Using Open Educational Resources with Your Students

large__neonopensignOne of the key elements of planning a course is selecting the textbooks and other materials for your students. Books, journal articles, essays, videos, and other resources need to be collated and organized; in addition, class preparation typically involves pulling together slide presentations, in-class exercises, assignments, quizzes, and other materials for the course. Instructors create some of this content on their own, but, of course, also use content that is available, often in digital formats, in an ever expanding ecosystem of materials.

Within higher education, concerns about pedagogical effectiveness, affordability and accessibility have created a movement to promote “open educational resources” (OER). The Hewlitt Foundation has defined OER as “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or that have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. OER include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.” The high cost of textbooks is certainly one factor driving interest in openly licensed materials. We know that a significant number of students struggle to afford their textbooks, and some simply try to get through their courses without buying them.

Beyond the issues of cost, however, there is growing recognition that proprietary course materials, which are usually locked down to prevent revision, adaptation, and remixing, do not promote the degree of student participation and knowledge generation that is possible with open materials. OERs give educators the ability to adapt instructional resources to the individual needs of their students and to ensure that resources are up-to-date. Moreover, openly licensed materials give students the opportunity to modify and remix content and to construct their own explanations and presentations of particular topics, which can deeply enhance their learning. Imagine a scenario, for example, in which students revise and remix the core instructional materials of the class (which are OER) with other OER and with their own original work in order to create a small tutorial (in any medium) on a topic that students in the course generally struggle with. They can then use their tutorial to teach the topic to one of their peers. The best tutorials will be integrated into the official OER collection or open textbook for use by other students starting next semester.

You may be wondering, though…as a faculty member, how do I get started with the possibility of using OER in my courses? Our digital pedagogy workshop this week is intended to help you find out about the major repositories and sources of OER (such as OpenStax and OER Commons) and to learn about the process of sharing and using open content…not only textbooks, but other materials such as assignments, lesson plans, course modules, slide decks, assessments, and more. We’ll gather as usual on Tuesday at 4:30 and Friday at 1:30 in Abell 102.

The fundamental philosophy of OER and of open approaches to pedagogy is encapsulated in the notion of the “5 Rs” as developed by David Wiley, a pioneering advocate of open education.


Wiley’s articles, “What is Open Pedagogy?” and “Open Pedagogy: The Importance of Getting in the Air,” provide an accessible entry into the perspective of the 5 Rs. There are also several other points of references that I would recommend as useful places to get started learning about open education in general and open educational materials in particular. For example, the University of Mary Washington recently held a “OER Summit” and made videos of the sessions available for viewing. UMW economics professor Steve Greenlaw provides a reflection on his approach to open textbooks for his classes. Another example comes from Ohio State mathematics professor Jim Fowler, in a recent Educause article entitle “An Open Perspective on Interactive Textbooks“:

Because they’re low-cost or free, open-source textbooks address issues of affordability, accessibility, and equity. Moreover, because they are generally editable and reusable, open-source textbooks provide an opportunity to reinforce a constructivist understanding of learning. An open-source textbook is, after all, a textbook and thereby addresses the practical need for an expert, authoritative reference. And yet, it immediately calls that authority into question. Because it’s editable, it invites students to reflect on their learning and on how the exposition could be improved and, ideally, to propose some specific edits. Like many open-source software projects, an open-source textbook allows users to file “bug reports.” And because an open-source textbook is reusable, it permits other instructors to not only “adopt” the text but also “raise” the adopted text as if it were their own.

A third example is provide by literature professor Robin DeRosa of Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. In “My Open Textbook: Pedagogy and Practice,” Robin describes how she and her students created The Open Anthology of American Literature to replace a commercially available anthology priced at $85. Among her many rich reflections on the experience of creating a textbook collaboratively with her students, Robin observes that

People often ask me how students can create textbooks when they are only just beginning to learn about the topics that the textbooks cover.  My answer to this is that unlike many other scholarly materials, textbooks are primarily designed to be accessible to students–to new scholars in a particular academic area or sub-specialty.  Students are the perfect people to help create textbooks, since they are the most keenly tuned in to what other students will need in order to engage with the material in meaningful ways.  By taking the foundational principles of a field–most of which are not “owned” by any prior textbook publisher–and refiguring them through their own lens, student textbook creators can easily tap their market.  They can access and learn about these principles in multiple ways (conventional or open textbooks, faculty lecture and guidance, reading current work in the field, conversations with related networks, videos and webinars, etc.), and they are quite capable, in my opinion, of designing engaging ways to reframe those principles in ways that will be more helpful to students than anything that has come before.

So if these ideas and examples have piqued your interest, let us know, and join us for conversation and demonstration in our sessions this week.