A Future Focused on the Human Core of Open: Imagining a More Inclusive 2036

Open Call

Author: Sarah Crissinger, Scholarly Communication Librarian, Indiana University, United States

Librarians spend a lot of time talking about the future, which sometimes means that we overlook the importance of what is happening right now. I often wonder how different every “future of libraries” or “future of scholarly communication” talk would look if it started with a reflection of where we are currently. Reflection might prompt us to articulate where we’re stuck, critique our progress, and thoughtfully consider how we might intentionally work toward a future that we’re invested in. Thus, before providing an answer for what the future of open education might look like, I want to consider where the open education movement is in this moment.

Right now, we see example after example of the open education movement being centered on cost. From fact sheets to executive summaries, OER are inextricably married to rising textbook costs. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition’s (SPARC) OER Fact Sheet serves as just one example of this. Under “Why are Open Educational Resources important?,” the emphasized answer is, predictably, “the cost of college textbooks has risen rapidly.”

There are structural repercussions for this focus on cost. As a result of the (valid) concern regarding course material cost, we see resources, time, and energy invested in disciplines where costs are high. Thus, several introductory OER have been developed for STEM, business, and other areas where cost savings can be demonstrated. Course materials for large lectures at research universities are prioritized, as they have the ability illustrate the greatest impact.

Proof of this trend lives in our OER repositories. Searching for OER—particularly open textbooks—for general education courses in physics, biology, and chemistry is fairly straightforward. Searching for humanities materials, or materials for more specialized or niche subject areas, is nearly impossible. There are a whole host of reasons for this, including humanities courses not using textbooks heavily. But it is worth considering how conversations about cost shape our practices and influence who participates in the open education movement. For example, Rajiv Jhangiani has noted that a “narrow focus on cost savings is immediately less relevant in countries where faculty are less reliant on expensive textbooks” (para 1).

Interestingly, while cost dominates our conversations, sustainability isn’t discussed enough. In 2013, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation identified lack of sustainable funding as a barrier to reaching mainstream adoption. They note that the “movement’s current reliance on private capital and philanthropic funding leave it exposed if current levels of support diminish quickly” (pg. 15). They predict that the movement will move beyond this hurdle as funding sources diversify and governments become more invested in openness. That has happened, in part. Since the publication of Downes’ 2007 article on OER sustainability, we see more successful examples of viable funding structures within the taxonomy that they propose. For example, the membership model has worked extremely well for the Open Textbook Network. Still, we must continually consider the sustainability of the funding models and reward structures for creating and adopting OER. Who has the privilege of participating in these funding and reward structures?

Moreover, sustainability is about more than funding. As a librarian, I often think about the (lack of) long-term preservation of the OER that we create. When we talk about the 5 R’s, the conversation is usually centered on the intellectual property license that objects are shared under. But the 5 R’s are also made possible (or impossible) by the technology that each OER is built upon. It’s worth asking: is an OER truly open if it is shared in an almost-obsolete, proprietary, or incompatible file format? Is it an OER if others will not be able to use it after five years? How is openness compromised if the OER is not preserved? Librarians have contributed expertise in metadata, copyright, and scholarly communication to the open education movement. What if we collaborated with our archivist colleagues to also contribute expertise in digital preservation? My colleague Madison Sullivan and I proposed a poster presentation on this topic for the American Library Association meeting in June 2017. We believe that librarians’ commitment to preserving digital assets, combined with our skepticism of corporate interests, is integral to making sure that OER are accessible for years to come.

While there are imperfections in open education, we have built a solid foundation for the future. The movement has saved students millions of dollars. Through research, we continue to learn more about the connection between OER adoption and student success and retention, as well as faculty perceptions of OER. Open pedagogy continues to gain traction and more conversations are centering on student involvement in the creation and revision of OER.[1] The movement has even started to gain structural governmental buy-in: the Affordable College Textbook Act was introduced in the Senate in 2015.

And yet, in many ways, when I think of the future of this movement, I reflect on how we have built an airplane that we are still driving on the road. I am, of course, riffing off David Wiley’s 2013 post on open pedagogy, in which he holds that using OER in the same manner  in which we have used traditional textbooks misses the point. I would argue that this is also true of the larger open education movement. We have saved students money, and that is important, imperative work for not only first-generation students from low-income backgrounds, like myself, but for all students. But we could be flying. We could be including more students, the future of the open movement, in the creation of OER. We could be pushing back on the textbook as the only learning object that we invest in. We could be creating sustainable infrastructure to make open last. The open education movement has built something truly great, but how do we make it more impactful?

I think that one answer—the answer that I’m invested in working toward—is a future that is centered on what Mike Caulfield calls the “human core” of open. Mike uses this term to describe the connection between open pedagogy and student belonging, students’ increased sense of relevance, and better representation of diverse experiences and voices, all of which might improve retention. I often feel a rift within the open education community. This divide lives in our practices and ethos but also on Twitter, at our conferences, and even in our scholarship. There are open education practitioners who believe that lowering costs is the goal of our work and is the core of the social justice bent that open provides. There are other practitioners who rally around open pedagogy and the transformative learning that open enables. While a few sessions at OpenEd16 started to dig deeper into how we can have both “Free and Freedom” and think instead about developing “an ethics for open education” that unites all of our work, I still think that this divide is alive and well. What if the framing of a “human core” was the answer? What if, for the future of open education, we decided that focusing on students and their well-being, in all its forms, was our work?

I believe that if we focus on enacting the human core of open, we’ll see the following:

  • Students, the future of our scholarly communication system and openness, will become true partners and creators. Through open pedagogy, we will make OER creation and re-mixing “seam-y, not seamless” (see reference to this here). Once we center students, we inevitably center labor. We name the challenges to access. We shed light on the structures that enable creation and reuse. We challenge students to seriously consider their own intellectual property as worthy and important, making them more informed digital citizens ready to critically consider sharing their intellectual property.
  • We put a higher value on enabling students to see themselves and their experience reflected, as well as represented. Mike mentions “forking” in his keynote—the ability to adapt OER to fit a specific context and students’ needs. Once we place more value on the technology and culture shift needed to support forking, we can start to use the 5 R’s to their greatest potential (right now, there feels like there’s a lot of reuse but little else). As a result, in addition to OER consumption, we move toward creation and, more importantly, community.
  • Finally, we recognize that the open education movement is not just about the “human core” that accesses or uses OER. It’s also about the people that make, revise, promote, adopt, and write about OER and open pedagogy. We think more critically about recognizing all of the labor that goes into our work—from librarians creating metadata, to instructional technologists promoting Pressbooks, to faculty sharing their subject expertise in the open. This is a critical piece that I see missing from the movement right now. If we don’t start talking about who enables this work and what reward structures (compensation or otherwise) they work within, we will not grow. This movement is about people as much as it is about things.

These changes ask us to shift our values from being solely focused on an end product—the cost-saving OER—to emphasize both product and process. Once this shift happens, the open education community, which sometimes feels insular and exclusive, will broaden. The audience for this movement will expand. If human is the core of the future of the open education movement, the diversity of who participates, what institutions are represented, and what OER even are will inevitably increase.

Once the audience expands, disciplines represented and types of learning objects will diversify. We will think about, in addition to the textbook, potentially using open data and open access materials as OER in higher-level, more niche courses in order to see a greater impact. We will include institutions that haven’t historically participated at scale, including liberal arts colleges, as sites for open pedagogy exploration and reimagining what OER can be. We will push the boundaries of OER to include concept maps, digital projects, and podcasts in addition to traditional course materials like textbooks and problem sets.

Why can’t we have both/and? I was a bit of an open pedagogy purist before OpenEd 2016. Even though I’m a first-generation student, the kinds of pedagogy that open enables are much more exciting to me than cost savings. I sometimes found the fixation on cost, combined with the selling of open as a simplified solution to so many complex problems, uncompelling. Then I listened to Sara Goldrick-Rab’s keynote and reflected on the current financial privilege that I operate within. Our students make huge sacrifices to purchase course materials. Their lives, which extend way beyond the classroom, often include childcare, multiple jobs, and supporting parents and other family members. Saving them money is absolutely part of the “human core” of open.

But it’s worth asking, what would the future of open education look like if we could extend the human core and come together under a shared ethos?

[1] When I attended OpenEd in 2015, I was disappointed in the lack of conversations happening around open pedagogy. OpenEd 2016 opened with an open pedagogy showcase. This is a good illustration of how the conversation is beginning to shift.

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This work by Sarah Crissinger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

2 comments… add one
  • Robin DeRosa Sep 20, 2017 Link Reply

    I just read this again and I am still so grateful for Sarah’s thoughtfulness. So much coheres in this piece for me. I’m grateful to have it to return to when trying to steady the vision that guides my own work.

    • Sarah Crissinger Hare Oct 18, 2017 Link Reply

      Robin, I just saw your comment to this post. Thank you for your words of encouragement and gratitude–it’s humbling to hear that this has inspired you! I also return to it from time to time to compare the work that I’m doing to this vision.

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