By Column Editor: David Parker (Publisher and Consultant; Phone: 201-673-8784)
and Andrea Eastman-Mullins (Founder/CEO West End Learning; Phone: 336-448-3327)
and Joel Nkounkou (Founder/CEO Ecotext; Phone: 603-969-1926)
Against the Grain V33#6
In the November 2021 installment of this column, I focused on regional variation in library etextbook acquisition across North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia/New Zealand and the impact of workflow solutions and university policy. I noted that affordability and the use of open access/open education resources (OER) in curriculum design is of critical importance to libraries and that I would address this topic specifically in a future column.
Over the past several months I have been engaged in an ongoing discussion concerning the place of the North American library and librarians regarding the adoption of OER with two leaders active in the space: Joel Nkounkou, CEO of ecoText: https://ecotext.co/ and Andrea Eastman-Mullins, CEO of West End Learning: https://www.westendlearning.com/. The central theme in our discussion has revolved around the many ways in which librarians have supported the adoption of OER in an institutional context that generally places OER on the periphery. To refer to OER as on “the periphery” may strike some readers as unfair given the growth of OER over the past decade plus; however, from the vantage point of administrative strategic direction concerning materials and curriculum, OER gets thin attention as compared to the role of the campus bookstore and the physical and digital learning materials there vended.
One can make a credible argument that university leadership is simply responding to the faculty and its closely guarded prerogative to individually select course materials; the vast majority of faculty select traditional digital textbooks and courseware, not OER. Therefore, the university bookstore, the center for teaching and learning, and the campus technology center primarily exist to support faculty in its use of materials produced by the major textbook and learning technology companies. Were faculty to move in significant numbers toward OER, the senior university leadership would adjust its strategic emphasis and support in favor of OER.
It is in this context that we then can view the place of the library in supporting the development and deployment of OER in course design. The executive leadership of the university has a potentially determining/driving role in supporting an “ecosystem” of OER adoption, but rarely does so (although there is more senior-level support for OER in the community colleges). The library leadership can emphasize the role of the library in delivering content in support of affordability, be that OER or advocacy for library-held content that can be used in course design at no incremental cost to students. Instructional designers and staff in the center for teaching and learning help faculty design courses that may, or may not, be inclusive of OER, but are typically disconnected from content resources in the library. And campus technology centers pull everything together for learning management system integration but, like instructional designers, are task and faculty support driven, and are not considering content beyond that selected and delivered by the faculty member.
This may appear a bleak view for OER. The administration rarely pushes for broader use of OER, with the notable exception of community colleges. The library increasingly supports OER and other routes to course content affordability. The instructional designers, teaching and learning staff, and the technology center work at a distance from the library. But, in increasingly common occurrences, actors from these various poles in the university ecosystem are aligning to support an individual faculty request with the goal of broadening OER usage. Two such examples follow from the experiences of EcoText and West End Learning.
West End Learning was founded to better connect faculty to affordable teaching materials available openly or via the library. Libraries are championing the use of affordable resources and OER, and they need help to support more faculty. There is impressive open material available from scholars, associations, museums, and libraries waiting to be discovered. OERs are important for reuse and remixing, but the spectrum of affordable content is much broader. The first question at West End Learning was why faculty weren’t making better use of these materials.
The West End Learning team began working directly with faculty to design courses using low-cost materials. The best outcomes were achieved when there was collaboration between faculty, the library, the center for teaching and learning, and instructional designers.
At Salem College, for example, a private liberal arts college for women, the provost sponsored an initiative on instructional innovation, supporting 10 selected faculty from a variety of disciplines to convert their courses to use OER or affordable content. The faculty received small grants and support from the College. The group included the Director of Libraries, Elizabeth Novicki, and the head of the center for teaching and learning, Paula Young. Salem College didn’t have an instructional designer, so West End Learning provided this service. The library helped with eBook selections, textbook reserves, and laptop access to support courses. This was primairly a faculty-led effort, but it proved more useful when the library collaborated. It also gave the library a clearer line of vision into what was being taught on campus, which could inform collection development.
West End Learning also worked with Christina Elson, Executive Director of the Wake Forest University Center for the Study of Capitalism. She wanted to develop a fully asynchronous course, Introduction to Business & Society, for the Master’s in Management program. She had already built the learning objectives and written some of her own content, and she needed help pulling together effective resources and activities. She wanted to be mindful of student costs and develop a menu of resources so other faculty could deliver the course using their own styles. West End Learning engaged with Christina to manage the project and provided instructional design guidance. West End Learning brought in the business librarian, Summer Krstevska, to recommend open content that would supplement the modules. In this case, the library provided the role of content curator. Summer found videos, podcasts, articles, and eBooks, including those available in the library. She helped ensure links from the LMS connected seamlessly with library content, eliminating the need to post PDFs or paid links to the content. The library was also able to acquire eBooks based on the recommendations in the course.
While the courses at both colleges were stronger due to the collaboration between campus groups and the library, the projects took more to create custom courses rather than adopting a textbook and its supporting publisher-produced resources. Coordinating and facilitating course design between librarians, instructional designers, and faculty, while keeping the learning objectives central, is work that most faculty and librarians do not have time to address. Yet making space for it enables the library to contribute to the core of the institutional mission to educate. Retention rates are shown to improve if the campus is using open resources, and libraries can play a significant role curating the highest quality OER. Yet it is a struggle, because most faculty don’t think of the library when designing courses. As we move into a world that focuses more on curating content than collecting it, libraries will play a critical role.
ecoText was founded to address affordability, accessibility and to deliver a dynamic and engaging student experience by fostering collaborative reading, discussion and study in the reader. Providing a digital backbone for both students and educators to actively participate has unlocked an opportunity for ecoText to affect the existing culture around textbooks, moving from passive, individual engagement to collective, active engagement.
OER is foundational to the ecoText mission to support affordable access, but delivering an exceptional student experience requires thoughtfulness, strategic coordination with leadership on campus, and continuous product iteration that incorporates feedback from students. If the faculty see teaching materials as dynamic resources, they will be more open to leveraging open resources, and by consequence, creating an experience that does not end with students facing an expensive textbook or courseware bill. Librarians, by their nature, do tend to view learning resources as dynamic.
Trenholm State Community College had a mission to migrate to an OER-based curriculum. Goals this ambitious require campus-wide cooperation: support from the president, training sessions to support the search and identification of appropriate content, support from the instructional designers, and in-person visits from the technology team at ecoText. The ecoText team observed firsthand the impact of the library’s contributions. In fact, the leadership in the library at Trenholm State Community College led the critical operational efforts in allocating the student licenses for access to the ecoText reader as a tool for organizing the selected course content.
At Kent School, ecoText was paired with the open resource title: Liberty, Equality and Due Process: Cases, Controversies, and Contexts in Constitutional Law (https://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/textbooks/liberty-equality-and-due-process-cases-controversies-and-contexts-in-constitutional-law). The teacher led the class through readings, asking students to respond to prompts and reflections via social annotations directly in the margins of the text via the ecoText reader. The instructor that led this effort also serves as the school’s head librarian. The library was in a unique position to serve as the connective tissue, developing curriculum design while also supporting universal accessibility for students and a collaborative learning experience via the ecoText reader.
Learning belongs in the library. With an ever-growing set of library-held resources available for course design and a growing focus on curating OER, the library is ideally suited to work with faculty in partnership with the center for teaching and learning to design affordable and high-quality learning experiences for students. Reading platform options like ecoText that spur collaboration can be part of the library and the instructional design toolkit. And services such as West End Learning provides can help interested parties across the campus bring together a solution that captures the very best input of faculty, librarians, instructional designers, and educational technology support.