The Case for Open Educational Resources While Teaching During Pandemic

The quick pivot to online teaching due to COVID-19 pushed many college campuses into a reaction mode.  Delivering instruction in the traditional modes that we were used to was not possible. And we were not prepared. But, without knowing the huge disruption that Spring 2020 would bring, we had been preparing.   

Teaching during the pandemic has highlighted many challenges that we are still facing as we begin a new school year.  One in particular is the crucial need to provide students with learning materials in digital formats that can be readily accessed.  In the weeks (if not days) following our campus in-person shut down, faculty learned that students relied on a single physical print textbook copy on reserve at our college library. 

Thanks to a small Campus Conversations Grant sponsored by the Statewide California Electronic Library Consortium (SCELC), our library began creating an Open Educational Resources (OER) Learning Group in Fall 2019.  Our objective was to gather campus-wide input to make informed decisions on how our institution could benefit from the adoption of OER. In the library, we were starting to have conversations about open textbooks and open access resources.

The timing to apply for this Campus Conversations grant was well aligned with our campus administration announcing that it was committed to finding solutions for college affordability and in the Fall of 2019 our college president announced that there would be a tuition freeze.

Aligned with college affordability is the rising costs of textbooks.  Access to textbooks is a concern our students were widely sharing across our campus.

In Fall 2019 we launched our OER Learning Group made up of librarians, faculty, and students. We discussed topics such as what is OER and how can faculty adopt OER into their courses.  We also read through case studies on OER and open textbook adoption and during Open Access Week the library hosted a webinar and film screening.  To communicate our initiative to find more accessible and affordable options of learning materials for our students, we presented our plans at a campus-wide faculty meeting.  The initiative was well received and overall faculty were in agreement to look for solutions to help our students gain access to affordable learning materials.

Open Access Week 2019
Open Access Week 2019 at Wardman Library

We then hosted two student focus groups led by student advocates of OER.
We were incredibly fortunate to gain the interest of a recent transfer student, Carlos Espinoza who had a SPARC fellowship and he took the initiative to lead our student focus groups.  The focus groups were opportunities to host Information sessions where students gave us feedback.  Carlos reached out to our campus newspaper and they ran a story about our learning group on OER.

Campus Newspaper Headline on OER Learning Group

In January 2020 we debuted our new OER Libguide with the help of our librarian Azeem Khan.  As the spring semester was about to begin, we held a well-attended faculty workshop on OER and open textbooks.  We looked at sites that curate OER for various learning materials in different disciplines.  We also asked faculty who use OER to share their resources and adoption strategies.  Part of our campus conversations plan was to survey our faculty on their use of OER. Half of the faculty who responded to our survey said they have never used OER but are interested in learning more.

We ended the workshop with photos of what our students wrote regarding the costs of textbooks.

WC Student Focus Groups on OER

We then shared results of the student focus groups.  We weren’t surprised that faculty weren’t surprised that students largely reported that many didn’t buy the required textbooks for all of their classes because they couldn’t afford them.  Some students disclosed that they share one textbook with friends in their class or they rely on the single copy on Reserve in the library.  When we closed our campus due to COVID-19, this created yet a new barrier for students to access the learning materials they needed to complete their education. 

Next Steps

Currently, our plans for continuity of courses during Fall 2020 include versions of online and hybrid learning environments.  The campus conversations we were having pre-pandemic for providing our students with affordable and accessible options on textbooks and other learning materials has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The case for Open Educational Resources while teaching during pandemic is more crucial than ever.  Aside from OER materials being low cost or no cost to students, they are available in multiple formats. This increases access to learning, removes financial barriers for all students, and facilitates the free exchange of knowledge. OER gives faculty more control on what they can assign as well as help to innovate and create a more inclusive classroom where sharing is scalable. 

To learn more about OER at Whittier College visit our OER Libguide.