Open Access Requires Access: An Irony of OER

This is the fifteenth in our current series of short essays by participants in the Open Knowledge Fellowship coordinated by the Mina Rees Library, from Fellows in the Spring 2022 cohort. Fellows share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences teaching undergraduate courses at CUNY.

Portrait of the authorMiriam Laytner is a Ph.D. student in cultural anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she is also a Mellon Humanities Public Fellow. In her role as a Mellon Fellow, she helps research institutions across New York City to develop events and agendas that raise public engagement with social science research for such institutions as New York Academy of Sciences–Anthropology Section and the Institute for Religion Culture and Public Life at Columbia. Her dissertation research focuses on the intersection of faith-based movements, environmentalism, and the climate crisis in the United States. Prior to attending graduate school, Miriam worked for many years as a scuba instructor and hiking guide in the Caribbean, Alaska and Australia. Miriam holds a B.A. in History from Barnard College and an M.A. in Oral History from Columbia University. She is a proud New Yorker.

Early in my graduate career, a well-meaning professor wrote me an email quoting bell hooks, who described education as a practice of freedom. Now as one of many student instructors teaching in a chronically underfunded institution of higher education, I often lose sight of the potential for both liberation and possibility in our classrooms. The Open Knowledge Fellowship provided both training and a learning community with which to think through the liberatory potential of Open Access and Open Educational Resources for the classroom. 

For me, the Open Knowledge Fellowship also presented an opportunity to think through some of the questions inspired by my reading of pedagogical theory: How do I re-envision the classroom, hampered as it is by underpaid instructors, and limited as it is, as a space of possibility for my students? How can I help my students to see that their education transcends the university? How do I build a syllabus that develops the same robust learning experience for my students, independent of their (or my) tenuous institutional affiliations? 

I had applied to the Open Knowledge Fellowship with the idea that I would work on a syllabus for a class entitled “Science, Technology and Power,” which invites students to explore Marxist feminist critiques of science and technology studies. The first few weeks of the Fellowship went smoothly enough. I was excited to learn that the term “open access” only referred to a portion of what is available to use in classrooms online. I was also grateful for the instruction in copyright law and in WordPress.

When it came time to start replacing items on my syllabus with “open” versions, however, I realized the limitations of open access resources. Only one of the resources on my syllabus—a film from the 1990s—was widely accessible to all students and instructors regardless of institutional affiliation. For the rest of the syllabus, I had a choice between doing what I (and most instructors) usually do: supply students with some readings as PDFs while asking them to purchase others—or replace the readings entirely. While the former was not in keeping with the goals of the Open Knowledge Fellowship, the latter would have changed the nature of the class itself, as well as the conversations and debates that the syllabus was designed to engender. 

The irony of being unable to gather accessible materials for a course purporting to examine the effects of power in technological and scientific development is not lost on me—and is perhaps a good topic for another blog post. Because the Open Knowledge Fellowship depended (as all student fellowships do) on producing a set of deliverables within a finite amount of time, I had to turn my attention elsewhere. 

In my current role as Research Fellow at the Lehman Lab for Social Analysis and Public Policy (LLSAP), I develop applied anthropology courses that center community engagement and the study of public policy, while also giving students opportunities to hone their research, writing, analytical and oral presentation skills. I decided to build a new syllabus for the course “Plants, People and Place” which serves as both an introduction to environmental anthropology and an oral history methodology workshop. In designing a course around open access resources, I was finally able to explore and experience all of the potential and excitement that other students had been discussing throughout the Fellowship. It felt, in a word, liberating.

At the same time, building this syllabus alerted me to additional ironies and pitfalls: my new syllabus, which I hope will have at least one accessible video or reading per week, definitely required access to the internet—meaning a steady, high-speed connection and a device capable of playing videos and downloading large files. Studies conducted during the pandemic reveal that as many as 20% of New York City public school students (or 13% of all New Yorkers) lack high-speed internet; my personal experience tells me that these numbers are accurate for CUNY students as well. In addition, many of my students come to class with PDFs and other documents on their phones, not laptops or tablets—meaning that those without access to smartphones are left out. The course readers and stacks of books I still have from my undergraduate days may have been expensive and heavy, but OA brings with it a different set of expenses and limitations. 

As the semester and the Open Knowledge Fellowship wind to a close, I think of ways to incorporate what I have learned into my teaching that don’t involve rewriting a syllabus with resources that simply might not exist (yet). For example, future iterations of that “Science, Technology and Power” class may very well include a unit on how and why we access readings, movies, et cetera—asking students who “we” are in relation to this knowledge, and what it means that the class can’t be taught without the use of limited distribution material. As a matter of fact, some of the best courses I have taken have started with an exploration of the limits and boundaries represented by the syllabus itself.

About the Author

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