The Challenge of OER and Experiential Learning

Below is the sixth 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.

Katherine Rivera Gomez (she/her) is a Costa Rican-American PhD Student in the Biology Program at The Graduate Center. At the present moment, she is working on restructuring her dissertation focus. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Biology at Pace University in NYC. She teaches Biology Lab courses as a Graduate Assistant at Brooklyn College. Her goal is to become an educator who can encourage students to cultivate their strengths and confidence through research.

Teaching online during the pandemic placed both students and instructors in a new and unexpectedly difficult position, and I saw this in my classroom firsthand. In March of 2020, without notice and without a plan in place, classes had to go online. For science lab instructors, teaching online was especially difficult because during our first attempt at online teaching, we were hoping students could learn about biological processes by reading experimental protocols that they would have normally done with their hands in the lab. During the Spring 2020 semester I was teaching Biology Lab 1002, and each one of the labs required one or two experiments to be set up in a group and completed within the three-hour lab. We provided students with videos of how to do the experiments and what the results would have looked like and then asked the students questions based on the experiment of the day.

Quickly I realized that it is very hard to get anywhere close to experiential learning through a Zoom call. Not only did this change make it difficult for students’ learning and engagement, but it emphasized hardships that had not been clear in the classroom before. My ability to adapt to a new way of teaching was also tested. It was clear that to teach online it was imperative to be prepared for the classes, but with this emphasis, I saw that the requirement for instructors to develop student-teacher relationships became less important, and in some cases, downright neglected. This disconnect with students really worried me, since I know how easy it is to get distracted and gain apathy for a course when it is online. 

After the Spring semester had finished, I tried to gather as many pedagogical resources as I could to help students engage with the online course in a more human way. I attended online pedagogy workshops, and it was through this search for alternative teaching methods that I became interested in using OER to enhance my course. Although I did not teach the same course the following semester, I tried implementing techniques that would facilitate my students’ access to learning, and to increase interaction between other students and myself. Middle and end of semester feedback from the Fall 2020 semester gave me the sense that students were feeling ambivalent about the course: they valued in-class activities that involved working out problems, but in some of the labs, the concept was lost in translation because the assigned reading material and videos were not thoroughly engaging. Their feedback made me realize that I needed to find more resources to use during class that would enhance their learning experience.

The Open Pedagogy Fellowship was composed of a multidisciplinary group of students that taught in different campuses CUNY-wide. It was inspirational to see how creative the cohort was with their course design. In some disciplines there is more space for course innovation and customization, which was the most impressive when seeing some of my colleagues’ course ideas. 

Although the course I teach is not yet ready to move to zero-cost textbooks, and the syllabus must conform to the same labs being taught throughout the college, I found textbooks and information that was useful when explaining the background of some of the labs we present during the semester. There was very little content including experiment outcomes, mock results or videos of protocols, but that was to be expected since these experiments are usually done in person. Hopefully resources like these will start being more commonplace with the normalization of online courses.

Nevertheless, the resources that I did find are helpful when supporting concepts in class and will be part of my curriculum going forward. I take into consideration that different students require different types of media to learn, so I use multiple resources for one concept, therefore increasing accessibility in the classroom. During the Fellowship I also learned how to give credit to all of these resources given the type of licensing that their creator had assigned. This becomes very valuable when crediting sources for material used in class such as pictures or diagrams in presentations; it also serves as a great example when showing students how to properly credit sources.

OER is an essentially collaborative effort that grows exponentially with time as we get used to using open resources in our courses. One immediate downside I saw was the amount of information that is being compiled and not completed, which results in difficulty in navigating through the content to find something that can be useful in the classroom. I hope that with more awareness of OER and more people using it as their primary course material, it will become much more robust. This will be helpful in generating courses that require no additional expenses.

The Open Pedagogy Fellowship opened my eyes to a growing pool of cost-free resources that can be used in the classroom. It also helped me see how Open Educational Resources (OER) can be translated to course work in other disciplines, how other instructors are using these resources as a tool  to engage their students in creative ways, and finally, the promising future of OER for instructors and students alike.

I am very grateful to have had this opportunity to learn about OER, as well as to connect with other instructors in different disciplines. To see such a large group of individuals, all interested in developing courses that engage students and stimulate their learning without requiring them to spend more money on their education, is a task that is not easily put together, but the rewards are great; the students are more interested in learning because learning is more accessible. My interest in enhancing my pedagogical toolbox has only grown since this experience. Seeing my colleagues employing their passion to create courses that are engaging was deeply inspiring and a great boon for the future of education.

About the Author

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