My Complex Relationship with OER

“Creative Commons” by Skley is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Before I worked in education, I had a career in book publishing, first in America and then in the UK. The small publishing house that employed me produced trade and academic titles and, although the trade arm had a more glamorous roster of authors, the academic arm was our bread and butter, bankrolling our gamble on the first-time novel.

The model depended on professors ‘adopting’ our textbooks, forcing students to shell out significant amounts of money in addition to their tuition fees and living costs. Students sometimes avoided these costs through the thriving used copy market. We countered with new editions, produced fairly regularly and sometimes with only minor changes to text.

When I relocated to the UK and began to work with universities in Europe, the attitudes to textbook adoptions had already shifted. I began to see pockets of resistance from academics who were unwilling to force students to pay exorbitant fees for textbooks. Some students would forego investing in required texts and suffered academically impacting on attainment. In addition, despite our regular production of new editions, the prolonged process of editing and publishing textbooks made them less relevant and sometimes outdated by the time they reached the classroom.

Open educational resources (OER) was an unfamiliar term even as it was already disrupting academic publishing. The model that we had depended on was crumbling. At our publishing house, we readdressed our costing model, providing digital access to textbooks on a rental and purchase basis and at a lower fee.

Bookshops, and particularly university bookshops, suffered, and many closed. While it’s impossible to ignore the pain this inflicted on employees and the damage it did to publishing and bookselling, the model itself was broken: campus bookshops, with the willing assistance of publishers, had gradually moved away from serving students and instead had profited from them (Okamoto, 2013).

The widening use of Open Educational Resources (OER) and the related use of OAT (Open Access Textbooks) challenge the traditional attitudes to access of knowledge for students. Libraries have repositioned themselves by offering open repositories and librarians have an active role in curating appropriate resources for students (Okamoto, 2013). Digital repositories provided by libraries ensure access to information is now possible anywhere, at any time, an equaliser for students not living on campus. With the arrival of COVID, digital access to resources is invaluable.

As a student in 2021, I can gather vast amounts of information immediately, with more time to focus on evaluating their merit and relevance. My experience as a student is more efficient and subsequently more enjoyable. Evaluating the merit of OER material also challenges me to become a more critical thinker, something that applies to using the internet beyond OER and academic sites. OER further complements the traditional online student experience where learning is more self-directed, giving students the responsibility of determining the quality and assessing the validity of information (Nikoi & Armellini 2012).

Professionally, I’ve seen widely varying views on ‘open’ in educational institutions. When I worked in further education, we contended with a widely diverse student population, including many students from areas of social deprivation, care leavers and refugees. OER was central to pedagogy as an extension of retention and student support. Despite tertiary education being funded in Scotland, we understood that many students dropped out due to financial concerns. HEIs must consider the link between student retention and attainment with the costs associated with their studies (Hilton, 2013). Attempts to allay unnecessary costs to students, including textbooks, was viewed as obligatory at the college.

At my current training institute, OER is not a consideration, particularly in relation to arguments around economy. Employers fund our students through their accounting qualification in addition to paying them a healthy salary: we have no issue with charging students for textbooks because they can afford it. Furthermore, we offer extra resources to students willing to pay, ensuring that those who struggle with the content pay more.

The qualification we deliver is highly structured and we compete with other training bodies with our high-quality operating as our USP. Student success leads them to membership and the path to get there is cloistered and secretive. The belief, even if not stated, is that the inclusion of OER would dilute the quality of what we deliver and we would see no benefit in creating open knowledge.

I wonder, though if there isn’t a place for OER in our institute after all. OER’s merits extend beyond the economic. As we reconsider our delivery model, particularly our online model, we should also reconsider our role as an educator. Our current lecture-heavy delivery ensures that students have very little opportunity to debate or evaluate information even as we push them to apply and contextualise their knowledge in their work placement.

Ensuring student engagement means repositioning knowledge creation and giving them more autonomy to find resources and share those resources with peers. I think there is often an assumption that accounting has no room for debate or interpretation, given its quantitative foundation but this is simply untrue. A central component of the qualification is a consideration of ethics, an area primed for the sharing, repurposing, and co-creation of knowledge. We are already seeing changes in industry that require accountants to act more as consultants than number crunchers , requiring them to gather, evaluate and interpret information; all of the skills that using OER could support.

OER is not without issue. Giving students undirected access to OER could be problematic if they are not capable of discerning the quality of that information. OER should be applied with consideration of the students, the content and the learning outcomes.

I’m also not convinced that all knowledge creation should be free. Free vs paid content could widen the gap between those able to afford paid content vs those who cannot, undermining the widening accessibility and egalitarianism it claims to champion (Hill & Lawton, 2018).

Yet, even with its shortcomings, OER has forced us to reflect on our costing models, reappraise our responsibilities to students and reinvigorate public and open debate through co-creation, repurposing of information and improving on existing information. It sits comfortably with debates we are currently having in education and continue to have.

Hill, C., & Lawton, W. (2018). Universities, the digital divide and global inequality. Journal of higher education policy and management40(6), 598-610.

Hilton III, J., Bliss, T. J., Robinson, T. J., & Wiley, D. A. (2013). An OER COUP: College teacher and student perceptions of open educational resources.

Nikoi, S., & Armellini, A. (2012). The OER mix in higher education: purpose, process, product, and policy. Distance Education33(2), 165-184.

Okamoto, K. (2013). Making higher education more affordable, one course reading at a time: Academic libraries as key advocates for open access textbooks and educational resources. Public Services Quarterly9(4), 267-283.

Why This Blog?

Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

Is online education the great disruptor? Defined as ‘troublesome’ and ‘disorderly’ but also as ‘innovative’ and ‘ingenious,’ its meaning changes dramatically depending on context. For me, it is both.

My personal ‘advent’ of online learning will be logged as 2020, a year in which I suspect everyone reconsidered their priorities as life became simultaneously more unpredictable and more limited.

In many ways, I fit the mold of an ideal virtual student as envisaged by Palloff (2003): a belief in high-quality education on demand, self-motivated and with unlimited access to the necessary technology to participate. I finished my MA in 2003, with the intention of continuing onto my PhD; life had other plans. With work and family commitments, any desire to continue my postgraduate studies faded with the logistical and financial calculus. All of the reasons against returning to postgraduate studies melted away in 2020 and the arrival of COVID. With hours of commuting wiped away, I could study in the comfort of my own home, when I wanted, where I wanted. Ingenious.

This is my second term on the BOE programme and although I found the first term challenging, I was happy with my achievements given my long absence from formal study. My classmates are primarily academics whereas I am a bit of an outlier, working in a business development role. I was concerned that I would struggle with participating in the course compared to my peers. As someone who always enjoyed studying, it felt strange to undergo this lack of confidence. Is this associated with my identity as a nontraditional learner?

I work in academia, and while COVID gifted me the time and money to enthusiastically enter the swelling ranks of online learners, I also witnessed the damage it inflicted on the learners in my own institute. These students come to us to undertake their traineeships in chartered accountancy. They spend three intense, highly-structured years with us, balancing work and study.

It feels odd to categorise my students as the educationally disadvantaged learners Simpson (2012) discusses when laying out support mechanisms for “unconventional” students. They’re mostly – but not always – young, ambitious, and pursuing their qualification to secure well-paid jobs. Their previous educational experience has generally been positive with most of them achieving top marks at university to secure competitive places at our institute.

However, Simpson (2012) also emphasises the role of current circumstances on students as a mark of disadvantage. COVID has redefined our students’ educational and work experiences overnight. They are isolated, some of them furloughed. Many of them have tiny flatshares that are inhospitable to focusing on studies. The most confident students have crumbled under the pressure of technological glitches during assessments. Typically, their time with us would allow them to form peer groups to socialise and commiserate with in their limited free time. For most of them, the disruption has been more than troublesome; it’s been devastating.

These are generalisations, of course. Not all of our students come to the classroom with the same motivations or needs. They do, however, come with a set of expectations that failed to transpire in 2020.

Disruption wreaked havoc on our delivery model. The emergency pivot to a fully online model translated into days of lecturers speaking into a screen for hours in the hopes that there were students out there listening. Many of my colleagues who excelled in the physical classroom felt deflated and ineffectual online.

So, undertaking the module of Supporting the Online Student feels relevant in many ways. What does supporting the online student look like? Is it about helping them to negotiate the technology? Giving them freedom? Listening to their personal issues? Extending a deadline? Or is it some mixture of elements that is reconsidered for each student?

How do we support the staff to support the students? At my institute, we have had to reconsider what student support looks like and renegotiate our relationship with students. It’s not been an easy or comfortable for any of us. This blog will allow me to consider the themes this term in SBOSE and how they relate to supporting our students. It also allows me to reflect on my own experiences as a student on the course.

This blog will focus on the theme of disruption and will present my thoughts on the future of student support in online learning, including how we can harness the affordances of technology to better support a diverse student population. This disruption to daily life has not been welcome but it offers us opportunities to reconsider our relationship to our students. As both a student and an education professional, I’m excited and daunted by what the future holds.

Palloff, R. M. (2003). The virtual student: A profile and guide to working with online learners. Jossey-Bass.

Simpson, O. (2012). Supporting Students for Success in Online and Distance Education: Third Edition. Taylor & Francis Group.