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Learning Belongs in the Library — OER and Achieving Wide Faculty Adoption: Three Hurdles

by | May 9, 2022 | 0 comments


By Column Editor:  David Parker  (Publisher and Consultant;  Phone: 201-673-8784) 

Against the Grain V34#2

I am a proponent of open educational resources (OERs) and the role the library plays in increasing faculty understanding of, creation of, and use of OERs.  In my role as a product manager at various educational technology businesses, I have presented strategic overviews and business plans to senior leaders to address the needs I see librarians’ facing in growing the adoption by faculty of OERs.  And I often consider what we can learn from the rapid growth of open access in scholarly publishing, which has grown much faster in journal publishing than book publishing. 

There is much the world of OER should learn from the world of OA, including the efforts of publishers to align on metadata standards, business models, and methods for measuring usage and engagement.  But the baseline fact that the textbook industry was built on individual students purchasing individual textbooks, whereas the scholarly publishing industry was built primarily on institutions purchasing institution-wide access, complicates the comparison of OER and OA to the extreme. 

In this column I will focus on three hurdles that I believe must be overcome if OER is to become as widely adopted by faculty as the global university library community seeks.  In a future column I will explore learnings from the world of open access scholarly publishing that can contribute to the growth of OER creation, distribution, and adoption.

The three hurdles are:

1) The impediment to scale that comes with prioritizing individual faculty grants for OER creation.

2) The difficulty created by the absence of cataloging standards and disciplined curation, and

3) The challenge to faculty adoption when a candidate OER textbook  lacks the full package of support materials faculty require.

The Downside of Faculty Grants:

The absolute volume of funding flowing toward higher education institutions to increase the use of OER has grown dramatically in the past decade.  For detail, read any number of the excellent research reports on the growth of OER by Julia E. Seaman and Jeff Seaman.1  These grants, from government (state and federal) and private, non-profits, have been used to fund research into OER efficacy, centers for teaching and learning, new staff positions focused on increasing the use of OER, and websites and web services for the aggregation and dissemination of OER.  And the majority of the funds have been, rightly, focused toward the creation of OER.  These funds have been primarily distributed to individual faculty for the development of OER solutions for their courses.  

Faculty grant programs have been successful in reducing student cost, increasing student engagement and success, and in increasing the overall stock of OER.  However, faculty focused on designing their course are not typically thinking about the course taken by students everywhere.  The downside of increasing the stock of OER via faculty grants has been the proliferation of esoteric, non-scalable course solutions, which often have questionable descriptive metadata.  When is a textbook a textbook?  Who decides what a textbook is?  This point brings me to hurdle number two.

The Impact of the Absence of Descriptive Metadata

and Curation Standards:

As a case in point, conduct a search at openstax.org,  merlot.org, and https://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/ for “American History Textbook” and review what is returned.  With the exception of Openstax, the results will yield an array of topics, both far and wide of the curriculum covered in the typical American History course.  And, as you dive deeper into the search results, you will find items indexed as “textbooks” that are not textbooks.

Is it best to throw as wide a net as possible around a search term to yield as many results as possible?  Place yourself in the position of a faculty member who is conducting a search with the thought of replacing her costly textbook with an OER.  This professor does not have the time nor interest in accepting a grant to create an OER.  She is relying on the output of the community and the prior investments of government and private institutions to increase the use of OER.  To be clear, there are excellent OER American History textbooks found at all of these sites, but the process of discovery and validation (again other than at openstax.org), requires patience, diligence, review, and a likely deep read of the textbook before adoption.  This level of engagement is not required of faculty searching for an American History textbook at Pearson, McGraw Hill, or Cengage.  One might argue this is the cost of adopting OER, but it is friction and that defies the broader promise of open in teaching, learning, and research.

The Challenge of Adopting an OER Textbook without the Standard Package of Teaching Support Resources:

Commercial textbook publishers invest significant resources and development energy into a support package for teaching and learning for all introductory textbooks.  In recent years, the  Edtech industry focus has been on the courseware, designed by leading thinkers in learning theory that is inclusive of assessment, content, and developed with learner-responsive adaptive pathways through course objectives.  But this must not cloud the essential role of instructor’s manuals, textbook-aligned presentation outlines (think prebuilt PowerPoint slides), pre-written test banks that are machine gradable, and even videos that align to key learning objectives. 

The majority of OER textbooks do not include any of these critical support components, let alone all of the basic set of instructor manual, test item file, and PowerPoint slide presentation.  Openstax has made an effort to provide the package of resources required by faculty, but then Openstax organizes and operates like its commercial competitors, making it the exception to the rule that proves my point about the present OER landscape.  Along with ease of search and results that point to a reliable and vetted course-aligned textbook, this basic set of teaching resources is “table stakes” if we want OER adoption to scale fast and wide.

I will conclude by offering what I believe is required to create a context where OER could become the standard for course design rather than the insurgent, disorganized alternative.  First, funding agencies must require that investment in OER creation is deployed to create universally useful textbooks with complete teaching and learning resource packages similar to that provided by commercial Edtech companies.  Second, an organization with deep experience in indexing, metadata creation, aggregation, and curation needs to design a destination that sets the standard for all others.  A faculty member on the cusp of adopting OER as a course solution should be able to go to one website, find an accurate, reliable, and curated list of textbooks, and see immediately that it is a comprehensive teaching and learning solution.  


1. Opening the Textbook Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2017 or Digital Texts in the Time of COVID: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2020.


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