Wednesday, April 19, 2017 News

Stars Align for OER Expansion at University of Calgary

Open Education

Students at the University of Calgary let their feelings about the high cost of textbooks become known — and the administration listened. Their “#textbookbroke” campaign and advocacy efforts helped spur a comprehensive Open Educational Resources initiative at the 30,000-student Canadian university starting in July 2017.

The university has committed to spending $60,000 on a one-year pilot program to hire graduate and undergraduate students to create an infrastructure that encourages and supports the adoption of OER. The three-pronged approach includes staffing an advocacy team to increase awareness of OER, identifying possible OERs that match course requirements, and providing peer reviews of these resources.

“This model really encompasses the entire campus community,” says Brady Yano, Assistant Director of Open Education for SPARC. “Their collaborative approach brought together a number of campus stakeholders and effectively broke down any existing silos.”

While there had been interest in OER among some faculty at Calgary, it was students who truly championed the issue, says Lynn Taylor, UCalgary’s Vice Provost Teaching and Learning, whose office is funding the pilot with money she allocated in her budget.  “Students don’t ask for learning initiatives very often. It’s usually professors. This was really a social action movement. It was the students who were persistent,” she says. “Students are very animated about more cost effective and free resources.”

For the past year, Alicia Lunz has been the Vice President Academic of the Students’ Union at the university where she inherited the OER advocacy issue. The 25-year-old nursing student said she had her eyes opened to the potential of OER attending the “Festival of Learning” event last summer in Burnaby, British Columbia, where post-secondary educators, leaders and staff gather to collaborate on a variety of issues.

In September, she helped organize the affordable textbook campaign where students leaving the campus bookstore wrote on a public whiteboard how much they were spending on textbooks, generating publicity and enthusiasm for free digital resources.

Lunz then came to Washington and attended OpenCon, hosted by SPARC and the Right to Research Coalition, in November 2016 and was further inspired. “It was such a good experience. OpenCon lit a fire for me,” says Lunz.  Hearing how others had struggled on their campuses, yet found ways to move the OER agenda forward, encouraged her to pursue different pathways for support from the administration.

At UCalgary, an OER committee includes administrators, professors, librarians, people with technical expertise, and students. Lunz says she formed a good working relationship with Taylor, which helped move the process along. Together, the group realized that just offering grants for OER was not sufficient, the institutional infrastructure was missing.  “It was a glaring hole in our approach before,” says Taylor. “You can’t think with a fund, OER will magically happen….We realized we needed leadership, advocacy, and a plan.”

The university hired a team of three active OER practitioners to work as advocates (two have Ph.D.s and one is a Ph.D. candidate), promoting OER adoption and adaption with faculty across the university beginning July 1. They will help break down barriers and misconceptions, such as the impression that OERs are not high quality, and educate professors about open licensing, says Taylor.

The pilot will also employ 10 undergraduate students, who will work in pairs, reviewing available OER to match with outlines professors are using on campus. Another 10 graduate students will be hired to do peer reviews of the OERs. Taylor says the hope is to create a network of resources and form a community involved in OER, using the best materials. In addition to saving students money, she says OER can help professors customize learning materials and keep resources updated.

“Our aspiration is that we will see an uptick, especially in large enrollment classes, in professors who adopt OER and adapt it for their learning context,” says Taylor. The first phase of the OER initiative will be assessed for its impact and the results will ultimately be made available to others interested in replicating the model.

The library, too, is an important resource to the campus in the expansion of OER, says Susan Powelson, associate university librarian in technology, discovery and digital services at the UCalgary, who serves on the university OER committee.  Librarians can answer questions about licensing and copyright, provide outreach to faculty and help provide the infrastructure for content through the institutional repository.  “The library is key on these initiatives,” she says. “We can help with the knowledge brokering piece — knowing who is working on what.”

The OER initiative at UCalgary came together because of the desire by so many on campus to support students, who were so passionate about the issue.  “It’s a social good, but it’s the students who are the ones that created the momentum,” says Powelson. While lessons can be learned from their model, Powelson acknowledges that every campus is unique and OER programs need to be tailored to the institution.

Lunz’ term with the Student Union concludes this spring, but she plans to follow the pilot closely to ensure it succeeds. “I’m excited it finally happened. Students can make an impact,” says Lunz. Her advice to other student leaders: “What’s the harm in asking? Have a well-thought out proposal and do your research.”


-Caralee Adams

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