Open education: Engaging students to help make college more affordable

Open education: How students save money by creating open textbooks

Dr. Robin DeRosa, a pioneer in the open educational resource movement, discusses how an open approach can make higher education more affordable and enrich student learning.

Open education: Making college more attainable
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Most people consider a college education the key to future success, but for many students, the cost is insurmountable. The growing open educational resource (OER) movement is attempting to address this problem by providing a high-quality, low-cost alternative to traditional textbooks, while at the same time empowering students and educators in innovative ways. One of the leaders in this movement is Robin DeRosa, a professor at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. I have been enthusiastically following her posts on Twitter and invited her to share her passion for open education with our readers. I am delighted to share our discussion with you.

Don Watkins: Can you describe your professional background?

Robin DeRosa: I have a Ph.D. in English with a focus on early American literature and history. For many years, I was a member of the English department at my rural regional public university in New Hampshire.

A few years ago, I began transitioning to work more with our university’s Interdisciplinary Studies program, which is basically a customized undergraduate degree program. Two years ago, I moved full time to become the director of that program. I administer the program and teach an introductory course on interdisciplinary theory and a senior seminar on interdisciplinary research methods. I also spend a fair amount of time visiting other colleges and universities, working with faculty, staff, and students on open education initiatives and consulting on issues related to pedagogy, innovation, and access in higher education.

DW: What led to your epiphany with OER?

RD: I heard Creative Commons education director Cable Green give a talk about open licensing at an Academic Technology Institute at the University of New Hampshire; he introduced the ways that open licenses could transform education, and it just completely rocked my world. I immediately had a sense that the idea of a “commons-oriented” approach to teaching, learning, and research would be a deeply valuable conceptual model for all the work that I was most interested in doing in my professional life.

I was inspired by the social justice agenda about access that was at the core of Cable’s talk, and was convinced that the philosophical underpinnings of the open movement would help me integrate my work across teaching, research, and service, and help to build a stronger national case for the public funding of higher education in the U.S. Open seemed to offer lots of potential and pull together a lot of my concerns and hopes around teaching and learning.

DW: What led you publish your own OER book on American literature?

RD: I realized that my students were paying about US$ 86 for a collection of work that was almost all available in the public domain. It seemed obvious, once I learned about open textbooks, to try to create an open anthology to replace the commercial version we were using.

I realized that my students were paying about US$ 86 for a collection of work that was almost all available in the public domain.
About 10 students and recent alums worked with me over one summer to compile the public domain versions of the texts we wanted to cover in class; we built a skeletal version of the book that was ready in about four months. But when I got into class, after the initial excitement over the fact that there were no costs for books in the class, students were less than excited about the book itself. It was missing introductions, footnotes, maps, images: all the stuff that made those challenging early texts more accessible for those who were new to the field.

And that’s when I—and my students—had our real epiphany. We realized that students could contribute those items to the textbook, which would not only make our textbook more complete, but would also turn previously disposable assignments (as David Wiley calls them) into non-disposable assignments, so students were making a contribution to the field rather than leaving their work to die a slow, lonely death in the learning management system.

DW: How has OER and your use of it changed your pedagogy?

RD: Working on that textbook and seeing the way it engaged my students and made a real contribution to the field. Seeing the way it helped subsequent groups of students save so much money across multiple universities that started using our book and the way that animated my students who were so proud of authoring the text—it was just thrilling! When I realized that the open textbook was a vehicle for service and engagement as well as a way of lowering costs and helping more students succeed in college, I started getting much more creative with my teaching, aiming much more specifically for learner-driven assignments and student-created architectures.

When I moved to Interdisciplinary studies, I developed an approach to the curriculum that centers on Open Pedagogy, which for us means working at the intersection of OER, accessibility and access, student empowerment, and connected learning. All of our texts are openly licensed and all of our textbooks are at least in part written by our student cohort; we run food pantries and ride boards and child care co-ops; students design their own online architectures for learning through our Domain of One’s Own pilot program; and we use social media to connect our students with their scholarly and professional communities of practice.

All of this was borne out of the freedom that the openly licensed textbook introduced, and the overarching idea that education and learning should be contextualized in inclusive ecosystems that enhance the public good.

DW: What are the takeaways for professors and students using OER?

RD: Textbook costs have a direct impact on student learning and on the accessibility of higher education. The statistics on what high textbooks costs mean for students (how often they cause students to fail or withdraw from classes, receive poor grades, increase their time to graduation) are truly horrifying for anyone who believes that education should be accessible to all.

Textbook costs have a direct impact on student learning and on the accessibility of higher education.
But lowering costs is not a rallying cry for me. There are many ways that current attempts to lower costs in higher education negatively impact students and their learning. But OER is different. You can reduce both the anxiety that students feel about book costs and the actual negative impacts on their learning by shifting to OER, but you can also build agency in your students, get them working in their fields with authentic contributions, and build a commons-oriented approach to knowledge that I think is so important, especially for those of us who work in public institutions. I feel such passion and a revived sense of mission for what I do now, and I am grateful for what I have learned by being a part of the open movement.

DW: What are the key points to consider for someone thinking about following your lead?

RD: The main key is, don’t follow my lead! I think the exciting thing about open is that it allows for maximum academic freedom, so that instructors and students can design the kinds of materials and programs and projects that meet their current needs. And finding ways to make the technologies and tools work for learning is part of the adventure.

Right now, venders sell us really expensive templated products that work in very specific ways and really reign in what’s possible in our classes. If you look at the tools I use, a lot of it isn’t pretty: It can be confusing to have students working out on the wider web, and I’ve created low-tech, messy ways to find them. And their websites (we call them ePorts) sometimes have glitches and formatting issues and sometimes the work they post isn’t fully polished. But you know what we are doing? We are learning together. And we are finding paths that work for us and for our disciplines and for the complex issues that we are exploring. We are building together, not just consuming what is pre-packaged.

We are building together, not just consuming what is pre-packaged.
I feel like open has given me real tools for helping my students understand themselves to be shapers of the future, not just square pegs that need to be educated to fit into round, pre-set, post-graduation holes. So my biggest tip for newbies is: Reach out and ask questions, find a community that supports you as you take steps to work with OERs and with open pedagogies, and reconnect to a larger vision for the challenging, wonderful work that you do every day.

About the author

Don Watkins - Educator, education technology specialist,  entrepreneur, open source advocate. M.A. in Educational Psychology, MSED in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator, CCNA, virtualization using Virtual Box. Follow me at @Don_Watkins .