Opening the Books on Open Educational Resources

COVID-19 added new urgency and faculty awareness to the equity and access issues Open Educational Resources are designed to address.


COVID-19 added new urgency and faculty awareness to the equity and access issues Open Educational Resources are designed to address

Open Educational Resources (OER), higher education course materials that are freely available for use, reuse, adaptation, and sharing, were already gaining popularity before COVID-19, owing to the high cost of traditional textbooks. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of textbooks increased by 88 percent from 2006 to 2016, while tuition and fees increased by 63 percent over that same time period. Academic library directors attempt to purchase as many textbooks as dwindling budgets allow for course reserves, nearly always falling short in providing all the textbooks students need. Librarians get numerous requests from students looking for older editions that might be housed in circulating collections as well as interlibrary loan requests for their required texts. They see the toll textbook costs take on students, many of whom must agonize over buying groceries or purchasing the hundreds of dollars worth of textbooks required for their courses. As a result, librarians have long been advocates for adoption of OER.

These equity and access issues were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. As faculty were suddenly forced to move all course content online with nearly zero preparation or lead time, librarians emerged as partners, collaborators, and supporters. They provided everything from support in OER discovery to partnering with faculty in the creation of new OER content. Although many academic librarians have been enthusiastically engaged with this work for years, the pandemic created a situation where faculty leaned heavily on librarians to ensure their content was accessible, student-focused, and effective. Librarians across the country increased their OER outreach in a time where faculty needed the assistance more than ever. Below, OER librarians share how they coped with the sudden pandemic-driven uptick in demand and how the increase in faculty experience with open textbooks—and librarian assistance—has changed the field.



At the State University of New York’s (SUNY) 64 campuses, the pandemic had a significant and abrupt impact starting in March 2020, when New York became the first state in the nation to go into lockdown. If any system in higher education was ready for a pivot of this magnitude—to go fully online using digital resources—it would have been SUNY. In 2018, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo allocated $8 million for an Open Educational Initiative at SUNY and the City University of New York (CUNY). Mark McBride, library senior strategist in the Office of Library and Information Services at SUNY System Administration, works to ensure access to content for students and supports faculty development in open learning initiatives. McBride recalls the move to remote learning being sudden. Faculty who typically taught in person were forced to scramble for digital replacements for textbooks. “Faculty wanted a robust online program,” McBride says. “We saw faculty make the move to OER, specifically the Lumen Learning products, Waymaker, and OLI (Online Learning Initiative) because these offer our students immediate feedback.”

As a result, SUNY broke OER records during the pandemic. Pre-COVID-19, SUNY ran roughly 3,000 course sections per year that utilized OER and, although McBride does not have official figures yet, he suspects that number doubled during COVID. “Moving to OER during the pandemic empowered faculty to make the content swap from print to digital, and the libraries had a major role to play in the process,” he says. For the better part of a year, his office worked non-stop, answering texts, calls, and Slack messages from faculty members seeking professional development sessions on using digital content and open pedagogy. But while campuses are opening up again, McBride doesn’t think that interest in OER will wane. Rather, he believes that the pandemic has intensified a shift in academic librarianship and recommends librarians “lean into the change” by providing training to faculty so they feel empowered to make the shift to OER and open pedagogy.



A similar experience occurred at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT. Zach Claybaugh, OER and digital librarian at Sacred Heart, has been an advocate and supporter of faculty OER initiatives on campus for years, doing outreach and providing his expertise to faculty who express an interest in making the move to OER. Claybaugh has seen an uptick in OER faculty usage over time. When the pandemic hit and the faculty needed to pivot quickly to online teaching, the university’s librarians stepped into a larger role of support in ways they never could have anticipated pre-pandemic. Five librarians partnered with the four staff members of the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching (CEIT). This group formed a “triage team,” tasked with assisting faculty members in making the transition from in-person to online delivery. Hundreds of courses needed to move online with zero preparation, so librarians staffed WebEx drop-in sessions, assisted in Blackboard organization, and supported instructional design.

Claybaugh says, “The work we did with faculty has further cemented librarians in the teaching and learning framework at the college. The library was truly able to demonstrate its value.” In these sessions with faculty, he was able to have discussions about OER, open access content, and library resources as potential alternatives to print textbooks. Claybaugh recounts, “the campus has been focused on building an equitable campus, and OER has long been a vehicle for that.” Claybaugh believes a positive impact of the pandemic was increased faculty exposure to the librarians’ skill set and the various digital resources the library offers. “These things help the movement, and hopefully this will create more momentum behind OER,” he says.



Regina Gong is Michigan State University’s (MSU) open educational resources and student success librarian. She is a leader in the OER movement in Michigan and served as a librarian at Lansing Community Colleges for nine years prior joining MSU. She noted a 141 percent increase in OER use from Fall 2019 to Spring 2021. But aside from the quantitative metrics of OER usage, Gong says that the faculty mindset shifted and became more open to using OER. The pandemic boosted exposure to other options besides print textbooks. “The barriers of time, space, distance, and modality are lessened because we are using materials that meet you wherever you are,” she says. Her OER program team provides collaboration and partnership for faculty from conceptualization to production.

MSU uses Pressbooks as its OER publishing platform, and the library offers all the training necessary for faculty to publish their content. “Once they receive the training, faculty find ownership and freedom in the material and making sure that what they are creating is truly what their students need,” Gong says. She believes that faculty feel greater autonomy in their course preparation when they consider OER: “The faculty see that, yes, I can be free from the constraints of the same old materials, and I can incorporate resources that address diversity of viewpoints and examples, and model knowledge creation to my students,” she says.

Gong also believes there is a misconception that librarians only play a supporting role when it comes to OER. “Librarians participate in finding, curating, and [facilitating] discovery of OER, but we also have knowledge in copyright and licensing. We can engage in a partnership with faculty, and we can be collaborators,” she says. For two years, she facilitated an open pedagogy community, with a goal to move from resources to practice. She believes librarians deserve more credit for their work: “We are so modest regarding our expertise in what we bring to the table. We need to help faculty understand the value of collaborating with librarians.”



Gong notes how difficult it can be for community college librarians to focus on OER: “The passion can drive the initiative, but it’s not sustainable. It’s an ethos that we have as librarians: ‘We can do more with less.’” In many cases, community colleges do not have the same allocation of resources, or dedicated teams, as universities do to advocate and support OER adoption. This is particularly disheartening because community colleges historically benefit underserved students.

Brittany Dudek is manager, OER and libraries, for CCCOnline, part of the Colorado Community College System. She works with the academic and instructional design teams to develop OER and zero textbook cost (ZTC) courses and manages library services and resources for approximately 45,000 online students annually. When asked if Dudek perceived an increase in OER adoptions during COVID-19, she said: “Yes…the first large influx of requests was online resources and online pedagogy...then came the OER requests. Instructors realized that students did not have the materials and things were likely not going to change for summer 2020, or even fall 2020.”

Dudek believes that OER advocates across the country, including librarians, did an amazing job explaining that OER could bridge the educational resource gap when many people were at home and paying for textbooks was not a priority. “COVID has brought out empathy, compassion, and kindness in many of our processes, policies, and institutions. Unfortunately, it has also shown us how far we have to go. Librarians are no strangers to working with vulnerable populations and I believe COVID-19 has demonstrated just how vulnerable so many of us really are. I hope that compassion for our students and colleagues is one lasting takeaway from the pandemic,” she says.

Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, CT, and Manchester Community College in Manchester, CT, are part of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System. Both have embraced OER adoption, and their librarians and other staff have been committed to the movement using a collaborative approach. At Manchester Community College, Deborah Herman, director of library and educational technology, and Tim Boto, assistant director of educational technology and distance learning, have been working as a combined department to promote the use of OER. Their OER journey began as a grassroots movement, making connections with faculty who expressed interest and starting a local committee to support them. By working together, establishing a mini-grant program, and creating a curated OER repository, Herman and Boto have inspired faculty to make the switch to OER and created a more equitable experience for students. “What we’ve accomplished in terms of our offerings has been much more cohesive because what we offer is so complementary,” Herman says.

In 2016, Housatonic was awarded an Achieving the Dream grant to create a zero cost, or “Z degree,” Associate’s degree program. Curleen Elliott, a Housatonic librarian, serves on the campus OER Degree Initiative Team, which is comprised of one librarian, one faculty member from every department, two grant writers/specialists, and one director of educational technology. Elliott says: “I am part of an awesome team that is fully committed to OER. We are a community of support and [a] part of student success here.” Elliott feels that advocating for OER improved communication with faculty and has opened doors for other projects. Both Manchester and Housatonic have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from students and feel they are addressing the equity issue with their OER advocacy.

As the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped our day-to-day lives, the value of the OER movement came into greater focus. Access to course materials is an equity issue, one that is directly addressed by OER. Librarians have been involved with OER advocacy work for years because access to information is a core value of the profession. Throughout the pandemic, it has become clear that the vulnerable populations we serve continue to need support, and universities and colleges with dedicated OER teams are better positioned to provide this support. OER will no doubt play a larger role in academic librarianship in the future.

Eileen Rhodes currently serves as interim director of the Connecticut State Community College Library. She previously served as director of library services at Capital Community College in Hartford, CT. She is an Open Educational Resources advocate and a 2021 LJ Mover & Shaker.

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