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Education and Learning, Learning, Sustainability

Are Open Education Resources Better by Default?

I’m a fan of open education resources (OER), which are “teaching, learning, and research resources that, through permissions granted by the copyright holder, allow others to use, distribute, keep, or make changes to them” (Aesoph, 2022). In fact, after becoming frustrated that I couldn’t find an appropriate OER for my introduction to sustainability course and refusing to have students spend over $150 on the textbooks that existed, I have written my own OER that is in the final stages of development.

OERs have been the subject of some interesting research in the last decade. Students achieve the same level of or better learning in courses that use OER while saving significant money (Hilton, 2016; Hilton, 2020). While Clinton and Khan (2019) found that few students withdrew from courses with OER. OERs can ensure that students have access to the resource from day one, rather than waiting to purchase an expensive book or not purchasing it at all. This is often cited as one of the main ways that OER contribute to equity. A student with a higher income or greater financial support can often purchase required and recommended textbooks without a second thought. But a student with a lower income or less support may not have that privilege. This can impact their learning. Since post-secondary education is one influencing factor for having higher income levels, this can result in a reinforcing feedback loop. Students with higher incomes can continue to access all the resources they need to get the education they need to maintain or further increase their incomes. While on the other end, lower-income students have difficulty accessing the resources they need, which limits access to post-secondary, which maintains or decreases income.

Based on this, it seems like all OER are good. But Veletsianos (2021) argues that OER can reflect and further inequities if they are not considered carefully. How does this happen? Well, the point isn’t just that the OER is free and openly accessible. It still matters what the resource says, who writes it, who is represented in it, and who is cited in it. This is interesting and reassuring because I thought about all these things when creating my OER.

Under questions about who creates the OER, Veletsianos mentions the disparate publishing rates between men and women and the impacts of tenure on who can write an OER. I have created my OER purely on my own time because I teach based on contracts, and the contract only covers the time I spend teaching. In Canada, this is often referred to as sessional; in the US, I believe it is adjunct. I do not get any recognition for producing the OER from my current position. I did it because I felt it was important, and I have the privilege of being able to make the time to work on it. This is not the case for many others, which means we are likely missing out on amazing resources that similarly underemployed individuals have the potential to create.

Who is and is not represented in OER was an important question for me. I remember the textbooks that I read. Often I only heard about things that seemed to have just appeared as “fact” or the contributions of white European middle to upper-middle-class men were emphasized. I also did an analysis of images used in a climate change section of a high school science textbook and found that racism was very prevalent as all images representing “the bad” were clearly of non-white, non-western locations and people, while all “the good” were clearly local and predominantly white. When writing my OER, I knew I wasn’t an expert in some topics. Rather than trying to shape material from the experts into my own text, I took advantage of digital technology and linked to numerous publically available resources, including videos of various experts. This allowed me to broaden the expertise and representation in the book without any pretense of claiming that knowledge was my own or agnostic. This also got at Veletsianos last point about who and the forms of knowledge that get cited.

I don’t write this to celebrate what I have accomplished. I write this to emphasize that using OERs is great, but Veletsianos’ points should not be overlooked. It makes me think of some other stereotypes or biases that people will hold that relate to sustainability such as vegetarian is healthier or that any vegetarian meal has a smaller impact than any meat-based meal. Vegetarian meals can be unhealthy, and how something is grown and transported still has a big impact on its environmental impact.

In a time when information literacy is a huge need, it is important that we don’t just assume that because something is labeled as an OER, it is the right resource. Take some time to ask questions about it, see who is involved, and who is referenced.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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