Reflective Practice

OERs: Thinking Beyond the Textbook

Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia, via the public domain:

By Andrew McKinney

Anyone who has priced a textbook in the last few years is well aware of their sky-rocketing costs. In fact, these increases have outstripped the general increase in the Consumer Price Index (the index of market prices for common goods and services purchased by Americans) by over double since 1978 (see the chart in this excellent article on Open Educational Resources (OERs) and educational technology for more information). In response, many in the academy are turning to OERs as the solution. OER textbook repositories like OpenStax provide zero-cost replacements written and peer-reviewed by leading academics in their respective fields

And that’s great! Reducing the cost of education for all students is an important goal worthy of effort. However, the impulse to go cost-free doesn’t need to stop there. What if in focusing on replacing a textbook with another textbook—however affordable—we’re missing another important opportunity: namely, the chance to  get rid of textbooks altogether?  Why not embrace the possibilities of OERs as a teaching and learning method and as a true pedagogical challenge? Using OERs means using materials that are free to use, reuse, and remix.  Taking to heart the mandate to “reuse” and “remix,” we can rethink not only our methods and mediums of information delivery, but also how those methods and mediums themselves can change how we think about our pedagogy.

There are a multitude of ways this can work but let’s focus on some concrete examples.  In effect, the idea here is to take a cue from the word “open” and link OERs to approaches like open digital pedagogy, which emphasize engagement with a broader range of pedagogical materials and practices that are both public-facing and student-centered. This could play out in a particular class where students help build resources for one another via a basic assignment like an exam review or a glossary, leaving both current and future students a resource they can come back to again and again. Or, this could be done at a more general level, with faculty, students, or staff contributing to a set of resources that are open to any and all. For example, take a look at ds106, an open online course that houses a sprawling assignment bank. With over 1000 separate assignments complete with a reviewing system and examples of completed versions, ds106’s assignment bank acts as a robust OER for both faculty and students, one that not only offers pre-made assignments to try out but also serves as inspiration for any number of new ideas.

By shifting the OER discussion towards the different types of pedagogy they enable I certainly don’t mean to denigrate efforts to create new, zero-cost, and up-to-date textbooks. This is a necessary and valuable project. I only mean to challenge teachers and students to think beyond this approach and reach for even more exciting goals. When we embrace the full potential of OERs as method and practice, we can leverage them to rethink our pedagogy more generally.

Andrew McKinney is a TLC Fellow and a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the Graduate Center.

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