Home 9 Uncategorized 9 The Future of Teaching is Outside the Textbook:  OER and Learning Objects

The Future of Teaching is Outside the Textbook:  OER and Learning Objects

by | Feb 13, 2023 | 0 comments


By Andrea Eastman-Mullins  (Founder / CEO, West End Learning) 

Against the Grain v34#6

Affordable learning has captured libraries’ attention over the past ten years.  Even before COVID, 78% of all U.S. academic libraries supported course materials1 and nearly half listed Open Educational Resources (OER) as a top priority.2

Learning content found openly or through the library can save students significant cost over commercial curriculum.  SPARC estimates that adopting OER has saved students an average of $160 per course and over $1 billion worldwide so far.  There are pedagogical benefits too.  The ability to revise and remix digital content licensed for reuse encourages more effective teaching over static copyright-restrictive textbooks.  Faculty can customize content to make classes more inclusive, learner-centered, and social.  Aggregate studies show OERs to be equally or more effective than commercial curriculum in achieving learning outcomes.3

Most libraries support affordable learning through the lens of books — offering textbooks on reserve, ordering eBooks for courses, and advocating for OER textbooks.  Yet faculty are teaching with learning content beyond the book.  Digital learning objects like videos, podcasts, interactive quizzes, case studies, etc. can have the same impact on student outcomes, are less expensive to create, and are growing in use.  Since this content doesn’t follow traditional models, faculty are designing their own materials and sharing ideas in ways that are often temporal and siloed.  Lacking a reliable way to find relevant learning resources, faculty often become frustrated and revert to commercial curriculum, placing the costs back on students who need support the most.

At West End Learning we see a future where learning materials are free for students, modular, and easily shared.  We consult with like-minded faculty, libraries, and organizations trying innovative approaches to get there.  We see firsthand the challenges faculty face evaluating these learning materials and the opportunities libraries have to support this shift.  Learning content other than textbooks has enormous potential to improve teaching and student affordability, but it needs discovery, trust, and recognition.  By reallocating some of the attention spent on books to modular or microlearning content, libraries can empower faculty to move much more quickly.

Energy Spent on Textbooks

Nationally the most federal and private OER funding goes to open textbook initiatives.  The U.S. Department of Education issues grants for $6-7 million annually for OER textbook adoption programs4 and has funded $17M on OER textbooks so far.  OpenStax out of Rice University has raised millions over the past 10 years from federal grants and private donations to produce over 40 OER textbooks, now used in over 60% of U.S. higher education institutions.  The Open Education Network (previously the Open Textbook Network), an index of OER textbooks, now catalogs over 1,000 open textbooks in its library.

But OERs aren’t just textbooks.  UNESCO defines OER as “learning, teaching and research materials in any format and medium that reside in the public domain or are under copyright that have been released under an open license, that permit no-cost access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution by others.”5

Textbooks are a natural first step into affordable learning as most digital transformations initially replicate the print experience.  Books provide a precedent for peer-review, publication, and context for instructors to apply concepts in the classroom.  But they are also the most time-intensive and expensive learning materials to produce.  On average a textbook costs $18,000 to create over a two- to three-year period.  The time to develop a textbook dates content, and faculty must make a sustained time commitment to the project.  Updates are either community-driven or require additional grant funding to resources. 

What’s more, faculty are evolving their way of teaching.  Working with hundreds of educators over the past few years, we have found 100% are teaching with online content that replaces or supplements a textbook.  Faculty surveys by Bay View Analytics show close to 70% of faculty already skip or reorder textbook chapters and more than 40% replace textbook material with other content.6  The COVID era only accelerated this shift with a growing emphasis on video and multimedia.  In medical education and other applied fields, for example, video and emerging VR plays an increasingly vital role.  In fact, the top resource consulted the night before a surgery is YouTube.7  A faculty-created nonprofit, the Neurosurgical Atlas, captures over 600 operative video cases used by 70,000 members globally.8  In the latest ITHAKA faculty survey, more than twice as many faculty report creating open video lectures than open textbooks.9

In addition to tracking OER textbook listings in syllabi, the Open Syllabus Project has begun to identify assigned non-traditional learning materials like podcasts, news articles, and television episodes.  It found episodes of the podcasts This American Life and Radiolab in over 800 syllabi.10  Podcasts are used increasingly in teaching with some faculty helping others discover episodes for use in the classroom.  Dr. Rebecca White, Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Tampa, for example, hosts her own podcast and categorizes the episodes for teaching, using the term “podagogy” for her work.11  Faculty rated freely available online resources as equally important as library materials in the latest ITHAKA faculty survey, which also reports a decline in the interest in monographs.12

So why are most resources allocated to the content that is the most expensive to produce, the most dated, and trending down in use? If our objective is student success in terms of affordability and pedagogy, we need to look beyond the OER textbook. 

The Need for Library Support 

Faculty are forging their own paths outside traditional channels.  The COVID years have created an urgency to redesign courses using not only digital content, but content that engages students who are “mentally, emotionally, and financially drained.”13  Faculty are reporting what the Chronicle of Higher Education calls “a stunning level of student disconnection,”14 which often manifests in low attendance, incomplete homework, and not reading the textbook.  Faculty are taking immediate action and supporting each other, using YouTube, Twitter, email, Zoom chats, and colleagues for resources and ideas.  Countless Google spreadsheets have been created to “capture the ideas shared in this thread,” linking to open articles, syllabi, video, podcasts, and class activities.  They are stored on nonprofit websites, Google Drives, association websites, learning management systems, and personal blogs.  In March 2020, Pandemic Pedagogy emerged as one of hundreds of Facebook and social channels where faculty can exchange ideas.  It now has 31.7k members.  This is the desired path faculty are creating — quick and low-stakes ways to share microlearning content and recommendations between colleagues.  

While this rapid growth can be positive for students, it is problematic for discovery and equitable access to these valued materials long-term.  In the courses West End Learning has helped redesign, we’ve seen faculty struggle to find something as simple as a short video giving an overview of speech pathology to non-majors or a class activity for undergraduates that focuses on women in management.  The content is there, but finding the right material for a specific teaching need is a time-consuming project, overly reliant on serendipity.


With over 70 OER sites to search and thousands of discipline-specific micro collections, faculty lack an efficient way to discover learning objects and OER.  The underlying metadata is weak and inconsistent with over 200 fields of unstructured metadata.  Despite past attempts, there is no prevailing platform that includes both OER and materials licensed by academic libraries, which can also save student cost.  Many studies show time as the most significant barrier to adoption of OER with some reporting it takes over 160 extra hours to develop a course using these materials.

Many think that Google would be a sufficient discovery tool, but finding teaching materials requires much more than just a search.  While looking for topics, faculty are also assessing quality, fit for course level, reputation of source, length, overlap with existing material, how current and engaging it is, and how to teach with it.  It’s not just time-consuming, it’s “mind-consuming,” as several OER advocates have described.  Despite efforts of MERLOT, Open Education Network, and many others, there is no accepted quality standard equivalent to textbook peer review.  The original materials can be out of date, use old technologies, lack high-quality scientific artwork, or contain errors.  The only way to vet this material is to fully view it, which is time prohibitive for most educators.  Faculty who are teaching a topic for the first time or librarians supporting faculty outside their subject expertise need an established vetting process to trust the material.  Despite all the content, OER repositories, and LibGuides developed, most educators just want referrals.  Even librarians–expert in the available tools — ask sometimes more than ten times a week on the OER listserv for recommendations on behalf of faculty.  Teaching requires less content with more trust;  Google has more content with less trust.


Due to the time investment needed to adopt, the best content is missed by those who may need it most.  An adjunct instructor at a community college, for example, is unlikely to spend the time to find an open case study or assignment that best reflects the students in the class.  With even less campus support in the form of staff and course release grants, almost all the work is put on overworked and underpaid faculty.  Since most referrals for content are shared with those in the know of the right listserv, conference, or social media feed, very little is discoverable by those new to the field.  As a result it becomes much easier to assign a commercial curriculum that provides teaching guidance.  Yet, that often pushes the cost back to the students who are least able to cover it.  On the occasion that faculty are able to put in the work, they have even less time to ensure it is shared with others.  Author perspectives can therefore be limited to faculty with the privilege of time and institutional funding to support their work.  

Evolving Support Beyond Textbooks

Requiring a considerable time commitment with little return in royalties or tenure, OER is the open movement with the most headwind against faculty.  Yet faculty are vital to its adoption.  How can libraries innovate to support faculty best?

Solutions will require us to think differently.  Moving from an $8 billion student-funded textbook industry to an affordable learning model is a complex challenge with many overlapping systems in play including industry, bookstores, libraries, teaching and learning centers, administration, funders, students, and faculty.  Solving a complex problem is an unknown path.  It requires creative thinking and small experiments that break from what has worked before.  What are some experiments we can learn from?

To help with discovery, librarians are working to unify repositories through federated search via the George Mason OER Metafinder15 or metadata standards such as the OER Rosetta Stone16 developed in 2021 by the SPARC-facilitated OER Discovery Working Group.  Although useful to strengthen the OER infrastructure, faculty still need more context to determine what to use when they find teaching materials.

Many libraries have dedicated OER staff and/or are allocating increasing time to OER programs and LibGuides.  A Google search of .edu sites mentioning LibGuide and OER found 39,000 pages, showing considerable work supporting OER discovery.  LibGuides have been a natural start, but now we are learning that faculty need help at the discipline and item level.  A listing of databases works well for comprehensive research but less so for teaching which needs curation and pedagogical context.  At OpenEd 2022, Grand Valley State University library shared their work developing a custom curation service for faculty.  Evolving it to scale to support many courses led them to clarify the process and involve student workers.  The revised approach reduced the workload from an average of up to seven hours to up to three hours per curation.17

Most libraries would struggle to allocate enough resource and subject-specific expertise to curate open content at that level.  And faculty typically turn to teaching colleagues in their own field rather than to the library.  The need for recommendations within the discipline has led scholarly associations and societies to curate teaching materials.  In response to COVID, the American Historical Association launched a collection of vetted Remote Teaching Resources18 organized by geography, theme, and time period with the support of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) CARES Grant.  Many associations, including our client, USASBE, the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship, feature teaching sections at their annual conference and share learning assets for reuse between members.  Associations are a trusted discipline-specific home for recommendations and often can provide context of how to teach with the material.

Recognizing the need to further curate modular learning objects and the silos of local curations, the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management (ISKME) received an IMLS grant to pilot new tools to enable libraries to share local OER evaluation and course alignment data.  They are now piloting the project with OER Commons partners, LOUIS, VIVA and OhioLINK and three external consortia, PALNI, PALCI, and DigiTex.  We can follow results of this pilot through 2023.19

Aligning OER to learning objectives will become easier as technology and metadata standards evolve.  Experiments have already succeeded using natural language processing to align structured data in Wikipedia and textbooks to course objectives.20  The Open Syllabus Project is working to automatically extract learning objectives from syllabi on a large scale.21  As OER metadata and infrastructure matures, the data will be there to automatically align affordable learning content to more than just topic and format.

How much faster could we go if we repurposed a percentage of the resources allocated to books to these ideas?  Through our clients at West End Learning, we see how libraries can be a key participant in affordable curriculum design.  Sustainable solutions will be cooperations between libraries, industry, faculty development, publishers, and discipline-specific organizations.  Sharing the results from all our innovations will advance our work.  Conferences like OpenEd, Educause, OLC Accelerate, and library meetings are facilitating communication between these voices.  How can we think beyond the textbook in our next OER projects?  


1. https://www.libraryjournal.com/story/libraries-play-a-key-role-in-campus-oer-adoption

2. https://sr.ithaka.org/publications/ithaka-sr-us-library-survey-2019

3. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11423-019-09700-4

4. https://www2.ed.gov/programs/otp/awards.html

5. https://www.unesco.org/en/open-educational-resources

6. Bay View Analytics, Freeing the Textbook, 2018.  https://www.bayviewanalytics.com/reports/freeingthetextbook2018.pdf

7. Allison K. Rapp, Michael G. Healy, Mary E. Charlton, Jerrod N. Keith, Marcy E. Rosenbaum, Muneera R. Kapadia, YouTube is the Most Frequently Used Educational Video Source for Surgical Preparation.  Journal of Surgical Education, Volume 73, Issue 6, 2016, p. 1072-1076.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsurg.2016.04.024

8. https://www.neurosurgicalatlas.com/

9. ITHAKA U.S. Faculty Survey, 2021.  https://sr.ithaka.org/publications/ithaka-sr-us-faculty-survey-2021/#teaching-and-learning

10. https://blog.opensyllabus.org/your-favorite-episode/

11. https://drrebeccawhite.com/

12. ITHAKA U.S. Faculty Survey, 2021.  https://sr.ithaka.org/publications/ithaka-sr-us-faculty-survey-2021/#teaching-and-learning

13. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/04/19/survey-college-students-reflect-mental-health-and-campus-help

14. https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-stunning-level-of-student-disconnection Beth McMurtrie APRIL 5, 2022.

15. https://mom.gmu.edu

16. OER Rosetta Stone, OER Working Group, https://docs.google.com/document/d/14tYwNEzr1EKMJAEDHVx2BXeyXFCCSCLGea1lCuySkZE/edit#heading=h.xbfhehpfr3vt

17. Matt Ruen, Chealsye Bowley, and Erica Schiller, Launching an OER Curation Service and Framework, OpenEd2022, https://opened22.sched.com/event/977fd928716bd84f49f17e030853e7ea

18. https://www.historians.org/research-and-publications/remote-teaching-resources

19. https://www.imls.gov/grants/awarded/lg-246327-ols-20

20. A. Siren and V. Tzerpos, “Automatic Learning Path Creation Using OER: A Systematic Literature Mapping,” in IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 493-507, 1 Aug. 2022, DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1109/TLT.2022.3193751.

21. https://blog.opensyllabus.org/a-national-learning-outcome-map/


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