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Feature / The pandemic spotlight on Open Educational Resources and Open Access

Feature / The pandemic spotlight on Open Educational Resources and Open Access

[iStock.com / Bet_Noire]

Earlier in the spring, officials with Athabasca University’s Centre for Humanities Studies learned that one of their largest undergraduate classes, a music appreciation course, had abruptly lost access to a critical set of learning materials — a bank of music samples. The publisher had withdrawn permission to reproduce the material for the 150-student course, and informed the department that it would have to seek permission from all the individual owners if it wanted to continue using them.

That process, observes Mark McCutcheon, professor of literary studies and department chair, would have taken up to a year, forcing the cancelation of the course. The work-around: the instructors found links to hundreds of publicly available online recordings and created what was essentially a play list for the students. “We’re no longer housing the clips,” he says, adding that the centre’s “quick pivot” to creating an open educational resource (OER) allowed Athabasca to continue offering the course. “We like to think we’re nimble,” says McCutcheon.

As an online university, Athabasca has long occupied a space that every post-secondary institution in Canada has had to navigate since the pandemic began. “The remote learning context for Athabasca University is business-as-usual,” McCutcheon says. But for thousands of academic staff in other institutions and millions of students, the shift not only posed unfamiliar challenges around access to materials and online learning, but amplified older debates about OER and open access (OA) publishing. As Hope Power, Simon Fraser University’s teaching and learning librarian, says, “[The pandemic] has given a new urgency to the conversation about affordability.”

OA advocates and a growing number of journals have long argued that academic scholarship, especially when publicly funded, should not be paywalled. Proponents of OER, in turn, have pressed universities and colleges, academic staff, and provincial governments to promote the creation of free online learning materials that make use of content that isn’t subject to royalties and can be accessed through creative commons licenses, including OA journal articles.

A key motivation, explains Hailey Babb, open education product manager for SPARC, a coalition of leading North American research libraries, has been to provide alternatives to costly textbooks that can place a significant financial burden on students. During the pandemic, as many students lost part-time jobs, she adds, access to OER became especially critical.

In a widely-read blog post, the University of Guelph Library last year called out several leading textbook and academic publishers, including Pearson, Elsevier and Oxford University Press’ Canadian division, for failing to license electronic versions of their textbooks with post-secondary lending institutions.

With most such materials available only in print for lending purposes, and libraries closed due to COVID, students and staff had little choice but to purchase costly subscriptions to e-texts, many of which now come bundled with additional inducements for over-extended academic staff, such as pre-prepared slide decks, assignments and assessment tools, says Ali Versluis, U of G’s open educational resources librarian. The publishers, she adds, “are capitalizing on the fact that professors don’t have a lot of time or the autonomy to choose texts.”

Other critics have chimed in. “More needs to be done,” according to a recent statement from the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, re-iterating the importance of ensuring that university and college libraries can license e-texts. “Online learning necessitates digital access models that foster an accessible, affordable, and inclusive environment for students.”

In recent years, provincial governments have funded a number of organizations, including BCcampus and eCampus Ontario, to support the creation of OER with software platforms and other resources for academic staff. As far back as 2012, in fact, the B.C. government identified the province’s 20 most enrolled courses and decided to create open texts for each using a $1 million grant, according to Brenda Smith the open education librarian at Thompson Rivers University. At UBC Okanagan, funding from a BCcampus Open Education Foundation grant for Institutions and funds from the Provosts Office were used to support a pilot OER grant program, says Donna Langille, the community engagement and open education librarian at UBC Okanagan. In 2021, The UBC Okanagan grant program funded nine OER projects of up to $5, 000 a year, for instructors to create or adapt OER. This funding is sometimes used to hire students to work on the OER projects. Simon Fraser University has supported over 40 such projects in just about every faculty except business, adds Power.

“B.C. and Ontario are the real leaders,” says Michael McNally, an associate professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta. In other provinces, he adds, the funding has been more hit and miss.

Some institutions, like the University of Regina, have established “no additional cost textbook” initiatives. And a growing number of universities are pitching in to support academic staff who want to create their own OER — a process that pre-dates the pandemic but has taken on greater urgency in the past year. In some cases, McNally says, that’s meant funding for graduate students to assist in finding open access content. Librarians or copyright offices, in turn, are providing resources to help build OER. U of A, for example, has supported the production of a series of online videos outlining copyright and intellectual property issues that arise in developing OER. “It can be very complicated but librarians are happy to help,” says U of R librarian Kate Cushon, who chairs CAUT’s librarian and archivist committee.

In the three years she’s spent in her position, Versluis has spent more time helping faculty develop OER, which entails navigating open publishing platforms, tracking down content and generally spreading the word. “I would say it’s something people knew a lot less about two years ago.” Still, she adds, some academic staff are risk averse and harbour pre-conceived ideas about how OER are of lower quality than textbooks.

Those impressions, however, are shifting, especially in disciplines like business and some of the sciences, which have seen a proliferation of both OER textbooks and open access journal publishing. The momentum, says Cushon, tends to become self-perpetuating. “Once there are high quality OER available, other folks are likely to pick it up.” Smith agrees and has watched as faculty who were once strenuously opposed adopt open-access learning materials, which increasingly include the kind of supplementary assets — test banks, slide decks, etc. — that textbook publishers have been using as a hook for their proprietary e-texts. “If people see others using [OER], it becomes normalized.”

In some ways, the OER story, both before and during the pandemic, has been as much about awareness as the availability of content, third-party software and technical advice. Like open access, OER tends to attract highly engaged advocates, but many academic staff may still regard these issues as yet another corner of the esoteric world of intellectual property. “It can be a tough sell,” says McCutcheon. “Copyright isn’t necessarily an attention-grabbing topic.” There’s also the horse-to-water problem. As a recent article in Inside Higher Education reported, the proportion of U.S. faculty who know about OER has continued to grow steadily in recent years, but the number who required OER materials in their courses stalled during the pandemic.

Some advocates, and a handful of institutions, have sought to embed the use of OER and OA publishing in collective agreements, with the goal of incentivizing tenure-track faculty to make use of such materials and publish under creative commons licenses. “It does need to be enshrined in tenure and promotion,” says Versluis. “If it’s not valued in that system, and professors don’t get points for it, they won’t do it.”

Cushon concurs, and notes that academic staff associations have a role to play in promoting both in negotiations with universities. But, she adds, academic freedom issues do arise as some faculty balk at pressure to use these kinds of learning materials or to publish in journals that may be OA but lack the prestige of paywalled publications. (Similar concerns arise with respect to commercial learning management systems acquired by universities, McCutcheon says.) “As much as I’m a fan of open,” says Smith, “I don’t think it should be dictated.” SPARC argues that OER and OA advocates also need to drive home core messages — about accessibility and equity and lessening the financial burden on students — to administrators and academic staff in order to expand awareness and take-up. “In my experience,” says Babb, a former student government activist at UBC, “universities respond best when they see data on their own institutions.”

While the post-pandemic future of OER hasn’t fully crystalized, there can be no doubt that academic staff have come through a year-long learning moment about the challenges and opportunities of remote learning and everyone’s increased reliance on online materials. The pandemic, Versluis observes, “revealed that many faculty had little to no understanding about the politics and economics of publishing.” But they do now.

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