By Leighah Beausoleil
Framingham State has been awarded two grants that will assist in the campus-wide effort of making course materials more affordable through Open Education Resources (OER).
OER are course materials available through the public domain or “under copyright that have been released under an open license, that permit no-cost access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution by others,” according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
The first grant, from the Department of Education, is a three-year funding project known as Remixing Open Textbooks through an Equity Lens (ROTEL).
ROTEL provides faculty with a stipend for the work necessary to “remix and/or develop accessible, intentionally inclusive open textbooks and other OER that reflect students’ local and lived experiences in order to improve student learning outcomes,” according to the Henry Whittemore Library website.
This grant of $1.3 million is shared among six institutions, with each institution receiving over $70,000, and Framingham serving as the “lead fiscal agent,” according to Library Dean Millie González.
The other institutions include Fitchburg State University, Holyoke Community College, Northern Essex Community College, Salem State University, and Springfield Technical Community College, according to FraminghamSource.
The work created among these institutions will be open and promoted not only throughout Massachusetts, but also nationally, González said.
She added faculty will receive a stipend for using ROTEL textbooks.
González said she is projecting the production of over 50 textbooks by faculty, with the assistance of a professional publishing team.
She said the grant not only funds these faculty projects, but will also pay for the publishing team, any necessary consultants, and a publishing platform.
In addition to the creation of open textbooks, González said there is also going to be an assessment piece which will be an evaluation of whether these new textbooks made a difference in the classroom.
“One thing that we're really excited about is for faculty to be able to engage in open pedagogy,” she said. “And so one way of using an open textbook is engaging students to contribute to the creation of that textbook, and so with this project, we're encouraging faculty to do that.”
As an example of open pedagogy, she said faculty can implement assignments that are not “throw away,” meaning students are creating online galleries, questions, and discussions that can then be used in the future.
González said the University is partnering with a software company called Hypothesis, which allows students to engage with readings through the social annotation of digital texts.
“It's really exciting,” she said. “So then, actually, at the very end of the class, not only do you have an open textbook, but you also have the work of not only the faculty, but also students.”
The second OER grant lasts one year and comes from the Massachusetts legislature, according to Patricia Lynne, English professor and chair of General Education. The goal of this grant is to help eliminate the cost of textbooks for several institutions, including Framingham State.
The partner for this initiative is Lumen Learning, a courseware program, which can be used for primary or supplemental material, according to Lynne. The grant will cover the cost of use through December 2023.
“After that, students will have to pay for access to the courseware. However, the cost of these materials will remain below the threshold set by the Commonwealth for low-cost materials,” Lynne said.
This threshold is currently $50 and the cost of Lumen Learning use would be approximately $35 per student, she said.
She added during Open Education Week, which takes place this year March 6 to 10, a hybrid lunch and learn will be hosted with a Lumen representative in attendance, who will be able to discuss this courseware further and answer any additional questions.
Lynne said she began to get involved in OER when she became chair of General Education.
Two teams were eventually formed in regard to OER - one led by González and the other led by herself, she said.
The American Association of Colleges and Universities offers an annual “intensive workshop” that takes place for three to five days over the summer, Lynne said. González attended the first one to “make headway on getting OER onto campus.”
Lynne said she attended the second one “with a specific target of getting OER baked into general education.”
She explained this year is the first general education has been made a program with a chair because it used to be the responsibility of the University Curriculum Committee.
“But that sort of meant that people only paid attention to it about once every five years or so, and then there would be a lot of frantic attention,” she said. “And they were doing as good a job as they could do, but the University Curriculum Committee has a lot of other responsibilities.”
Now, general education is a program area under the responsibility of a chair and the General Education Advisory Board, she added.
Lynne said for the second OER team, “There is an initiative through the Board of Higher Education that all general education courses become low or no cost for materials for the course. Whether that's an attainable goal is debatable by some, but I think it is a worthy goal.
“So that’s what I have been trying to do and it's not working as well as I want, but, you know, what we get is what we get,” she added. “In a number of different directions, I am trying to get people to pay attention to the cost of materials in their general education courses.”
As an example, she said her team collected the data of the cost of textbooks and is working on running the numbers in order to send that information to department chairs.
Lynne said she learned that professors often do not adopt OER because of the absence of the ancillaries that often come with textbooks, including PowerPoints, test banks, and homework sets.
In response to hearing this, Lynne said, “I developed this idea that we were going to try to get a grant to fund what I'm calling ‘blitz builds,’ but what are sometimes also called ‘sprints.’ And these ‘blitz builds’ would allow us to - in an intense week - everybody who wants to use this particular OER would develop the ancillaries around it.”
This idea was put on hold due to the acquisition of the Lumen Learning grant, she said.
“We're going to let Lumen Learning work for a year and see what people find on the Lumen Learning sites,” she added. “If they like it, then great. I don't see any reason to be in competition with that. Let's work in places where there's a greater need.”
Lynne said she believes her textbook is the first to be completed and released through the ROTEL grant. This textbook was designed for her Composition I course, but over the summer, she plans to update it so that it could be used for her Composition II course.
Some of the additions she would like to have in this textbook include a section on how to read scholarly articles as well as more pictures because it is currently “text dense,” she said.
Lynne suggests professors who may feel overwhelmed starting their OER journeys to “take the materials that you have already developed and put those in.”
She said the textbooks that are often the main priority for professors are ones for the courses they already teach.
“The other thing that I would say is that ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good,’” Lynne said. “If you aim at perfection, you are never going to release that textbook.”
She explained for-profit publishers strive for perfection before they spend the money to publish a textbook, but they have the resources to do so. Individuals creating OER do not have that. However, they do have experience working with their students and feedback from those who are using those materials first hand to learn the subject.
She added updating OERs is easy and professors creating them are not subjected to the whole publishing process that for-profit authors would be.
Lynne said she likes to give her students open pedagogy assignments to encourage collaboration and understanding of the material as well as boost her students’ confidence in their own work.
“I had a student tell me point blank in a reflection on doing the open pedagogy he never thought that anybody as knowledgeable as I was would take his work seriously,” she said. “I took his work seriously. What he added was strong. He gave me a really good example and I was able to use it in the textbook, and it not only helped him, but it helped every future student who uses this.”
Lynne said ultimately, she and the OER teams want to hear from students.
“We need students to let faculty and administrators know that they want OER,” she said. “It won't be possible everywhere, but as much as possible, we want faculty thinking about this. And there are faculty who are simply not aware of it.”
She added students voicing their opinions on OER and whether they want these materials available in their courses will help the process of making OER a reality on the Framingham State campus.
Along with the ROTEL and Lumen Learning grants, González said the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education is encouraging a pilot project known as “Course Marking.” This project would help students identify which courses are low to no cost in additional material expenses.
She said she sent out an email to faculty explaining the project along with a survey to begin identifying the additional costs of courses. If the pilot is successful, University Registrar Mark Powers would then mark them in the course catalog.
“The idea is to make sure that faculty understand what qualifies as a no or low cost,” she added. “And then, ultimately, when we have those statistics, we can provide that information to the state and they can talk about how Massachusetts public higher education is supporting students in textbook affordability.”
Another OER initiative taking place on campus is Scholarly Communications Librarian Rebecca Dowgiert’s recent acceptance into the Open Education Network’s Certificate in OER Librarianship Program for 2023.
With funding from CELTSS, Dowgiert will receive eight months of virtual training, networking opportunities, and a chance to develop a cumulative project focused on building “sustainable, collaborative, and effective open education initiatives on higher education campuses,” according to President Nancy Niemi’s community-wide email.
According to Dowgiert, the goal of this program will be for her to develop the skills necessary to offer support and professional development to faculty at Framingham State.
Regarding OER, Dowgiert said, “They're possible because the internet arrived, and they're online. They're free. They're available from the first day of class and they definitely support cost equity for students.”
She added, “Because it's one thing, of course, to pay your tuition, but to say, ‘Oh my goodness, there's hundreds of dollars on top of this that I have to pull out of somewhere’ - sometimes, it can obviously be a real burden.”
Dowgiert said the flexibility that comes with using OER can benefit courses.
“You can revise them, update them, take a couple of different OERs and jam them together and kind of remix them,” she said. “For example, that would allow faculty to say, ‘Hey, I want to customize my teaching materials to exactly reflect the kind of students we have - our changing student diversity. I want it to be totally up-to-date in the discipline. I want to localize it and have local examples that really mean something to the students.’”
Dowgiert emphasized that grant money is “great,” but when that expires, there needs to be a system in place on campus that is going to support faculty and the continued use of OER.
Creating and using OER is not always easy, she said, “because, again, it's free to use, but it's not free to make - time is money.
“I'm not here to tell them how to do it, but I'm here to show them ways it can be done, and doing the OER certificate in OER librarianship is going to help me to do that even better,” she added.
Santosha Adhibhatta, a professor of environment, society, and sustainability, said she first saw a few examples of OER when searching for materials for her courses.
It was not until 2020 when she was part of the STEM Racial Equity Institute cohort that she began to truly consider using OER in her courses, she said.
“That was what got me thinking and I started to dig deeper,” she said. “I haven't looked back since.”
Adhibhatta said she was a part of the first cohort of the ROTEL grant and is currently working on writing her own textbook. “I wouldn't say writing it from scratch, but writing my own book that will be suitable for my own course.”
The textbook will be for her Introduction to Physical Science course, which is a class geared toward elementary education majors, she said. The original text for the course was a minimum $140 and the whole textbook was not being used, so she no longer saw the point in having her students purchase it.
With her textbook not yet complete, she said, “I've been using snippets from different OER for every subject - for every topic that we learn. I just post a list of the relevant resources in Canvas, which are from different sources. My goal is to pull all of them together and build my own.”
Adhibhatta said it does take some time to gather the right materials when first starting out because not everything is peer reviewed and there is a learning curve, and when creating OERs, it is important to understand the licensing aspect.
However, she said the work put into it is “worth it,” adding for the past three years, she has only used OERs for her courses.
Adhibhatta said what she enjoys most about OER is “the freedom to tailor materials to what I would like.”
She said often, textbooks will discuss the same few scientists and researchers. “My goal in my book, essentially, is to also shine a spotlight on those other great works done by other researchers like those with minority backgrounds or scientists of color.”
She added this is especially important to her given that the textbook will be for elementary education majors.
“I want the students to see themselves,” Adhibhatta said.
Benjamin Atchison, a mathematics professor, said he first became interested in the use of OER while in graduate school.
He said he used his first open textbook when studying for one of his qualifying exams and was then able to find a free and open version of a mathematical computation software that was necessary for his research.
When he first began teaching at Framingham State in 2011, he was teaching a College Algebra course and was not happy with the textbook in use, he said. He then discovered an open textbook written by two professors at a community college in Ohio.
This is when his use of OER truly “blossomed,” he said. He began creating his own material and he was eventually recruited by Robin Robinson, director of the Education Technology Office (ETO), to assist in obtaining a Teach with Technology grant.
With this grant, Atchison, some colleagues at Framingham State, and a teacher at Framingham High School began to identify OER textbooks that were more geared toward the College Algebra course, he said.
Atchinson said by pulling content from two of those textbooks and creating content of his own, he was able to develop his own “Franken-book” with the help of his colleagues.
“It's like a third my own, maybe, and then like two thirds from these other two resources,” he said. “It's very skills based, which I don't hide that fact. I'd like to improve it and make it more applications focused for that course, but it's served the needs of the students pretty well.”
The OER he uses for some of his courses is available in a free PDF format for students to download, but he said he also works with the Print Services Office to offer a printed version for purchase in the bookstore.
Atchinson said a lot has changed since he first started creating and using OER and the ETO was not able to pay for time spent doing the work, which was tricky given that time was the main component to make and gather OER.
However, now those opportunities to get paid for time are available through stipends funded by the ROTEL grant, he said.
Atchinson said among the various disciplines, math is one of the easier subjects for which to find OER.
He said he is a member of the Mathematical Association of America, and was able to host some open sessions that allowed him to network with those in the field who are writing textbooks, creating materials, or sharing resources.
“It really exposed me to a lot that was out there and sort of became a talking point between myself and my colleagues on campus,” he added.
In terms of Framingham State, Atchison said, “I've had some really positive communications with some of my colleagues and in English and some of the social science departments and art and music, and I would just encourage faculty who may be in a discipline where it might be challenging to identify OER that is out there to just start up a conversation with the librarians or some of your colleagues to kind of to give it a shot - to sort of take another look and see if there's something that you could identify and adapt for your courses.”
Additionally, he emphasized the importance of providing feedback on existing OER. He said the “beauty” of OER is the collaboration aspect of it and having those conversations is important in improving these resources.
Bartholomew Brinkman, an English professor and director of the Center for Digital Humanities, said with much of OER accessed online and some created through digital tools, “digital humanities and OER go hand-in-hand.
“Certainly, you can have digital projects that don't necessarily draw on OER materials, but I think there's a general ethos that digital humanities is often public humanities,” Brinkman said.
He said the licensing used in digital humanities projects can assist in making them usable as OER, adding OER comes in all different forms - whether it is traditional textbook, a website, or another interactive resource.
Brinkman said using a digital humanities approach to OER could be a potential way for professors to introduce their course material to students.
“There are a lot of potential opportunities as well with having some training in different digital humanities platforms and technologies things like Omeka, for example, or StoryMaps, [or] TimelineJS,” he said.
He added this could create opportunities for OER to be conveyed in new ways. “I think what [digital humanities] can open up is a way of imagining how content can not only be accessible, but can be delivered in different ways that allow students and others to see connections that they may not have seen previously.”
Brinkman said incorporating digital technology in the classroom can help in asking and answering questions “in ways that would be more difficult otherwise.”
Using technology in education will help train students for its use in the workforce, but it also gives students the chance to “potentially be critical of that technology as well,” Brinkman said.
He added, “The more that students understand the underpinnings of technologies - where they come from, how they're paid for, who's paying for them, who's responsible for their upkeep - it can become easier to be productively critical of things that we receive.”
Director of ETO Robinson said the use of technology in education has not necessarily enhanced or deterred it in any way, but using it “with purpose, with attention to goals and objectives,” can make “life easier.”
Robinson said technology gives OER its access point. “In some cases, [it can] provide more opportunity for the students to engage with that content and actually be a creator and not just a consumer.”
With OER mainly accessed online, there can sometimes be barriers to those resources for those who do not have the right devices.
“The digital divide has always been something that we in technology and supporting technology have been aware of,” Robinson said, adding this became clearer during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said it is the responsibility of the University to ensure there are alternatives available for students who may not have access to these devices.
One opportunity in place at FSU that has been helping with the digital divide is the Laptop Loaner Program available through the office of Lorretta Holloway, vice president of Academic Enhancement, she said. Additionally, there is a computer lab on campus and computers available for use in the library.
Robinson emphasized the importance of implementing Universal Design for Learning in the classroom, with the understanding that not all students learn in the same way.
She said technology is not going away and if it is used well and as a mode of support, it will continue to be a useful tool for students and instructors.
“If I'm going to do a crossword puzzle, I'm going to use a pencil with an eraser,” Robinson said. “Someone else may decide to do it on the computer. Someone else may decide to do it with a pen. It's all personal choice.
“But at the end of the day, my reason for using a pencil is because there's an eraser at the end and I will make mistakes,” she said. “So it's finding the technology for the right purpose at the right time.”