The Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources at the Open Educational Consortium is a collection of community colleges and technical colleges working towards the promotion of open education policies and practices. On 13 April 2022, I was invited to join a panel discussion on Sustainable OER Course Design for CCCOER.

Our panel moderator, Matthew Bloom, sent the participants the questions in advance.  I am an English professor by nature as well as profession, so writing out complete responses was my first action to prepare for the session.  These questions and responses are the content of this blog post. 

What does it mean to you for an open educational resource to be designed for sustainability?

There are three levels of sustainability, in my mind.  The faculty level, the department level, and the institutional level.  Each level has different expectations of the resources, as well as areas of contribution to sustainability.   At the faculty level, I believe that it means remaining fresh and useable at a semester-by-semester phase. This means regularly revisiting and revising materials.  At the department level, I believe sustainability is related to useability by residential faculty as well as adjunct faculty, which means being useable from day one without much adaptation while being fully customizable to meet teaching approaches.  In addition, sustainability at the department level means maintenance as assessment and course outcomes are cycled, which requires thinking about OER materials as being part of that cyclical process.   Finally, sustainability at the institution level includes establishing promotion, training programs, opportunities for advancement, content hosting, and support, using monitored metrics. That data can be brought back to the faculty level to help with the revising of OER. That is what designed for sustainability means to me, designed with all three levels in mind.  

A central concern for many faculty when choosing learning materials is the currency and accuracy of the content. However, materials that are infused with ephemeral or otherwise time-sensitive content will more often and potentially sooner require revision and updating. What can creators do to ensure that their materials remain current without ending up with a short expiration date? In other words, do you know strategies for maximizing both the currency and the lifespan of a resource at the same time?

One of the strategies that I have used is to keep my materials modular.  If a piece of material becomes less than current, I can take a short amount of time and update just that piece.  I am always taking notes on my materials as I am using them.  I did that even when I was using publisher-sourced materials.   One of the great parts of having OER materials is that I can revise during the semester.  Just two weeks ago, I had a slightly outdated article, I was able to replace it with the most recent iteration and because of the way my textbook is published, all of the students had access to the updated version as soon as I updated it.  

Now, with the tech programs, this can be a little difficult, but it is unbelievably fun to have the students develop recent iterations as they are going through the content.  Getting the students involved in adjusting for new iterations not only keeps the materials fresh and current but allows them to buy in.  Sometimes, they spot current issues faster than I can.  I teach a contextualized English course that involved environmental science and a student brought me the journal article on microplastics crossing the placental wall a month before it hit the mainstream news.  Sometimes materials will require adjustment more often than others.   I was one of the authors of an English Composition text with research just as APA was being moved to APA 9.  As I was preparing my materials, I included APA 8 and a note to the students on the new version with a discussion on what changes were being made.  The following semester, the parts that had changed were replaced and anything that wasn’t changed stayed in the text.  

Again, I keep things modular and clearly labeled for fast updates.  

Have you ever learned “the hard way” about what to avoid when designing OER so that they remain sustainable/usable for a longer period of time?

Naming Conventions. This is true of different materials, but I am going to use the one that makes for the easiest imagery.  I like to use an open-source package called H5P. This package allows me to build interactive content that I can embed in my materials.  Sounds nice.  The problem that hit me was that I wasn’t using appropriate naming conventions as I was developing the content.  I think I was about 45 packages in before I realized that I couldn’t tell the difference between package 1 and package 32 without going into the package to look through the content.   When it comes to designing OER content, names matter.  A clear name that identifies the basic content and perhaps how you plan to use it helps as you are organizing and revising your materials, but it also helps other people as they begin to adopt those materials as well.  I went through all of my content and appropriately renamed them.  I think I am close to 100 packages now, but I have found that the naming conventions have kept me from having any issues as I revise materials.  When I want to go back and revise, it is quick and easy if I have a clear name. 

How might technological choices impact the long-term viability of a resource?

I designed some of my early materials using a program that was then sold and revised, and all of my materials were lost.  That has happened several times. I find a piece of technology that I know is going to help me make things better.  Then it is gone.   What I learned was to make sure I was using programs that allowed me to not only save my materials but to be able to save them in different formats so if I lose access to one, I will still have the others.  

 I mentioned I like to use an interactive formative assessment tool called H5P.  I found a fantastic page that had these wonderful H5P components in my field.  I embedded them throughout my materials and I used them successfully for about one semester.  Then the hosting page chose to update their materials, which lost me access to a good portion of the embedded components. They had removed them as they completely revised them. I learned that downloading the OER materials you plan to use is a much better way to make sure you don’t lose access.  When you upload them, you have control over those materials.  They are also editable and can be updated if you have them. I do want to say they were all creative commons licensed materials.  

Finally, accessibility matters. The format materials are in matters.  I do most of my developing and saving in formats that work with all sorts of accessibility tools.  I use free versions of accessibility software to test my materials. Checking accessibility led to choosing NOT to use certain technologies for developing my materials.    

“Sustainability” is often defined with respect to resource allocation, and implicit in this is that we don’t sacrifice future wellbeing for short-term productivity. For projects that are funded on a specific timeline–in other words, you know exactly when the money’s going to run out–how do we best allocate resources to ensure that we aren’t burdening our future selves or other future users with work that will need to be done in the absence of funding?

Has anyone else read about the INTRO model for sustaining OER adoption?  The main premise of the article and the research that was done as a part of it was IF.   If a faculty member adopting OER leads to more students enrolling or fewer students dropping, this change in student behavior could translate into more tuition revenue for the institution. Were such an increase in revenue to occur, the increase could potentially be sufficient to cover the costs of providing OER adoption services to faculty.  Adding this to the results of the 2018 research The Impact of Open Educational Resources on Various Student Success Metrics, there are statistically significant positives in the increase in grade averages and decline in DFW grades with the adoption of OER, even higher in traditionally underrepresented minorities, part-time students, and Pell recipients.

Is anyone else on this panel familiar with what Pima Community College in Tuscon Arizona did with their HEERF funds? The HEERF funds are by definition, short-term.  So the design of their proposal was two-pronged.  First, they set up a compensation fund for 2 librarians to go through OER training, prepare workshops to train faculty, prepare walk-in sessions with faculty for direct support, and to prepare a repository for holding reviews of OER materials. The second prong was for faculty to attend workshops offered by the library and identify, evaluate, and write a review of an OER resource for potential use in the course they teach. 

Now, it requires a little more effort, but it is possible to make workshops that can be repeated or even self-driven, open-ended / open-exit.  It is possible to encourage faculty who choose to use materials to include their materials in a reviewed format in library repositories. 

Leverage your strengths.  Does anyone else have OER champions on their campus?  I became an OER champion on my campus in part because I threw my textbook into the circular file and refused to use anything but OER. Sure, if the funds are there, as a faculty member I am going to take advantage of them and develop much more deeply than I might otherwise choose, but if the funds aren’t there, it won’t be enough to stop me.  I have a photo on my wall of a student who spent $700 on a single semester’s worth of textbooks and I was fully a part of that problem. Champions, mentors, pioneers, if you can leverage your human resources and invite the faculty to move at a pace that they are comfortable with, it becomes just another part of preparing for the next semester. When you can make it so commonplace to move single chapters, sections, parts to OER, when you can make it the norm, when a champion’s passion becomes contagious, as long as you have the support structure in place, that stone is rolling downhill. 

The terms “sustainability” and “renewable” (as in renewable assignments) seem pretty obviously connected. How might the application of open pedagogy support the sustainability of a resource?

I have already mentioned that student involvement in the updating and revision of course materials is a path to sustainability.  I think when students are involved in the development of materials, they don’t just have buy-in, but they also feel empowered.  They are given a voice in the education that they are claiming and a chance to demonstrate higher-level thinking and mastery over the content. Not that long ago but not in my current position, I taught a course in basic computing and educational technology.  Now, we had a textbook, but it was several iterations out of date.  Some of the programs no longer looked even close to what was in the textbook and newer programs had no images or references at all. Even the learning management system (LMS) the students were learning about was not in the book. I had my learning outcomes and I knew what they needed to know for the next course.  So, I had the students divide up the content and begin to create handbooks on each separate program with full instructions and screenshots. They worked in groups and peer-reviewed each other, attempting to follow the handbook directions to see if it would allow them to do what was needed.   We then reviewed how the programs could be used on a pedagogical basis.  It was an intense semester and required a lot of support on my part, but by the end, I had a new textbook.  Every semester that I taught that course, students continued to revise, add new screenshots, and add more programs.  With a topic as fast-changing as ed-tech is, I think that was the only way that we could have a sustainable text. 

It was a wonderful experience to interact with so many participants who want to help ensure that OER materials are being designed with sustainability in mind.

*This post will also appear as a CCCOER Guest Blog.

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