3 From Textbook Affordability to Transformative Pedagogy: Growing an OER Community

Jean Amaral

Librarians as Community Leaders in Open Knowledge

Similar to the potential for open access initiatives to position librarians as campus leaders, the open educational resources (OER) movement provides an ideal opportunity for librarians to lead in their communities. OER and libraries reside at the convergence of academic affairs and student affairs, faculty development and student learning. Leading OER initiatives taps librarians’ unique expertise in instructional design, copyright and licensing, collection development and management, and needs assessment. As one of the few institutional entities serving both students and faculty, libraries are perfectly positioned to lead our institutions’ OER programs, with the potential to establish or cement the library as integral to student success initiatives and as an important partner in faculty and curriculum development.

There are many high-visibility library-led programs at R1 universities and prestigious colleges (Salem, 2017) and a growing cadre of community college librarians doing this work (Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources, n.d.). At Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), our Open/Alternative Textbook Program has received the attention of our president, as well as favorable press within and without the college. Similar to OER initiatives at colleges nationwide (Yano, 2017), the BMCC library is leading our community in this effort.

The BMCC Community

The community that the BMCC library serves is both large and diverse. BMCC is one of 24 colleges in the City University of New York (CUNY) system and the largest of the system’s seven community colleges, with over 26,000 undergraduate students enrolled in fall 2016. We are a majority minority college, with students self-identifying as Asian (15%), Black (31%), Hispanic (41%), and White (13%). As well, 54 percent self-identify as first-generation college students; many are immigrants, and some are undocumented (CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 2017).

The college is located in lower Manhattan, three blocks from the World Trade Center and not far from Wall Street. While BMCC is part of Tribeca, one of the most affluent Manhattan neighborhoods minutes away from the seat of unimaginable wealth, in contrast our students mainly come from low socioeconomic status households throughout all five New York City boroughs: 65 percent have an annual household income of less than $25,000, and 83 percent less than $40,000; approximately 65 percent are eligible for Pell grants, a federal income-based student aid, and just under 90 percent are eligible for Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), New York’s income-based aid (BMCC Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Analytics, 2017; CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 2017).

But our students are not numbers. Each is a person facing their own challenges, often making difficult decisions and balancing tough choices, including sometimes, “If I buy my textbooks, will I have enough money for groceries?” As might be expected, the BMCC community, along with the larger CUNY community, is very concerned about and committed to addressing textbook affordability. BMCC faculty make accommodations in classrooms where many students have not purchased the textbook; administrators create programs to address the effects of high-priced course materials on retention and persistence among other barriers, and BMCC librarians maintain textbook reserve programs. None of which gets to the heart of the issue: high-priced textbooks, whether purchased by students, the library, or the institution. Led by the library, the BMCC community has come together, across academic affairs and student affairs, across departments and disciplines, to pursue what we consider a sounder, more sustainable solution with OER. At BMCC this solution involves growing a strong, vibrant OER initiative focused on transformative pedagogy, equity, and student success.

Growing an OER Community

From the Top Down

Several events in the CUNY system contributed to a growing open culture prior to BMCC launching an OER initiative. In 2013, CUNY established a Textbook Savings Committee to explore avenues for lowering textbook costs for students. In these initial discussions, OER was not the focus but one of many options for reducing costs, as described by CUNY’s Associate Vice Chancellor and Chief Information Officer in testimony before a hearing of the New York City Council’s Committee on Higher Education in fall 2014 (New York City Council, 2014). The University had for several years provided students with information through a textbook savings flyer and website, which listed various options for reducing costs. The Textbook Savings Committee also investigated and made recommendations for moving from brick and mortar bookstores to online bookstores that offered reduced pricing models; four CUNY colleges have implemented this since, with several others to follow even though students have expressed dissatisfaction with the online option (Inderjeit, 2016) and preference for a physical bookstore (“York reacts,” 2017).

While replacing one bookstore with another and more expensive textbooks with less can reduce costs for students in the short term, more helpful solutions seek zero cost to students; any cost for materials, even low cost, can be a barrier to learning as evidenced by recent research on food and housing insecurity for students across the country (Goldrick-Rab, 2017). At the committee hearing, the Vice Chancellor for Budget and Finance described CUNY’s efforts to mitigate the impact of textbook costs through financial assistance programs, including funding for library textbook reserves through CUNY’s Student Financial Assistance Initiative, and student retention and success programs, such as Accelerated Studies in Associate Programs (ASAP), which provide students with textbook vouchers (New York City Council, 2014).

Also at the Committee on Higher Education hearing, CUNY’s Dean for Libraries and Information Services testified about the efforts by CUNY Libraries which, similar to the financial assistance programs, focused on eliminating textbook costs for students rather than merely reducing them. CUNY Libraries oversaw the funding to procure textbooks for reserve, purchasing over 30,000 textbooks in 2013–14 which were borrowed more than 380,000 times (New York City Council, 2014). During the 2014–15 academic year, the CUNY Office of Library Services also offered an online OER 101 course to faculty and librarians across the system.1 The first faculty cohort to participate received a $500 stipend, and the second $250; librarians were not remunerated due to contractual constraints. Thirty faculty, two of whom were from BMCC, and 13 librarians completed the course.


The administration’s emphasis has been on reducing textbook costs, while the libraries are committed to ensuring the primary option is to provide no-cost materials. This focus on no-cost specifically includes textbook reserves and OER, but we envision that within the next five to ten years textbook reserves will be eliminated, or at least significantly reduced, as the use of OER for course materials continues to grow. More generally, another important source of no-cost materials is the library’s digital collection, from articles to ebooks to streaming videos. No-cost materials are better understood as no additional cost to students beyond existing tuition and fees. To achieve no cost, BMCC has reallocated funds, such as those used on reserve textbooks, investing them in resources and materials that are available beyond an individual course to the community as a whole (library subscriptions) and globally (OER).

From the Ground Up

While BMCC faculty were for the most part unaware of these CUNY-wide efforts, there were concurrent activities shining light on textbook affordability and open culture on our campus, including a textbook affordability event co-sponsored and co-facilitated by the library and the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) in fall 2014 and a faculty development day on OER and open access in spring 2015. The fall event, entitled “Campus Conversation: Addressing Textbook Affordability,” drew about 40 students, faculty, and staff, providing participants the space for a lively discussion exploring perspectives, frustrations, and possible solutions.

At this event, students quickly framed textbook affordability as a social justice issue relating to access to education generally, not just to textbooks. They also described the catch-22 of not being able to afford books, doing poorly or perhaps failing courses, then having to repeat courses at additional cost. Students wanted faculty to consider their struggles when they were selecting course materials, avoiding options such as bundled books and media or choosing every new edition that comes out. Many students were concerned about the impact on their grades. And the students told poignant stories about worrying that their instructors would think they were less invested in their education when they weren’t able to purchase the textbooks, as well as the difficulty of admitting that they didn’t have the money to buy books.

BMCC Public Affairs highlighted this event in its reporting of campus activities, which provided a visible statement in support of students and faculty looking to address textbook affordability and its impact on learning. It was clear from this event that there was fertile ground for continuing the conversation within the community, especially among faculty who hold the key to transitioning from expensive commercial textbooks to no-cost options.

The faculty development event the following spring, entitled “The Power of Open: Unlocking Your Research and Course Materials for Maximum Impact,” included presentations by librarians and faculty highlighting the benefits and acknowledging the challenges of open, elucidated through their own personal experiences. The presentations were followed by robust group discussions and a Q&A which surfaced faculty concerns, as well as enthusiasm for growing an open culture on campus. The library built on this momentum with an OER presentation at BMCC’s spring 2015 Technology Day. These efforts and events at both CUNY and BMCC were the foundation on which we built our Open/Alternative Textbook Program, beginning with a proposal for a pilot presented to the Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs that was approved in fall 2014.

Initiated and developed by the library, BMCC’s Open/Alternative Textbook pilot was launched with funding from the library’s textbook reserves budget, the use of which had been encouraged and supported by CUNY’s Dean for Libraries and Information Services. The pilot was led by BMCC’s open knowledge librarian in collaboration with the director for the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Scholarship (CETLS). Faculty were recruited through an application process in fall 2014, participated in training workshops in spring 2015, and piloted their zero textbook cost courses the following semester. While the emphasis of the program was on OER, the goal for the program was zero cost to students, which faculty achieved using OER and alternative no-cost materials available through the library and on the Web, or what is often called zero textbook cost (ZTC).

Faculty responded overwhelmingly positively to the pilot in an evaluation, with all of the respondents indicating they would recommend the workshops to colleagues and most indicating they would redesign additional courses using OER. Given this evidence of the pilot’s success with faculty, BMCC’s Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs established the Open/Alternative Textbook Program with the continued leadership of the library and CETLS. The program now receives $30,000/academic year, which funds faculty stipends.

At the end of spring 2017, 75 faculty from 15 of BMCC’s 17 departments had completed training workshops and redesigned at least one section of one course (but often more sections and more courses) replacing commercial textbooks with OER or alternative no-cost materials. As of fall 2017, we estimate that students have saved approximately $1 million. In questionnaire responses, faculty who completed the training described feeling “happier,” “excited,” “energized,” “confident,” and “liberated,” among other positive characterizations, which they shared with colleagues. Enthusiastic word-of-mouth promotion generated much interest in the program, and faculty have been turned away each semester as there are more applications than can be accommodated. As the community continues to grow, we know that we will eventually need to successfully recruit faculty who are significantly skeptical of OER. When we do, we have some confidence that the growing research evidence in support of positive outcomes combined with their colleagues’ often transformative experiences will be convincing and compelling.

The growth of OER at BMCC and CUNY is due in large part to these simultaneous efforts occurring from the ground up and top down. At both the city and state levels, Student PIRGs have been advocating for textbook affordability (New York City Council, 2014; Senack & Donoghue, 2016; Senack, Donoghue, Grant, & Steen, 2016), and their efforts have kept the issue in the forefront. At the same time as this grassroots advocacy, CUNY’s administration continued to be concerned with and address unsustainable textbook costs through cost-reduction tactics. Similarly, at BMCC from the ground up, faculty enthusiastically embraced OER, with crucial program support from the administration and CUNY Office of Library Services. Local funding has since been complemented and exceeded by the investment of foundations and New York State. These myriad stakeholders working on the issue from both the ground up and top down contribute significantly to our continuing success at BMCC, which has led to the inclusion of the OER initiative as one of the strategies in BMCC’s college-wide retention and completion agenda under the category of improving teaching and learning.

Key Community Partnerships

As BMCC’s OER community grows, several key partnerships have been and continue to be fostered. Foremost is the collaboration between the library and CETLS. This synergistic partnership leverages the strengths of each unit. At BMCC prior to the OER program, the library was not well known for faculty development programs, while this is the main focus of CETLS. The OER program has been strengthened by the different perspectives and expertise brought to the planning, implementation, and ongoing improvement by the CETLS director and open knowledge librarian. There is also a natural complement between OER and e-learning, and we are exploring ways to cross-pollinate the training for each of these programs. While other logical partners include instructional design and user experience staff, BMCC does not currently have personnel in these areas.

We also believe there is fruitful potential in partnerships with cohort programs aimed at student retention and success. We’ve begun conversations with ASAP, which provides students with substantial and targeted academic, financial, and personal support. Currently, ASAP provides textbook vouchers that do not always cover the entire cost of required materials; the vouchers are also costly and complicated to manage. OER has the potential to provide a more sustainable and pedagogically innovative alternative. A second cohort program, the BMCC Learning Academy, does not provide vouchers and needs incentives to attract students to the program. If all of their cohort courses were ZTC, this could be used to recruit and retain students.

Partnerships with Student Affairs and Student Government Association are also in their infancy. We know that advisors are instrumental in educating students about ZTC courses, and at BMCC they fully support the program, given that they are the front line for counseling students who are considering dropping out of courses or who are doing poorly because they haven’t been able to access expensive course materials. Continually educating and updating staff and faculty about important initiatives is always a challenge at an institution the size of BMCC, so efforts are ongoing and new strategies are always being considered. Every fall, we also reach out to the incoming members of our Student Government Association encouraging their voice and advocacy for OER, especially with faculty who have not yet embraced ZTC courses. Finally, we are partnering with our Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Analytics (IEA) to assess the impact of ZTC courses and the effectiveness of the Open/Alternative Textbook Program. IEA will examine a number of indicators, including drop-fail-withdraw (DFW) rates, persistence, and time to graduation, among others. All of these partnerships are crucial to the success of the program and to the success of our students.

Moving from Opportunistic to Systematic Growth

When we launched the Open/Alternative Textbook Program at BMCC, we made a strategic decision to focus on zero textbook cost with an emphasis on OER. With 27,000 students, our community needs the largest number of courses possible that do not require purchase of course materials. We found that the most effective way to achieve this goal in terms of recruiting faculty and redesigning courses was through using OER along with other no-cost materials. While growing our OER community from spring 2015 through spring 2017, we welcomed any faculty members who expressed interest in redesigning their courses to achieve zero cost to students. We chose not to focus on specific departments or courses in order to promote as widespread adoption as possible and a campus culture of open. Because of this opportunistic approach and because the number of ZTC courses is currently less than 20 percent of the total number of courses, students may not be able to find a ZTC course that fulfills needed requirements and fits their schedule. With our current program, it would take 15 years to convert 75 percent of the approximately 450 courses offered at BMCC.

Beginning in summer 2016, two additional funding sources have facilitated a concurrent effort that moves us from course by course development to a more systematic approach. The first opportunity to make this shift came with BMCC’s participation in Achieving the Dream’s Open Educational Resources (OER) Degree Initiative,2 which launched in summer 2016. This initiative has the ambitious and laudable goal of boosting “college access and completion, particularly for underserved students, by engaging faculty in the redesign of courses and degree programs through the replacement of proprietary textbooks with open educational resources. Over the next three years, the Open Educational Resources Degree Initiative will lay the groundwork for nationwide adoption of OER Degrees” (Achieving the Dream, n.d.). Through spring 2019, Achieving the Dream is working with 38 community colleges nationwide to create OER degrees that can be adopted and adapted by other colleges across the country. The initiative includes a research component that will assess the program’s goals to reduce student textbook costs and positively impact student success.


CUNY Office of Library Services took the lead on the proposal for the Achieving the Dream grant, which includes two other CUNY campuses, Hostos Community College and Bronx Community College, and is coordinating efforts across the three campuses. BMCC is converting its Criminal Justice Associate in Arts degree, Hostos its Early Childhood Education, and Bronx its General Education with a concentration in history. The criminal justice degree program is BMCC’s second largest after liberal arts, with 2,865 students enrolled in fall 2016. There are 20 courses required for the degree, six within the major. As of fall 2017, all six criminal justice courses will include at least one OER section, with 24 sections being offered across the six courses. The department plans to increase the number of OER sections in each course in the following semesters. The remaining 14 courses across several departments are in the works and will all have OER sections offered by fall 2018. While we expect that the majority of criminal justice course sections will be ZTC by 2020, giving students the possibility of finding sections that fit their schedules, the goal of adequate course sections for meaningful schedule choices will be much more challenging to achieve with general education requirements, given the large number of courses that fulfill these.

Achieving the Dream has taken a holistic approach in working with participants focusing on developing the capacity of the institution to implement and sustain OER degrees. The participating colleges received a framework for working across college units, including student affairs and academic affairs, and with advisors and administrators, as well as faculty. As an example, BMCC worked with our registrar and CUNY Office of Library Services to implement a zero textbook cost course designation that allows students to search for these courses when registering.

To ensure that the degrees created under this initiative can be adopted seamlessly at other institutions, the participating colleges are required to use only materials that carry a Creative Commons or other open license. While similar degrees have been called zero textbook cost or Z-degrees in the past, this is an important distinction as OER degrees do not use library resources, which differ college to college, nor other no-cost materials on the Web, such as YouTube videos, which usually do not adhere to the 5 Rs (retain, reuse, revise, remix and redistribute). Without being able to retain a copy of this material, it may disappear at any time, as faculty are well aware, rendering its use unstable.

Given that our Open/Alternative Textbook Program provided a foundation off which to build, we have experienced one unanticipated challenge as we develop our OER degree. Because BMCC’s efforts to achieve zero textbook cost embraced OER and alternative no-cost materials, some BMCC faculty have been stretched by the requirement to use solely OER. Our faculty have found that often there are texts and films accessed through the library that achieve learning outcomes in ways not matched by available OER. There are also quality, no-cost options on the Web that are not OER, such as Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and The Marshall Project, that faculty value and struggle to find adequate OER replacements for. The faculty participating in the grant have embraced this challenge and are creating OER courses, but some faculty have chosen not to participate in the OER degree even though they are offering zero textbook cost courses.

As mentioned earlier, another challenge that has become clear as we work to create the Criminal Justice OER degree is having enough sections of OER courses to make it possible for most students to find sections that fit into their schedules. Achieving the Dream’s preliminary report on the OER Degree Initiative identified a concern with this “thin line” pathway of just a few sections of OER courses, which many participating colleges are encountering (Griffiths et al., 2017). The key moving forward will be to combine programs that develop Z-degrees with initiatives that support the redesign with OER of all or the majority of sections for general education courses.

The Achieving the Dream OER Degree grant received by CUNY has been the catalyst for additional funding from New York State, which is making it possible for us to address this challenge of thin lines for OER offerings within the degree and the need for more sections of general education courses. After strong advocacy by Student PIRGs for the past few years and coverage of CUNY’s involvement in the OER Degree Initiative, the New York State Education Department contacted CUNY’s Office of Academic Affairs in spring 2017 to express interest in supporting OER efforts on CUNY campuses. CUNY Academic Affairs together with the Office of Library Services submitted a funding proposal in response to the Education Department’s enquiry. This led to New York State including $4 million in funding for CUNY and another $4 million for the State University of New York (SUNY) in its budget for 2017–18. Before the State’s funding, about eight of the CUNY colleges had active OER programs; now all 24 campuses have applied to CUNY Office of Library Services, who is administering the funds, to begin or grow OER programs.

As part of this initiative, approximately 100 BMCC faculty will redesign 45 courses, 25 of which are in the top 30 in enrollment, using OER and alternative materials. This funding begins to address the need for more sections of general education courses in order to make OER degrees viable for most students. Some of the funds will also be used for assessment, conducting similar studies to those that have examined student success indicators in relation to OER (Feldstein et al., 2012; Fischer, Hilton, Robinson, & Wiley, 2015; Hilton, Fischer, Wiley, & William, 2016; Ozdemir & Hendricks, 2017). While cost savings is a compelling argument for redesigning courses, for faculty who are hesitant the research indicating positive impacts can be persuasive, as well as for administrators who often focus on student success and retention as strategic priorities.

Moving from Cost Savings to Transformative Pedagogy

Most OER programs estimate what they have saved their students in aggregate; at BMCC, we estimate that in the first four semesters of running the Open/Alternative Textbook Program we saved students $1 million, that a student who takes all 20 OER courses as part of the Criminal Justice OER degree will save $2,500, and that the ZTC courses created under the state funding will save students over $1.5 million each year. For individual students, savings vary depending on availability of zero textbook cost courses that fit their schedule. When an Achieving the Dream representative visited our campus recently, we recruited a group of five students to talk about their experiences with textbooks. They candidly responded to a question about how textbook cost impacts their choice of classes, indicating that it was minimal. For this group of students, the first criteria for choosing a class was whether it fit their schedule, and the second was the professor’s rating on various websites. Sometimes, after considering those two criteria, they might consider the cost of the textbook.

These students were resourceful, and one reason they gave for cost being a lower priority was the ability to take advantage of “free” sources, some legal and some not, such as library textbook reserves, a friend’s or classmate’s copy, and torrent or other document sharing sites. Of course, there are no similar options when access codes for online publisher sites are required. We also know that students may enroll in a class regardless of textbook cost but end up dropping out because of those costs if they cannot get consistent and reliable access to the text, among other negative impacts (Florida Virtual Campus, 2016). In questionnaire responses, BMCC students recognize the positive impact of OER on their learning. Beyond cost savings, they note that immediate and 24/7 access throughout the semester means they don’t have an excuse not to do their work and they are able to keep pace with coursework and complete assignments and reading on time. While cost savings are important, it is the affordances of OER and their positive impact on learning that we focus on in our Open/Alternative Textbook Program.

For participating in the program, faculty receive $1,000 stipends and complete four two-and-a-half-hour workshops which provide the foundation for redesigning their courses around open and alternative materials. As might be expected, this redesign takes hours well beyond the training time allotted. Workshops are run seminar style, encouraging conversation and building a community of practice. They are also designed with active learning, including group discussion of scenarios, think-pair-share activities, and reflective exercises. In program evaluations, faculty expressed appreciation for this cross-disciplinary, collegial model, as the discussion-based format promotes connections across the departments. With over 1,500 faculty at BMCC, participants often meet for the first time, and conversations have sparked cross-department collaborations. For example, during one of the workshops, a faculty member in English and another in Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts discovered that they had a shared interest in conflict resolution and non-violent activism with both incorporating related material and lessons in their courses. The two are planning to teach connected courses in a learning community, allowing them to collaborate on resources and assignments. With few, but increasing, opportunities to discuss pedagogy on campus, faculty relish these conversations.

The curriculum for the four workshops was designed to give faculty a foundation for completing their course redesigns. In the first workshop, faculty are introduced to learner-centered teaching through two articles, one on creating a learner-centered syllabus (Fulmer, 2017) and the other on backward design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006). The syllabus article situates the conversation in learner-centered design, providing examples of syllabus items before and after being rewritten with the learner in mind and modeling learner-centered language that can be used when explaining why the faculty chose to create a ZTC course. For backward design, participants read an article describing and assessing the process applied to a class session (Reynolds & Kearns, 2017). The authors provide a worksheet that guides faculty through key backward design steps, including identifying learning outcomes that will be addressed and the assessments of the learning outcomes, then considering content and activities that will help the students achieve the learning outcomes and be successful on the assessments. This model provides participants with a process and structure for thinking about, searching for, and finding appropriate OER for their courses.

Building on this learner-centered focus, the faculty also read articles on culturally relevant and culturally sustaining pedagogy (Milner, 2011; Paris, 2012). With the readings as prompts, faculty discuss how they currently enact culturally relevant and culturally sustaining pedagogy in their classes, as well as brainstorming ideas for activities and assignments that would frame the course from the first day or first week within this pedagogical space. The last pedagogical framework faculty explore is open pedagogy; in groups, the faculty create assignments that engage students as knowledge producers rather than just knowledge consumers, often having the students adapt or create OER. It is during this initial session that faculty first begin to see the pedagogical opportunities afforded by using open and other no-cost materials.

The second workshop covers OER context and definitions, situating faculty in the global open movement, and familiarizing them with the 5 Rs. Faculty are also given hands-on time to explore OER repositories and sites. Because the program also includes using alternative no-cost materials available through the library and on the Web, copyright and fair use are also covered, with an emphasis on “reclaiming fair use” (Aufderheide & Jaszi, 2011) which has the potential for broad application in higher education. Faculty are introduced to Columbia’s fair use checklist, as well as three questions recommended by Aufderheide and Jaszi focusing on transformative purpose, appropriate amount, and reasonableness within field or discipline. This second session also presents Creative Commons licensing to participants.

The third workshop addresses course and materials delivery, looking at examples in the learning management system (LMS) and alternatives including WordPress, Facebook, and LibGuides. Many BMCC faculty are satisfied with the LMS, while recognizing and to some extent making peace with its issues, while others find they are ready to move to a more user-friendly online space, such as WordPress. After considering delivery options, this session looks at creating OER, with examples from faculty colleagues. Participants are encouraged to start small, thinking of materials they have already created, including assignments, lecture slides, and handouts. Lastly, the participants discuss assessment. In the first semester that faculty teach with OER, they are asked to administer a questionnaire addressing students’ experiences in the course and with OER. Participants are encouraged to think about what they would like to explore and learn about the experience of teaching OER, and to use the questionnaire or other assessment to write an article within the scholarship of teaching and learning.

The last workshop focuses on the importance of community, both the OER community of practice at BMCC, as well as the larger communities within faculty disciplines and higher education in general. Listservs such as that hosted by CCCOER (the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources) and SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) are recommended to extend and expand the community of practice beyond BMCC and CUNY. On the listservs, faculty can connect with others in their discipline as well as across disciplines, solicit assistance, and contribute to the growing national community of practice. Faculty also complete an assignment in which they upload an OER they have created to CUNY’s institutional repository, Academic Works, as well as review OER in one of the repositories, such as MERLOT (the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching). Concluding the workshop series, faculty present whatever portion of the course redesign they have completed, sharing the resources they found and how they were using them in their courses. This sharing reinforces the community of practice and provides the opportunity for participants to receive feedback and suggestions on their redesigned course.

The focus on pedagogy in the BMCC Open/Alternative Textbook Program has been an important contributing factor to its success. While BMCC faculty are committed to the social justice issue of textbook affordability, the opportunity to redesign their courses in innovative ways made possible by OER and other no-cost materials energized faculty going through the workshops and attracted others to join them, as was made clear in the faculty questionnaire responses mentioned earlier. Some faculty were able to ditch the textbook altogether, while others who used open textbooks often supplemented with videos and other sources that transformed their courses. The costs savings are undeniably important to our students and part of this program’s success, but even more so is the pedagogical transformation that we see taking place.

Sustaining and Scaling OER

At BMCC there are several issues that need to be addressed to sustain OER initiatives at meaningful scale. Increasing general education OER course offerings requires us to work within, around, or through departmental constraints, which vary by discipline. For example, some departments encourage and support adjunct participation while others actively discourage it, which is problematic given that two thirds of our faculty are part-time. In our science department, the faculty in each discipline (biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy) vote on the textbook that will be adopted for all sections of their courses. For OER to be used by our science faculty there needs to be consensus, which we are working toward. Science faculty who have gone through the Open/Alternative Textbook Program are able to act as OER champions, and this can be particularly effective if the OER champion is the course coordinator.

On the other hand, in the humanities and social sciences, there is more independence in course material selection, and often faculty use different frames or lenses for the same course. This most often requires us to work course section by course section with individual faculty members. Within the OER Degree and New York State funding initiatives, we are beginning to use communities of practice to encourage more sharing of resources between these independent faculty members, which would help with scaling beyond one or two sections. Within the humanities, after we announced the zero textbook cost attribute in our registration system, we heard from some English instructors who were using zero cost resources before the launch of the Open/Alternative Textbook Program, with more taking up the option after participating. Contemporary literature courses understandably remain out of reach due to the appropriate materials remaining under copyright, though many faculty seek out the lowest cost options and the library purchases ebooks whenever possible to support faculty efforts.

Another discipline-specific barrier is the loss of publisher ancillaries when courses are redesigned with OER. This is a barrier in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) as well as social sciences, even though faculty in the latter are more likely to individually choose their textbooks. Most faculty have neither the time nor the expertise to develop valid and reliable test questions. To address this, BMCC will be exploring various options available for personalized learning systems, also known as adaptive learning, that use OER (e.g., Carnegie Mellon OLI). Most personalized learning systems are produced by commercial publishers, and their use of OER for the content on which the ancillary material is based may reduce the cost, at least initially. As stated earlier though, even low-cost materials may prove a barrier to many students. At BMCC, there is an effort to incorporate any costs for personalized learning systems into already existing programs and fees to avoid passing the cost along to students in new fees thus maintaining courses as zero textbook cost.

CUNY Office of Library Services also received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to test one system, Lumen Learning’s Waymaker platform, which combines OER with adaptive or personalized learning. Several CUNY schools are participating, and BMCC’s psychology faculty will be using the platform for several sections of Introduction to Psychology. This project is part of a larger three-year research study that will evaluate impact on student success, persistence, and retention. BMCC math faculty, who are probably the furthest along in moving their courses to OER, are also exploring open source alternatives, including My Open Math and WeBWorK, as possible solutions for developing homework assignments and practice tests, rather than using publishers’ online sites. These homework systems and personalized learning platforms address the reservation raised by many faculty who hesitate to move to OER because they lose publisher test banks and other ancillaries.

Along with these department and disciplinary challenges, faculty are on the whole concerned with how OER will count toward tenure and promotion. At BMCC, while participating in OER initiatives is generally viewed favorably by most departments in tenure and promotion reviews, the adoption, adaptation, and creation of OER in redesigning courses is not officially included in the evaluation of teaching, service, or scholarship. This is one reason that in the Open/Alternative Textbook Program we spend time discussing assessment and encourage faculty to publish about OER within the scholarship of teaching and learning, as currently any peer-reviewed publications would count toward tenure and promotion in our current tenure system. BMCC’s Associate Dean of Faculty has suggested that OER could fall under Boyer’s “scholarship of integration,” and we’ll be exploring this avenue going forward (Boggs, 2017). Tenure and promotion is a particularly complex issue to address as policies and procedures can have many layers, including disciplinary, departmental, college, and system, but without valuing this work in tenure and promotion, it will be extremely difficult to sustain and scale our efforts.

Another important challenge both locally and beyond is developing a viable funding model that values faculty expertise and the labor required in redesigning courses with OER. At BMCC, the $1,000 stipend we offer faculty is the equivalent of approximately 22 hours at a non-adjunct teaching rate. The faculty are in workshops for 10 hours, leaving 12 hours to significantly redesign their courses around these new materials and within this new pedagogical framework. To date none of our faculty have chosen to adopt available OER courses as a whole from third party providers. Although this type of adoption is often touted as the answer to issues of sustainability and scalability, even this takes some labor, with faculty needing to become familiar with the materials and flow of the course. But the potential for pedagogical transformation we have demonstrated in BMCC’s Open/Alternative Textbook Program comes from faculty rethinking and redesigning their courses, which takes substantially more time. Ideally, to adequately value this creative and innovative work, we would provide our faculty, who labor under 5/4 teaching loads (5 courses in fall, 4 in spring), with a course release. Counting toward tenure as scholarship of integration would also allow faculty to choose how they spend their time in fulfilling the scholarship requirement. Both of these changes would help in recruiting faculty who have stated that the undervaluing of this work is a barrier to their embracing OER.

The Importance of the Commons

For the library, we want to take our success with OER and solidify our role in leading campus-wide initiatives that contribute significantly to our university’s strategic goals, as the Open/Alternative Textbook Program has on our campus. Librarians also have the opportunity to lead a public dialog about OER, as we have with open access (OA), which often focuses on economics and monetary costs in particular: high prices for journals, high prices for textbooks, large profits for the companies producing them. Librarians are well positioned to expand this discussion to include the knowledge commons (Hess & Ostrom, 2011), which speaks to social justice issues often inherent in the work at community colleges specifically and higher education generally. At BMCC, some faculty and librarians believe in fighting against what Bollier terms “enclosures of commons—in which corporate interests appropriate our shared wealth [or information and knowledge] and turn it into expensive private commodities” (Bollier, 2014, p. 3). This should sound familiar, as it’s what we’ve seen happen in both scholarly publishing and textbook publishing, and just as scholarly publishing behemoths have entered the OA sphere, publishers and vendors are moving into OER. Recently, librarians have authored important critiques (Almeida, 2017), and Crissinger (2015) urges us “to be cognizant of our position within increasingly corporatized institutions and consider how we might be furthering the goals of those institutions, to think seriously about how we can be actively dismantling power structures instead of perpetuating them, and to remind ourselves why we think open is worth fighting for in the first place.” With librarians leading OER initiatives, we have the opportunity to reclaim knowledge as a public good, if we choose to heed the call.


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OER: A Field Guide for Academic Librarians | Editor's Cut Copyright © 2018 by Christy Allen; Nicole Allen; Jean Amaral; Alesha Baker; Chelle Batchelor; Sarah Beaubien; Geneen E. Clinkscales; William Cross; Rebel Cummings-Sauls; Kirsten N. Dean; Carolyn Ellis; David Francis; Emily Frank; Teri Gallaway; Arthur G. Green; Sarah Hare; John Hilton III; Cinthya Ippoliti; DeeAnn Ivie; Rajiv S. Jhangiani; Michael LaMagna; Anne Langley; Jonathan Lashley; Shannon Lucky; Jonathan Miller; Carla Myers; Julie Reed; Michelle Reed; Lillian Hogendoorn; Heather M. Ross; Matthew Ruen; Jeremy Smith; Cody Taylor; Jen Waller; Anita Walz; Andrew Wesolek; Andrea Wright; Brady Yano; and Stacy Zemke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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