The Complete Cost of OER Labor

Following is the sixth of a series of posts by participants in the Spring 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.

Shiraz Biggie is a Ph.D. candidate in Theatre and Performance.  Her dissertation project looks at the earliest tours sent to the United States by the Abbey Theatre (Ireland) and Habima (Israel) and the relationship between diaspora and national culture movements.  Her research is centered around questions of homeland, nostalgia, storytelling, and identity.  Her evolving interests in folklore and literary adaptations for the stage have emerged from the courses in the performance of children’s literature that she teaches at Brooklyn College.

When you design a course, part of the labor of that design is curating the materials for your specific learning goals.  I have always been conscious about making sure that the materials I share with my students are available freely through library access or, for those who wish to purchase, at a low cost. Thus, OER materials are something that I am incredibly excited about, but I also hold deep reservations about the labor of their creation and possible future abuse of the labor of the creator.  Making our courses no-cost for our students is undeniably beneficial. However, transferring an existing course design and its original and curated OER materials to an openly licensable public platform raises troubling questions about replicability and replacement, particularly for contingent faculty. For faculty whose labor is already underpaid and often uncredited, does the creation of OER materials help or hinder them?

In our first fellowship discussion session, a part of the conversation circled around the fact that OER materials are never entirely free and that there is always a cost. Be it underlying technology support or the labor of assembling and creating the OER materials, there is a financial underpinning making these “free” resources possible. Who pays this cost, and how, are vital questions that we need to be asking. These are not new questions, and they apply more broadly throughout higher education. Still, they live in a complicated place—between a genuine desire to increase publicly available knowledge and education resources while also being concerned about the intangible costs for faculty, and particularly contingent faculty and graduate students (of which I am a part). At what point do I, or my fellow contingent faculty, set up the possibility of being replaced in assembling an OER course? And, as underpaid university labor, where do you draw the line between increasing your workload and the needs of your students?

For the Open Pedagogy Fellowship, we created an OER resource for our students to use in one of our own upcoming classes. I had already done much of the labor to assemble materials for two similar courses, Performance of Children’s Literature and Oral Interpretation of Children’s Literature, over the last five years. I fine-tuned and converted material as part of the fellowship to ensure that what I was sharing followed copyright laws and increased accessibility.  Transitioning the course online last spring had previously involved some of this labor. Many of the materials I had collected to use in class became a part of asynchronous content that needed to be recontextualized for an online environment. Because the course is so much about presentation skills, in-class vocal and physical activities had to transition to video content, as did time watching and analyzing class presentations and how others have chosen to adapt stories across mediums. It was clear to me from my very first Zoom experiences that much of that work would be better served if students worked individually than on a glitchy zoom call. It also became important to me to limit the technologies that I asked my students to use as much as possible, something I continue to struggle with in terms of moving materials to an OER platform. There are definitely ways, and I have been experimenting with them in my course website design, but inevitably they add to the instructor’s labor while easing that of the student. 

As contingent labor, one of the few things you can feel ownership and control over is the labor you have put into pedagogical design and implementation. For example, in the case of this class, the presentation skills might be dictated by the department, but there is a breadth of content that I want my students to absorb. I want my students to have a clear understanding of how stories for children shift and evolve for a particular time and place.  In my course, my students explore the 19th-century cultural contexts that children’s literature and culture in the U.S. continue to underlie children’s literature and entertainment, something important to understanding controversies like the recent decision to cease publication of six titles by Dr. Seuss Enterprises.  

I am grateful for the Open Pedagogy Fellowship, which provided funding and an opportunity to learn, expanding my skills in identifying materials and improving my course design. Yet I continue to feel a quandary about OER courses regarding the actual costs for faculty, and especially precarious faculty labor within the current higher education system. I have spent years assembling materials that I am now presenting in a publically available OER.  For my students, this is undoubtedly valuable, but who else beyond my students is benefitting and how? But at the exact same time that I increase the availability and access to my pedagogical work, as an adjunct I have lost over half of my courses, including sections of this specific class. I am therefore forced to ask: Does my creating an online OER version of my course endanger my already contingent job stability? In a system where adjuncts are already seen as interchangeable, have I just made it easier to cut myself and others out of the picture? Will the instructor (full-time or contingent) who took over the class only re-use the work I’ve created?  Alternatively, could it instead lead to a mythical full-time, tenure-track position? I am incredibly proud of the work that I have put together and the time and care I have put into the website and course design. I am glad that my students will have this material presented to them in a pleasing and accessible manner. But have I in the long run helped myself or have I made myself more replaceable in a system of precarity by engaging in this labor?


About the Author

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