OER in Context

The recent movement towards Open Educational Resources (OER) is an undeniable force within higher education. For two consecutive years, both CUNY and SUNY have each received 4 million dollars towards the implementation of OER across their campuses. Let’s take a closer look at why interest in OER is being generated, and its potential impact within CUNY and beyond.

The shift towards “open”

The word “open” is in frequent use these days – open data, open access, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), and more. Broadly defined, “open” implies unlimited access to content – as SPARC puts it, “resources, tools and practices that are free of legal, financial and technical barriers and can be fully used, shared and adapted in the digital environment.”

In the context of OER (Open Educational Resources), the designation of “open” means “openly-licensed,” i.e. published under a Creative Commons license. A Creative Commons license allows the user additional permissions, such as the ability to re-use, re-distribute, and possibly even “remix” original content. This is a significant departure from the dictates of traditional copyright (“all rights reserved”), and the idea that permission must be granted for each new use (For more on this topic, check out our previous blog post here). OER can refer to textbooks, syllabi, or other educational materials – as long as they are released under a Creative Commons license, and ideally one that allows more freedom for users.

Open Access (OA) publishing, on the other hand, is a response to the high cost of academic journal/database subscriptions, and the ubiquitous paywall fees. In this context, “open” means that a research article will be made available online, with no charge or fee to access it. Unlike OER, however, the term does not imply that the content itself is available to “remix” in any way.

“Open” access, whose labor?

One of the questions that has arisen, as these “open” movements develop, is how the associated costs of labor will shift and evolve. For example, when a professor adopts OER course materials, there is an immediate financial benefit for the student, who can save up to hundreds of dollars per textbook (amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars saved, across the CUNY student population). However, it’s also work to convert a course to OER, either in locating equivalent course materials or maintaining/updating an existing course site. Currently, CUNY Faculty who participate in campus-based OER Faculty Fellows programs are being compensated for this labor – but it’s not yet clear whether, or how, that process will be further institutionalized.

Although these concerns are somewhat separate from the theoretical goals of “open,” they provide a context for ongoing changes in the landscape of educational publishing. Education writer Audrey Watters argues for the critical importance of addressing such questions – “examining, more broadly, which elements of our beliefs and practices around teaching and learning are ‘open’ or ‘closed’ and who are the gatekeepers in deciding what that looks like.” Keeping these questions in mind, as they relate to Open Access, Open Educational Resources, and other aspects of “open,” is a good frame of reference towards understanding the dynamics of an evolving field.

About the Author

Elvis Bakaitis is currently the Head of Reference at the Mina Rees Library. They're also proud to serve on the University LGBTQ Council, and as a board member of CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies.