Digital Literacy, Writing, and Justice Through OER

Below is the fifth in a series of posts by participants in the Winter 2021 Open Pedagogy Fellowship, coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows will share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences in the Fellowship.

Anthony Wheeler is a Doctoral Fellow of Urban Education at the Graduate Center. He researches within Digital Humanities, where he studies digital pedagogies and educational technologies as methods of implementing social justice initiatives within the classroom. He’s also a member of the CUNY Academic Commons Team as a Community Facilitator and is a member of the English Department at City Tech and Communication Studies at LaGuardia.

I’ve been working in the realm of OER since about April 2019, when I joined the CUNY Academic Commons Team as a Community Facilitator. During that time, I was pursuing a Master of Arts in Digital Humanities here at the Graduate Center when Dr. Matthew K. Gold asked me to join the team. During my time with the DH program, I worked as a Program Assistant for our program and the M.S. Program in Data Analysis & Visualization, all while focusing my research on digital pedagogies for social justice. I was often involved in discussions on access between the DH program’s core courses, our events, and the ITP Certificate Program curriculum and skills labs. These conversations became increasingly prevalent as a result of classes transitioning to distance learning in Spring 2020. I began interviewing CUNY faculty who were using the CUNY Academic Commons to conduct open pedagogies amid classes transitioning to an online format. I had some great conversations involving pedagogies for structuring your class site, digital tools for communication, and even open projects that transcended borders. Then, with the dramatic influx of users joining the CUNY Academic Commons by Fall 2020, I was tasked with conducting multiple workshops regarding maintaining your digital academic identity (and digital portfolio) across many disciplines on the Commons and social media. 

As I approached my teaching for Spring 2021, now having the experiences of 2020 under my belt, I was taken back to a keynote presentation given by my M.A. digital capstone advisor, Dr. Maura A. Smale, and her collaborator, Prof. Mariana Regalado, at CUNY IT 2019. Throughout the presentation, “‘Technology is great, but it’s really time-consuming’: Understanding Students’ Digital Academic Lives,” Smale and Regalado assessed how digital technologies, while convenient, can foster significant barriers for undergraduate students at CUNY. This led to me rethinking the accessibility of my English Composition courses at City Tech in terms of content, (digital) structure, and financial accessibility. I had assigned a textbook during Fall 2020, and all the way through mid-November, students were struggling with acquiring the text under their various circumstances. This was a great opportunity for me to have more official OER training through the Open Pedagogy Fellowship with the Mina Rees Library.

The base syllabus I was using going into the fellowship featured a blend of readings from a textbook my department offers and a handful of open access materials that I had chosen for a  curriculum I crafted as part of my M.A. digital capstone, which included using an open-source tool (Twine) for game-based learning as a method to include intersecting identities within digital pedagogies. I wanted to find a way to eventually re-create a syllabus that maintained the overarching themes of identity/technology/justice while exclusively using open-access materials and OER tools, with the potential for me to integrate open game-based pedagogies down the line entirely. Simple ask, right? To a degree, I feel as though it can be!

There were many significant components in learning about open educational resources that made working with the fellowship librarians a dream. Still, my major lesson (and the thing that intimidated me most about OER) was in finding quality sources to implement in my curriculum. Adjunct Reference Librarian Kate Angell’s presentation on finding open access materials helped me immensely in understanding the most efficient way to navigate open access journals and databases,  distinguishing what items are reliable and quality work for our students to engage. I struggled with the technicalities of what qualified something to be “predatory publishing,” which often exploits the scholars financially, causing it to be inherently counter to the message of OER. 

Now more comfortable exploring on my own, I was able to find entertaining sources of material, such as Writing Spaces and the Writing Commons, both of which are collections of Creative Commons licensed articles about writing composition. What I really enjoyed about Writing Spaces was not only that they had a wide selection of items, but many of the pieces had a lot of soul. You could tell that the contributors cared about quality OER. I found some super interactive pieces that took a playful approach to reading and writing, and I plan to gamify them a bit in the form of blog assignments for my class. In addition to that, I was able to find some new pieces on technology and its relationship to us as consumers/scholars. I’m excited to use OER and the online format my course has taken to teach some digital literacies that might not otherwise be included, including tips for collaborating digitally. 

In my search for open access materials, I found some unique pieces I would never have found otherwise. I have been able to incorporate the themes I desired through a broader lens, and hosting an open course on the CUNY Academic Commons has presented me with a platform to implement multimodal assignments. Hot tip if you’re thinking of throwing a class site together on the Commons: the Radiate theme is a favorite, super clean, and easy to navigate. Oh, and I have to say: not receiving any emails about textbook costs feels really, really wonderful.

Link to course site:

About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.