to that the expected chaos of moving a professional life from one coast to another, and the challenge of leaving my partner behind for a few months, and that gives some glimpse of why I haven’t been great with keeping up on personal correspondence lately.

I won’t even try to capture the specific moments. I’m slowly starting to peel back some of the outer layers of what the SUNY structure is. I know this will be a long process; I’ve met people with decades of experience who tell me they have yet to reach the chewy center of SUNY themselves.

What I can say is that I’ve been given a lot of encouragement and support, personally and professionally. Having an office in a library (Milne Library at SUNY Geneseo) is every bit as magical as I always knew working in a library would be, complete with wickedly funny colleagues and yummy food treats almost daily. I also am loving the buzz of student activity right outside our office door. The tables and sofas on the main floor are always full of bodies and energy. I didn’t just lose out on student proximity during my last two years at Lumen, but also when teaching before that, because faculty offices were always far away from where students actually spent their time. It’s nice to have that physical reminder of just why I’m called to do what I’m doing, sitting right outside my door. (And, yes, it’s also nice to have that door, which can be closed occasionally when the enthusiasm gets especially thunderous.)

The state systems office is fully embracing OER as a necessary mission of the SUNY system. Many of the details remain to be worked out, and will no doubt change iteratively through coming months and years. That will be the fun of my job – said in seriousness, because I really do enjoy operationalizing great ideas. One of my favorite aspects of teaching online was to figure out how to lower barriers between what my students wanted to be able to do, and allowing them to actually do it. This will be the same concept, at a different scale: figuring out what barriers exist between OER ambition and practice, then removing those barriers one by one.

There are 64 institutions (!) in my new system, most with multiple campuses. Safe to say that I won’t be seeing them all first-hand this year. I am amazed at how many I’ve already had some form of direct contact with, just in these few weeks, though. The appetite for OER is high, and most schools already have some form of it running. I’m grateful for the opportunity to help it expand.

I’ll be updating this blog frequently with my OER adventures and field studies. I also hope you follow along with SUNY OER Services via Facebook and Twitter, and keep in touch with all of us to share successes, challenges, suggestions, and triumphs.

Citations and Attributions — June 15, 2016

Citations and Attributions

Have you ever had a student tell you that they didn’t use a particular source in a project because they weren’t sure how to quote it or cite it? Yeah, me too.

Thing is, I’ve heard the same comment, with the same notes of anxiety in the voice, from fellow faculty members using OER.

Hopefully, when students tell you about this source-use anxiety, they’re talking to you about it pretty early in their drafting process. Hopefully, they’re telling you as a way of asking for help, and hopefully you’re able to provide the help they need to get them to actually use the source.  You can show them the path towards perfect APA, or MLA, or (gawd help us) Chicago.  You can help them navigate the thick sections about citations in their style guides, or intricate online citation builder tools.

“I’ll Give You A Cookie If You Cite My Paper” by Pierre Poulain, CC-BY

The faculty I work with know how to use quotes in writing, of course.  They know how to cite backwards and forwards, how to build beautiful annotated bibliographies and literature reviews.  After all, these are people who research for fun.

And yet, at least once a month, I talk to faculty members designing a course using OER who just aren’t sure if they’ve “done it right.”  And yes, they will often also tell me about this amazing source they came across, that they passed on, because they were afraid of using it incorrectly.

Thing is, while we faculty are well-versed in the citation styles for our disciplines, we are just as flummoxed as any freshman when we have to switch to an entirely new way of handling resources, which is exactly what’s called for in OER course design.  Faculty just have a little better sense than our freshmen of what the stakes are.  For faculty, using a source outside of its copyright clearance isn’t going to lead to failing a class. In all likelihood, it’s not going to lead to any repercussions at all. But the worst-case scenario ends with that faculty member getting sued, and possibly getting her institution sued as well. So we’re understandably gun-shy about doing anything wrong when it comes to copyright.

APA currently has 11 different “buckets” of source types to choose from when building a References page entry. MLA’s recent update offers 25 pages of guidance on how to construct a Works Cited entry. To at least some degree, mastering APA or MLA means mastering a decision-making process of categorization.

Creative Commons offers 6 copyright options, plus 1 that allows authors to add something to the public domain. CC licensing doesn’t care about the type of source something is, of course. Instead, course designers have to know what those 7 options mean about the way they can use a specific piece of OER, and how to give credit to the OER’s origins.

Creative Commons attributions are a new language for most faculty.  I definitely get that—it took me a long time to pick it up, too. My team at Lumen Learning thinks about these licenses all day, every day, and yet we still have questions for each other. Lively internal discussions about copyright are a regular thing.

“Copyright Reasons” by gaelx, CC-BY-SA

There’s a level of familiarity with CC, and then another level of fluency.

Thing is, just like our students shouldn’t have to memorize every single page of a citation style guide, faculty shouldn’t have to reach fluency level with Creative Commons licenses, either. Familiarity is enough. Reaching out for help with the intricacies is very, very okay.

If you’re using CC sources for your course design, please know you’re not building in a vacuum.  Hopefully you have local support.  Librarians are awesome at this stuff (as they are most things). Reference librarians can definitely help you navigate the “what to use and how to use it” questions of OER for your classes. Instructional designers, professional development leaders, and especially colleagues on campus who’ve also gone OER can and should be tapped.  (They probably have lingering questions, too, and would welcome a sounding board.)

I’d also encourage you to dig through some excellent online resources for guidance.

Finally, I hope you know that the OER community is a very supportive one.  (Seriously. Lots of love among and between people all working for the greater good of our students.)  Reaching beyond your campus to tap into system support, state colleagues, or anyone in your field who’s also incorporating OER is a completely normal thing to do.  People who use OER love to geek out with other people who use OER. They will be flattered and excited to hear from you.  Including me!

If nothing else, drafting attributions as your beautiful OER course comes together will give you insight, and likely empathy, for how your students feel. They are navigating the world of MLA / APA / yes, even Chicago for proper quotations, paraphrases, and references, as you are navigating the world of CC / BY / NC / SA / ND. Tell them what you’re going through: what you had to consult and who you had to nag to get help. They will profit from your excellent example. Maybe next time they won’t be too intimidated to try that source that’s just outside of their comfort zone.



The Trajectory of OER Course Design — May 4, 2016

The Trajectory of OER Course Design

The first OER class I ever designed was terrible.

No, let me rephrase that.  It was an online version of English Composition that focused on digital literacy.  It was fun to teach, it met its learning objectives, and it was cheap for my students.  It didn’t have a textbook.  It did have assignments, discussions, and interactive features.  It also had a lot of links.  A LOT of links.  I sent my students all over the internet, and I hoped they’d hit the “back” button enough times to come back to the classroom when they were done reading.

I know now that that class was a “free” class (textbook-free, course-materials-free), but not an “open” class.  I was still relying on fully copyrighted content to create the text for the course.  Those materials were accessible to anyone with the web address, but I couldn’t shape them, manipulate them, or move them into my class space.  They were closed materials that happened to live on a website rather than inside a bound book.  They didn’t meet the threshold of the 5Rs of OER.

“5R’s” from Lumen Learning, CC-BY 4.0, available here.

In my current role at Lumen Learning, I work with faculty at many institutions, in many disciplines, who are making the transition to using OER in their classrooms.  I understand this is no small commitment on their part, and I love being able to make this burden a little lighter for them.

The trajectory many faculty follow as they get to know OER is a cycle of excitement and frustration, creativity and exhaustion. I offer encouragement and advice, share what resources I can, and connect people across institutions who are making amazing things happen.  I also have to be the stern enforcer at times, when I note that a source that a faculty member wants to use in an OER course design is free, but not open.  Not OER.  And the question inevitably comes back—“why does it matter?”

From a very practical standpoint, it doesn’t.  These materials are free.  They are available to your students from day one of the course.  They have just as much chance at helping you meet your course objectives as any other resource. If the aim of your course redesign is to lower the barriers to success for your students, then having an all-rights-reserved resource accessible through a free website as part of your course content is perfectly fine.  That’s what my first textbook-free course was.  I’m hardly going to sit in judgment of someone else doing the exact same thing I did.

That said, I hope that a reliance on free-but-not-open (FBNO) resources is just an initial stage of your trajectory towards fully embracing OER, as it was mine.

photo by Space-X Imagery, CC0, available here

In the year or so that I taught using my initial, wonderful, terrible, FBNO course design, I came to realize its limitations.  Conversations with other faculty have shown me that my experience wasn’t unique.  Here are a few things that many of us have come to understand about free-but-not-open:

  • It doesn’t contextualize well.  It’s hard to build a seamless entry point for a source that’s entirely in a different space (a different website, a different voice, a different purpose) than the rest of your course.  Relying on copyrighted web content means having to work a lot harder in the class to keep the thread running.  It means you have to reinforce connections which may not be obvious at first glance, before you send students into that other space, and reinforce them again when they return to the world of your classroom.  It eats up a lot of time.
  • It isn’t reliable.  Many of us have gone through the experience of having the most key parts of a particular class experience disappear under our noses, because the web address changed, or the webmaster abandoned the project, or the site requires special plug-ins. (I had to abandon using Wordle for a revision and reflection activity, for instance, because it became too burdensome to make sure everyone’s Java was updated and the web browsers they were using were compatible.)  When these headaches happen, we have to scramble to correct, sometimes causing our students a lot of frustration in the process.
  • It isn’t portable for faculty.  While most of us eventually learn the correct procedure for copying our own courses from term to term—in essence, sharing the course with ourselves—the barriers are pretty high for sharing with other colleagues on campus who’d be interested.  Even if we do get the technology to behave, the work we’ve done to contextualize often doesn’t carry over, because we’ve built it into our class delivery rather than the transferable elements of the course.  And what about someone at another campus that might be interested in seeing what we do?  Who uses another LMS entirely?  Fuggetaboutit.
  • It isn’t portable for students.  While students might bookmark a particular website they find useful from a FBNO course, they are essentially left with no cohesive collection of resources when the term ends. If they want to return to a key concept later to refresh it, or build further on it, they have to Google and hope they land on the same pages again.
  • Finally, it doesn’t incentivize faculty to make and share their own new content.  Yes, amazing lessons and assessments are built around FBNO content all the time, and these sometimes get distributed quite broadly.  However, to oversimplify the point, working with closed resources tends to put us in a closed mindset about the materials we create to supplement them.

When working with OER, the Creative Commons licenses on a document serve as a great prompt for the “education is sharing” attitude.  Starting from an open source means that not only are we starting with an open mindset, but we are also able to change the words on the page to exactly match what our students need.  When we send our material out into the wild with an open license on it, then others are able to change the words on the page to exactly match what their students need.  (Except for NonDerivative-licensed work, but I’ll save that rant for another day.) Teachers win, students win.

If FBNO sources work for your classrooms, especially as an initial move to reduce the cost for your students, then by all means use them.  When you do, please consider sharing the supporting materials you create (introductions, assignments, discussions, lectures) related to them with CC-By licenses so that OER adopters behind you can take advantage of them.  And be open to the idea of gradually moving even further along the trajectory, eventually adopting open materials, that you and your students can retain forever.