Open Education

Evaluating OER with Monica Brown

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Open Educational Resources (OER) provide many benefits to students, instructors, and post-secondary institutions. For the instructors and librarians just getting started, however, the sheer volume of content to choose from can feel overwhelming. The good news is that getting started with OER can be easier than you may think. Monica Brown, the assistant program manager at Rebus Community, is here to provide some practical tips for selecting the best OER for your courses.

For more helpful advice, be sure to check out Monica Brown’s upcoming workshop with Pressbooks’ Amy Song at the Open Education Global Conference, online from September 27 to October 1, 2021.

Travis Wall: Let’s start by sharing a bit about your background and your experience with OER.

Monica Brown: I’m the assistant program manager at Rebus Community. My OER journey started when I was an adjunct faculty member for first-year writing at Boise State University. From the beginning, I didn’t want my students to have to pay for resources, and I was lucky enough in my grad experience to actually get some introduction into OER. So I always taught with it and kind of compiled my own hodgepodge materials here and there. I worked on that for quite a few years.

Later, I was able to transfer over to an OER coordinator role with my university eCampus Center. I got this great opportunity to help folks use OER across the disciplines and online course contacts specifically. We got to do some incredible work: everything from building OER to finding it, to creating alternative assessments and open pedagogy. It was an incredible experience and I knew I wanted to keep working with folks who were building OER. When this position at Rebus opened up, I joined them, and I’ve been excited to work with faculty in this capacity ever since.

For people just getting started with OER, there’s a lot of content out there, and it can feel overwhelming trying to choose the right materials. A lot of the writing on the subject gets deep in the weeds when you just want to get started with the basics. What would you say are the most important things to consider when evaluating OER?

At this stage, I think one of the most difficult aspects of OER is that it’s still scattered across the internet. There are a lot of repositories and places to look, and it’s so easy to miss things. So when you start the process, staying organized is my number one tip for folks: make sure that you have all of your keywords and all of your unit subject areas and topics compiled, and then you can check them off as you go. If you think a resource might be useful for your course or a colleague, save it so you don’t have to scour the internet looking for it again later.

In terms of actually evaluating the resource itself, it really comes down to making sure you have a clear understanding of what the course and student needs are—such as, what are the subject areas that you want to make sure are covered—and then looking for those across several resources. OER allows us to do a lot of work that’s interdisciplinary as well. Even if a resource might not fit your typical course structure or it’s missing something, there are a lot of other places you can go to find that supplement. You might find it in a nearby discipline and not actually your subject area. Those can create really rewarding additions to courses and make them more interdisciplinary, which I think helps support student learning in a lot of really important ways.

Really think about diversity, equity, and inclusion as well. As you’re looking through resources, see if there are opportunities where they’ve spotlighted historically marginalized perspectives. Are they telling the full depth of historical figures in their field and all the complications of that history? Are they using gender-inclusive language? Keeping those things in mind as you’re evaluating OER is very important. When these three subjects are covered in a holistic way, it makes my classroom more equitable.

What are some of the differences between evaluating OER versus traditional textbooks? 

With traditional textbooks, you might have been contacted by sales reps; you might have a publisher that reaches out to you; you might be on a newsletter. With OER, you’re on your own a little bit more. You really have to be proactive, like making sure that you’ve found and bookmarked the authors who created a resource you’ve used. There’s a really active Twitter community in the open education space, which can help make up for that. When you’re doing that initial outreach, it’ll feel a little quieter than what you might be used to, having worked with a traditional or commercial publisher in the past.

OER might not be ready for classes right off the shelf, but that’s actually the fun part. You get to mix and match and make it actually meet the needs of your students. There’s an incredible amount of ancillaries out there for a lot of resources, especially those high enrollment resources. Those are the biggest differences between evaluating OER versus traditional textbooks: doing that groundwork around the course structure and being flexible enough to mix and match some of the content if needed.

It may require more of your time, but that’s why I encourage folks to do it piece by piece. It doesn’t have to be a hundred percent OER right away. Tomorrow, a portion of your course materials could be OER, and you could continue that conversion over a couple of semesters. And what you end up with for that extra effort is often a greater command of the course. You gain a greater understanding and see connections more clearly because you as an instructor or an instructional designer are helping to make very intentional decisions about what’s covered and in what order, rather than just having to use the kind of preset order given to you by the proprietary textbook company.

That’s a great point, especially for anyone who’s feeling overwhelmed. They don’t have to do this big conversion all at once. OER is flexible enough that instructors can add it in pieces.

Yeah, and if they’re still using a commercial textbook that doesn’t quite meet their standards, then when they bring in that additional chapter or portion of work to fill in the gaps, they can see it benefit their students pretty quickly.

What kinds of accessibility features should instructors look for?

For accessibility features, particularly around technical accessibility, I think it’s important to take a look at both the front and back matter of OER textbooks out there on the internet. Often, teams of authors who’ve been really conscientious about accessibility will have an accessibility checklist or an accessibility review in the book that lets you know where things stand.

You can also look for different file formats. As you’re doing that initial search, you should be asking, is the resource available in multiple file formats? Can I quickly and easily download them? Is there alt text in these images?

The exciting thing is that if you find a resource that gives lots of attention to its accessibility, but there’s something in it that you need to change, you still can do that because it’s OER. Those are things I look for, at least in that initial search process, to see if accessibility has been on the minds of the team working on it.

So it doesn’t require a lot of technical expertise. You can start with a pretty surface-level examination.

Yeah, you can also check for things like the use of color. If your subject area relies heavily on images as a way of explaining information, it’s important to make sure that your resource doesn’t unnecessarily rely on color to explain information. That can be difficult for folks with different visual impairments to see.

There are also some cool plugins that can mimic a screen reader, so you can get an idea of whether this resource is actually navigable for someone who’s using that device. I would encourage looking around for those sorts of tools, too, to help you get a sense of whether that resource is meeting those needs.

What else should people know about getting started with OER?

OER is made by regular teachers like you, so don’t hesitate to reach out to folks. Let’s say you find a great resource that you think is promising, but you need more ancillaries—maybe some tests or assessments, maybe some slide decks would make it more feasible for you to transfer your course over—reach out to those authors. You’ll likely hear back and potentially even get access to things they’ve used to teach the course. It’s really community-driven work and there’s a lot of support out there, so don’t hesitate. Just because something’s posted as-is doesn’t mean there aren’t additional support materials somewhere that you can dig out by just reaching out and getting in contact with folks.

Where can people go to learn more about OER?

If you want to learn more about getting involved in OER projects and the collaboration that goes on behind the scenes, I recommend taking a look at Rebus Community and our platform. You can create a project homepage or join in on someone else’s project and see them work through the process of publishing their OER independently. If you’re looking more generally for resources, Pressbooks Directory and the Open Education Network are great hubs to get started.

If you’re interested in OER evaluation and having a template for how to do that, Amy Song from Pressbooks and I will be doing a great workshop at the Open Education Global Conference (available online, Sept. 27–Oct. 1, 2021). We’ll be doing a presentation about evaluating OER, and we’ll have a workshop and handouts to help support you through the process. So, if you want to join in a group of other folks who are maybe just getting started, that’s coming up soon.

Register for the Open Education Global Conference, available online from September 27 to October 1, 2021.

Find open textbooks and human-curated collections at Pressbooks Directory.