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Why I Switched to OER: A Faculty Perspective

student learning at computer using OERThere’s been a lot of talk about open educational resources, or OER, in the world of higher education of late. When I first started to hear about OER a few years ago, I became really curious.

What is OER? You may already know. A few years ago I did not, and decided to find out. Just to be clear, and to offer my own brief definition of OER, they are materials that one can use for educational purposes that are free of charge and licensing requirements. In other words, there’s a lot of material out there that’s there for the taking! All you have to do is look for it (see more on this below). But you can also create your own.

Why Use OER?

I’ve been teaching at the college level for over 20 years. I’m not afraid to date myself, and will tell you that when I started, I was using a hard-copy textbook, workbook, and lab manual – oh, and chalk and a chalkboard, along with an overhead projector on occasion. How times have changed! Many have resisted all the changes over these years, but I’ve always decided to embrace them, which has led me to where I am today.

I teach a Gen Ed Foreign Language course that enrolls over 3,000 students per year, and intermediate and advanced courses in the same discipline. In my language courses I’ve been required over the years to use one textbook and accompanying courseware program after another. In some cases I’ve actually been the driver of a textbook switch or adoption. Some of these were excellent, others not so. So when I learned about OER, I thought that maybe this was the path to take. Why rely on only publisher content when I can choose and organize – and even create – my own content? In fact, I’ve been doing this my entire teaching career!

I’ve always found that instructors love to create their own materials. I’m no exception. In each institution and position I’ve taught, my colleagues and I have used scads of materials that we’ve created or adapted from other (OER) sources. We’ve always been happy to share them with each other, too. The textbook and courseware may be solid, but sometimes we need more – to get the point across, to fit with the dynamic of a particular class or certain students, or because we want our pedagogical materials to be more creative and engaging than what we can purchase.

Over the years, my students – and I, too – have experienced a fair amount of textbook and courseware fatigue. Sometimes it seems like we’re using the same old thing, one adoption to the next – not to mention the cost! Over one year, in the Gen Ed language course sequence I teach at my institution, students will spend over $400,000 on the textbook and LMS – approaching half a million dollars! And it’s good to note here that recently my redesigned course sequence was recognized with an Affordability Counts medallion by my state university system’s initiative to address the soaring costs of textbooks and other course materials. It feels good to have my efforts with OER acknowledged and applauded, and my students reap the benefits.

Ultimately, my goals as an educator center on helping my students successfully achieve the learning goals and outcomes of each course. But as they do this, I want them to be inquisitive and engaged and challenged. I want them to read the course material and do the practice activities and assignments. I want them to perform well on their assessments. I want them to have a sense of satisfaction with their learning. I want to them to stay in the course and continue on to the next one in the discipline, and even consider majoring or at least minoring in it. Perhaps most importantly, I want them to have learning experiences that are relatable and that align with real-world scenarios. I realize that this is a huge list of wants! So… what to do?

The answer for me was to go it 100% on my own when it came to course materials. I had received a grant to redesign my Gen Ed language courses to incorporate personalized adaptive learning (PAL). The goal of the redesign was to improve student success, retention and satisfaction, and to reduce DFW rates in these courses. I shifted to OER in the process. Now all course materials are comprised of only OER content, plus my own original content, combined with a bit of content shared by colleagues and adapted by me.

Relevant course content paired with practice activities and assignments that are applicable to students’ post-graduation plans – careers, graduate school, travel, etc. – are key to student engagement. But sometimes textbooks come with “canned” or prescribed content that doesn’t fit with how I want to teach. I’ve always found that I can use some of it but not all of it. I’ve always searched for other content and also created my own. And these days, as opposed to when I started teaching, locating useful materials is really easy with the technology we have available to us.

How to Get Started Using OER

I’ve found that there are numerous ways to locate OER content:

  • Search the internet
  • Look in library collections
  • Partner with a librarian at your institution to identify resources
  • Survey colleagues to find out what they’re using and if they can share
  • Strategize with your peers on how to search for and obtain materials

The possibilities abound. You probably already have original materials that you’ve created and are using in your courses. You can also check out websites like OER Commons and Edutopia, among others. These sites have vast repositories of materials and resources you can use.

If you’re wondering how to get started using OER, I suggest that you first examine your current course subject matter and decide for which of these, if any, you absolutely need publisher materials. Maybe you really only need test banks, or a variety of case scenarios. Perhaps you need practice activities. Do your students really need a textbook? Can you use OER textbooks combined with your own materials – say, lecture notes or projects you’ve designed?

Next, explore websites and library collections that provide OER materials and, if you can, check with your colleagues to pool resources and original materials to match these with your course scope and sequence, and goals and outcomes. If you can, partner with a colleague or two. I’ve found that it’s easier to collaborate and contribute together for this type of initiative. It lightens the workload and helps with creativity and innovation, especially if you have a colleague who is like-minded when it comes to assisting your students to be successful.

Then, decide how to match this content to each item you’ve identified as a good match for OER and/or original content. If you decide you need publisher content, perhaps you can negotiate with the company to use part of their textbook or some of their courseware materials. It can’t hurt to ask.

However you decide to approach OER, and whatever you end up deciding, considering and investigating it make for an excellent exercise in examining your course and what you’re doing pedagogically to meet your students’ needs. It’s never too late to look into OER and to start the process, no matter how long you’ve been teaching.

Anne Prucha is a senior instructor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at University of Central Florida (UCF), where she teaches Spanish and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). She is currently involved in UCF’s Center for Distributed Learning Pegasus iLab Course Redesign Initiative, working with colleagues to incorporate adaptive learning and OER content into the first-year Spanish course sequence. Anne is also co-faculty director of the Journey Cuba study abroad program and has also directed study abroad programs in Spain and Nicaragua. She co-founded and currently co-directs the UCF-Hillcrest Foreign Language Club and is a frequent participant in UCF’s Faculty Center Summer Conference and its Student Consultants on Teaching (SCoT) project.

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