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Pressbooks Reflects on a Growing Movement and How Librarians Can Move OER Forward

by | May 9, 2022 | 0 comments


By Leigh Kinch-Pedrosa  (Pressbooks)  and Travis Wall  (Pressbooks) 

Against the Grain V34#2

The open education movement has been around for over two decades, with much of its early efforts emerging out of the work of the Hewlett Foundation, David Wiley, and other innovators.  In 2014, creators of open educational resources (OER) — like Lumen Learning, run by David Wiley, and BCcampus, an organization that supports post-secondary learners and institutions in British Columbia, Canada — started using Pressbooks to create and optionally host their content.  These people and organizations saw the absurd rate at which the price of textbooks was growing, the impacts those prices had on the quality of students’ lives, and the challenges these costs present faculty in their choice of material.  They found an alternative:  free and open textbooks hosted natively on the web.  Not only did these early adopters concern themselves with the cost of textbooks, but they also made transparency of the publishing process a key element of their best practices, thus ensuring the quality of OER could be assessed by librarians and faculty who might adopt and adapt those materials.  Eight years after those early adopters began their OER creation projects, Pressbooks now hosts OER for over 100 institutions across North America.

From our vantage point as an outside vendor that has grown up alongside a nascent OER movement, we’ve watched the work of multiple OER hubs — higher education institutions and their libraries like University of California-Berkeley, Michigan State University, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Ryerson University, and many more — as they grow, iterate, and collaborate.  Librarians have been the driving force behind the open education movement since the very beginning, having managed to start, fund, and manage OER publishing programs all over the world.  They have worked tirelessly to create, distribute, and advocate for OER.  But there’s still so much to do.

This article — positioned from the standpoint of an outside organization supporting the work behind OER — will briefly describe OER as a solution to problems of cost and accessibility faced by students, faculty, and librarians; highlight areas for improvement in OER creation with the goal of improving its viability; and encourage librarians to integrate OER into their workflows.  The goal of this overview is not to encourage educators and librarians to renounce traditional publishing models or abandon existing methods for creating collections.  Instead, we propose that, by including OER in the development of syllabi and collections — whether that is by adapting established content or creating new OER — faculty and librarians can improve access to affordable, approachable, and relevant educational materials.

Those who work in academic libraries — as well as the faculty and students they serve — are keenly aware of the problem of cost in higher education.  Textbooks, online exercises, and Learning Management Systems (LMS) can be prohibitively expensive, especially when many students already struggle to pay tuition.  When building syllabi, faculty have to strike a balance between providing a robust selection of learning materials and the cost of said materials.  Equally, librarians must make careful decisions when creating collections that not only take the content into account but that are attentive to the institution’s budget.

The open movement has emerged as a way of addressing this ongoing challenge by tackling costs through pragmatic grassroots efforts, such as workshops, university pilot projects, collectively developed textbooks, and other collaborative endeavors to share open resources in and out of educational institutions.  In recent years, these grassroots efforts have become increasingly common and accepted approaches in higher education, and OER has consequently found a place as an integral part of institutional strategies.

With this history in mind, advocates for open education like Pressbooks ask “why not adopt, adapt, or create your own content?”  As the price of learning resources and the cost of growing and maintaining collections remains high, educators and librarians can achieve a lot by taking an open approach.  The right open tool can equip libraries to address crucial accessibility issues from the high cost of textbooks to the paywalls impeding students and researchers from accessing the materials they need to succeed academically.  As an established partner for library publishers working to advance open principles, Pressbooks offers free and low-cost eBook creation and content hosting solutions that can help librarians develop and circulate valuable resources to the students and faculty they serve.  When Hugh McGuire first launched Pressbooks’ core open-source product, the Authoring & Editing Platform, the use case he envisioned was not in the education space.  He imagined small presses using the platform to produce books in multiple formats.  But, when the need became clear, he pivoted to the education space, hiring Steel Wagstaff to help shape the product for the needs of open education practitioners.  Wagstaff, who holds a Masters of Library Information Studies, was an early adopter of Pressbooks in the higher education space, using the software for his open education work as the instructional technology consultant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Informed by the work of Wagstaff and his peers at other institutions of higher education as well as McGuire’s knowledge of open source software and community building, Pressbooks integrated open practices — like the use of open licenses, the ability to easily clone and adapt material, and the high importance of accessible design — into the design of the software, providing a low-cost solution to the high cost of educational material.

There are a few definitions of OER that circulate in open education and open access circles.  Foremost among them is that of David Wiley, Chief Academic Officer at Lumen Learning, which uses the “5Rs” to define the ways practitioners engage with open content:  the right to retain, revise, remix, reuse, and redistribute content that is released under an open license or is public domain.1  Another commonly cited definition comes from UNESCO and contextualizes OER within the different kinds of content:  “Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning and research materials in any medium — digital or otherwise — that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.  OER form part of ‘Open Solutions,’ alongside Free and Open Source software (FOSS), Open Access (OA), Open Data (OD) and crowdsourcing platforms.”2  These definitions help us see some of the common use cases of OER, including open pedagogical projects that incorporate contributions from students, localizations of major open-licensed textbooks, and the addition of interactive activities using webbooks in place of homework platforms.  This proliferation of ideas, goals, and formats has allowed for some incredible work in pedagogy and publishing.  There is a whole network of open educators — many of whom have found each other on Twitter, at conferences, and in library email listservs — who are working together to test new ways to use OER to achieve their goals.  And, because they collaborate between institutions in community of practice, they draw on multiple perspectives to enact the possibilities of OER.

Given that the open publishing process does not always include editors, peer review programs, and other elements of book production, some might wonder how practitioners ensure the quality of OER.  The reality is that it is ensured the same way it would be in a traditional publishing house, albeit out in the open, which arguably assures greater accountability.  Take peer review for instance.  Rebus Community (the executive director of the Rebus Foundation is also the chief executive officer of Pressbooks) outlines the peer review process in The Rebus Guide to Publishing Open Textbooks (So Far),3 a repository of collective knowledge around OER publishing.  The Open Education Network offers further guidance in their Pub 101 course.4  These are but two examples of resources that instruct OER creators on how to conduct a transparent peer review process, which ultimately allows the open process to be more accountable than traditional peer review.  OER is also subject to classroom and accessibility reviews.  It is common practice for creators to include review statements within books so that librarians and the faculty they support can make their own determinations around the validity and rigor of the review process.  In short, OER is subject to the same quality checks as traditional textbooks, but practitioners are often more transparent about the kinds of reviews that the materials have undergone.

Another great strength of OER is its use of open licenses, which are what enable its thriving community of academics, librarians, instructional designers, and other researchers to iterate on each other’s work.  Open licenses, or Creative Commons licenses, have fewer restrictions than traditional copyright.  While the exact restrictions are specified by the author, they typically allow the original work to be copied and modified.  This gives OER creators the freedom to build upon existing work.  For instance, a textbook might be developed by faculty at one university, reworked for the curriculum at another, and a third might add instructional videos or other content.  It ultimately results in a project that is greater than any individual institution might have the resources to produce.  OER platforms like Pressbooks make it easy for users to clone existing OER and modify them as necessary.  When content is cloned, the license is cloned too (unless the content is All Rights Reserved, in which case the cloning capabilities are not enabled) and information about the book’s source is automatically added to the book information that is visible to all readers.  OER creators also have the option of mixing and matching content, taking parts from a variety of resources and putting them together in the form of a new book.  All of this is powered by the people who create or contribute to these resources.

OER already offer incredible features for incorporating content like quizzes, flashcards, interactive videos, and other elements that educators can use as formative assessments into their courses.5  As part of the H5P PB Kitchen program run by BCcampus, the nursing textbook Vital Sign Measurement Across the Lifespan received an update that added 122 activities, changing the textbook from a flat webbook into an interactive piece of courseware similar to homework platforms offered by traditional textbook publishers.6  Textbooks like these make it possible for faculty to provide a free or affordable alternative to “inclusive access” options provided by traditional textbook publishers, which offer webbook versions of their textbooks, enhanced with interactive activities, and are billed automatically to all students enrolled in the course for which the book is assigned.  Although inclusive access is less expensive than the large hardback books, it comes with its own problems, including limited, time-bound access (i.e., students only have access to the material during the time they are enrolled in the class), and a lack of control around how to buy and use the resource (students cannot purchase the material second-hand, share it with others, or resell it after).7  With interactive open textbooks like Vital Sign Measurement Across the Lifespan, students get unlimited access to material and can assess their learning in a variety of modes, and faculty can remix and revise the content to suit their classroom contexts.

Of course, there are problems with open educational resources that remain unresolved.  There is significant labor in the creation of open textbooks that falls primarily on the instructing faculty and their supporting librarians (see Rebus Community’s Office Hours discussion on the “Invisible Labour of OER” for accounts of the work various OER creators and support staff contributed).8  Many OER are funded by small grants provided by libraries, many of which cannot cover the entire scope of the costs that go into the creation or adaptation of these resources.  Furthermore, OER do not have the marketing resources their competitors in the traditional publishing world can deploy.  Finally, much of the metadata associated with these resources is created by the authors and may be incomplete, making it difficult to index the resources within the systems of many academic libraries.  The full text may not be searchable, and without complete metadata, finding the right OER can be a challenge.

There are several ways that OER can improve in the near term.  First, having complete metadata is a simple way to enhance OER’s discoverability.  Complete and accurate metadata also allows for advanced search tools, which empower librarians and faculty to sift through an ever-growing list of OER to find just the right resource.  With consistent metadata, OER could be better integrated into traditional library indices as well, eliminating the need to search a variety of different portals.  While there are many ways to encourage creators to complete their metadata, simply emphasizing its importance would be an easy start.  Librarians play a pivotal role in providing guidance to faculty and are in an ideal position to remind them to think beyond their own use case: Although a project may be intended just for a single course, there is a whole community of OER creators who may also benefit from that same resource.  Metadata such as the subject and a clear description can help others find it when the time comes.

Another opportunity for improvement is through better version tracking.  The ability to facilitate iteration and collaboration is one of OER’s great strengths, and version tracking would allow us to get a clearer view of all the incredible ways that creators have adapted or modified OER to suit their needs.  Finally, as the interactive features available for OER continue to be developed, it will become even easier to use OER in the same way that the big publishers have created homework platforms.  Many instructors have mixed feelings toward their institution’s LMS due to its clunky, complicated controls and feature bloat.  By integrating more coursework into OER, instructors and students could enjoy a simpler, more streamlined way of learning and submitting coursework online.

The more commonplace OER become, the more value they will offer as the OER community, collaborative possibilities, and number of high-quality resources continue to grow.  Academic librarians play a pivotal role in promoting OER among faculty and other library staff.  They are often the first to introduce faculty to the idea of OER, and they are instrumental in suggesting OER for adoption and offering guidance in its creation.  Librarians can make OER a regular part of academic research by including repositories in their libguides and offering short instruction on basics such as open licenses and key benefits.  OER publishing programs can be housed in the library where authors will have access to both the technology and support to help them succeed.  Librarians can also lead by example, actively engaging in the “5Rs” of OER, applying open licenses to their own products, and opting to create or adapt OER for their own projects when appropriate.

The benefits of OER are clear.  There is a thriving community supporting the use and creation of OER.  There is a growing set of best practices behind the work of OER.  The open education movement is well-positioned to improve access to educational material for students and faculty and to improve the quality of those materials for a variety of contexts.  Now, we need more investment from institutions and other granting bodies to support the work of OER creators, researchers, instructors, and other administrative supporters.  Historically, OER practitioners have contributed an excess of hours to the work of OER.  OER is often a passion project done on the side for a small amount of money or as a volunteer effort.  We are seeing OER become a bigger part of library and librarian mandates, but there remains a significant amount of work that is being done for free and outside of job descriptions.  With greater investment in OER, the improvements that need to be made can be made by professionals with the best knowledge and expertise for the task.  Until then, there are small ways folk can contribute.  Become a peer reviewer.  Contribute a chapter.  Add OER repositories and referatories like Pressbooks Directory to your libguides.  There are also more ambitious projects: create a formal OER publishing program, create OER from scratch to fill a content gap where no open resource exists, or advocate for the use and creation of OER in tenure and promotion dossiers.  There are multiple organizations that are set up to help build OER publishing efforts on campus, offering professional development packages — like Rebus Community’s Textbook Success Program which has equipped nearly 150 faculty, librarians, and university staff with OER publishing skills to set up, grow, and sustain their open initiatives at their institutions.  Programs like Rebus’s provide step-by-step methodologies in a group setting so that librarians and faculty can connect to a broader community of practice.  If you do not have the budget for a complete professional development package, there are many free resources that provide guidance for OER practitioners — like The OER Starter Kit by Abbey K. Elder at Iowa State University.  OER has always been the product of a community of passionate educators and librarians.  This community continues to thrive with each contribution, small and large.  


1. OpenContent, accessed February 15, 2022, https://opencontent.org/definition/.

2. “Open Educational Resources (OER).” UNESCO, August 5, 2021.  https://en.unesco.org/themes/building-knowledge-societies/oer.

3. Elizabeth Mays, Apurva Ashok, and Zoe Wake Hyde, “Peer Review Process Guide,” The Rebus Guide to Publishing Open Textbooks So Far (Rebus Community, September 30, 2019), https://press.rebus.community/the-rebus-guide-to-publishing-open-textbooks/chapter/peer-review-process-guide/.

4. “Considering Peer Review: Open Education Network Publishing Cooperative,” University of Minnesota – Canvas (University of Minnesota), accessed February 15, 2022, https://canvas.umn.edu/courses/106630/pages/considering-peer-review.

5. The H5P PB Kitchen, accessed February 15, 2022, https://kitchen.opened.ca/.

6. Kymberley Bontinen et al., Vital Sign Measurement Across the Lifespan 2nd Canadian Edition (BCcampus, January 22, 2021), https://opentextbc.ca/vitalsignmeasurement/.

7. “Decoding ‘Inclusive Access,’” SPARC, accessed February 15, 2022, https://sparcopen.org/our-work/automatic-textbook-billing/.

8. Rebus Community, “Office Hours: The Invisible Labour of OER,” YouTube, April 30, 2019, video, 1:00:58.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fL9Ep56IFH0.


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