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10. What Does It Mean to Open Education? Perspectives on Using Open Educational Resources at a US Public University1

Linda Vanasupa, Amy Wiley, Lizabeth Schlemer, Dana Ospina, Peter Schwartz, Deborah Wilhelm, Catherine Waitinas and Kellie Hall

© Linda Vanasupa et al., CC BY 4.0

The proliferation of Open Educational Resources (OER) is a disruptive innovation. At first glance, using OER simply consists in replacing a traditional text with an alternative. Often, little attention is paid to the process of adopting and adapting OER materials. In the course of creating a learning community for faculty who intended to use OER, we experienced that this seemingly minor shift of instructional resources opened onto an entire landscape of questions around the meaning of education, the nature of social and political power in education systems, the meaning of authority and credibility, the risks associated with change and our own identities as participants in higher education. We present here the themes that emerged from our learning community, which consisted of an OER librarian and seven faculty members. These themes related to the process and methods of teaching, the goals of using OER and our fundamental goals as educators. This modest case study reveals that a peer-to-peer research and learning community that is designed to support transformative learning enables a faculty member to derive the full benefit of using OER. Such a learning community not only builds personal capacities for making conscious choices beyond one’s conditioned tendencies, it also revitalizes the spirit of scholarship.


The proliferation of Open Educational Resources (OER) is a disruptive innovation that many instructors embrace for ethical, practical and financial reasons, with the financial reasons often spearheading such experiments. Between 2003 and 2013, college textbook prices in the United States rose 82%, approximately triple the rate of US inflation in overall consumer prices during the same time period (28%) (Government Accountability Office, 2013). Given these increasing textbook costs as well as the increasing availability of OER, at first glance using OER can appear to be a logical, simple replacement of the traditional text with alternative, low-cost options.

Despite today’s greater availability of OER, often little attention is placed on the faculty process of adapting and adopting OER materials. To explore this process, a group of eight educators at an institution that grants both Bachelors and Masters degrees convened as a learning community for a quarter-long participatory experiment in the use of OER. Our learning community consisted of an OER librarian and faculty: three from English, two from engineering, one from physics, and one from kinesiology. From our first meeting, participants expressed a range of reasons for their participation, discussed below.

By our second meeting, the decision to “open” our classrooms with OER quickly took on a more philosophical character. Much as in improvisational theatre, the simple act of saying “yes” to OER opened our participants to an unforeseen sense of disorientation and confusion. We realized not only the existential absurdities at work in the current system of selecting and assigning textbooks, but also the occasional conflict of interest for educator-authors.

As depicted in Figure 1 below, we realized that in asking a relatively straightforward question about using different learning materials — “What does it mean to use Open Educational Resources?” — we were, in fact, looking at the foundations of higher education itself. We were not just asking about credible educational resources; we were asking, “What does it mean to open education?” In so doing, we also began to question how much the systems of higher education are themselves closed and self-replicating. We questioned how these systems prioritize conserving the educational institution itself over actual mastery of content and developing intellectual habits of mind. Through our discussions, “opening education” grew to mean encouraging a revival within our students and ourselves of the essence of scholarship: to experiment and discover rather than to assert and repeat, and to engage in a practice of openness as part of a community of teacher-learners — both inside and outside of the classroom.

In this modest case study, we describe the research context, the methods that we used in capturing our understanding, the themes that arose and our conclusions.

Figure 1. Conceptual depiction of questions that arose in our process. The grey characters and smaller yellow characters represent people who are called “students”. We initially imagined that using OER was a simple replacement of high-cost with low-cost texts (bold thought bubble). However, the collaborative exploration of using OER caused us to consider a whole set of questions related to power, privilege, identity and our relationship to learning (the range of concepts in the larger thought bubble).

The Learning Community as the Research Context

Our exploration took place at an institution classified as Masters-Large (About Carnegie, 2015), with the undergraduate instructional program being Professional plus Arts and Sciences with some graduate program coexistence. The mission of our institution is primarily undergraduate, with “scholarship” an unfunded mandate. As is common with undergraduate-focused institutions (Wright et al., 2004), there is an expectation of scholarship that the workload formulas rarely accommodate. Our typical full-time teaching loads range from 12–23 in-class contact hours per week plus five weekly office hours. Opportunities to explore new ways of teaching and learning are difficult to find amongst teaching, scholarly and administrative obligations.

The learning community members responded to an open invitation from Schlemer and Vanasupa. All were offered stipends of $1,000USD for the eleven-week project. Some were seeking to learn from others who already were in the process of using OER; some were looking to understand more about how to make OER more available; some were interested in large questions about social equity in education. What these participants shared was a commitment to teaching and learning, and these diverse interests grew into the participants’ individual experiments (Table 1). Table 1 below provides details on the participants and their roles in the university.

Table 1. The learning community participants and their OER interests.


Institutional relationship

OER Practices/Experiments

Role in learning community

Kelly Hall


tenured faculty member

OER texts


Dana Ospina

OER Librarian

Open Education librarian


resource specialist/ participant

Lizabeth Schlemer


tenured faculty member

badging system with self-authored OER videos

researcher/ participant

Peter Schwartz


tenured faculty member

OER texts, self-authored OER video curricula


Linda Vanasupa


tenured faculty member

badging system with self-authored OER

researcher/ participant

Catherine Waitinas


tenured faculty member

self-authored OER text, self- and student-edited OER materials, student-created OER videos


Amy Wiley


adjunct faculty member

OER course supplements, self-authored texts, student-authored texts


Deborah Wilhelm


adjunct faculty member

OER course supplements, self- and student-created OER



We used participatory action research (PAR) as the research method. PAR has all the qualities of action science (Reason and Torbert, 2001) and takes place in the social setting of a learning community of research practice. In PAR, participants often collaboratively design and reflect on experiments, which includes inquiring into motivations and assumptions. This method involves practitioners as both researchers and subjects of their own research (Mills et al., 2006). The rigour in action research comes in the recursive praxis of individual experiments that take the form of positing theories, testing them in one’s life and reflecting on the results (Argyris and Schön, 1989).

Action research differs from traditional laboratory (or “reductionist science”) in many ways. The aim of conventional reductionist science is to posit and validate causal relationships that can be generalized to other settings; thus, controlling variables and reducing variation during the experiment is essential in conventional reductionist science. Unlike these traditional laboratory experiments, in action science one instead observes the situational factors, attempts to make sense of how the factors contribute to the result and adjusts variables throughout the experiment to achieve the desired result — a process that may vary from person to person and may change over time. With respect to our process, participants enacted the participatory, reflective praxis of PAR by conducting individual experiments and collaboratively reflecting on these experiences. We chose PAR because of its relevance to complex social systems, particularly the education setting (Torbert, 1981; Reason and Torbert, 2001).

We began the eleven-week experiment with a three-hour “kick-off” workshop. We then met every other week for one hour to share thoughts and experiences. The way we ran our meetings was integral to building community and facilitating the learning process and therefore a critical part of this case study. The meetings were structured to accommodate participants’ emotional states, since features of cognition that are essential to learning are “both profoundly affected by emotion and in fact subsumed within the process of emotion” (Immordino-Yang, 2015, p. 37). Each meeting involved a practice of managing our attention through an initial “check-in”, in which participants were invited to speak without restrictions, to free their attention in order to be present. The discipline in this practice is for listeners to simply hear the speaker, rather than to respond to what is being said. For the person speaking, consciously choosing to set down what is taking one’s attention frees that same attention for new learning. For the persons listening, the discipline of listening without engaging the content shifts the neurobiological state to a resting state that promotes deeper learning (Northoff, Duncan and Hayes, 2010; Spreng et al., 2010).

Meetings were openly structured in the tradition of Bohm (1996), which prioritizes attention to what emerges, with the intent of discovery. The challenges or insights that people were encountering in their OER experiments created a “live” case study that we contemplated together. This method of reflection involved deep listening which requires the listener to suspend immediate judgment.

In addition to the collective face-to-face dialogues, participants periodically responded to online prompts and wrote about their experiences in blog posts. Examples of prompts were:

  • What has motivated us to commit to this time together?
  • What do you find most challenging about OER in this moment?
  • What does success look like?
  • What role does the “meaningfulness of the learning situation” play in sustaining the engagement of both faculty and students?

At the end of the experience, we revisited the themes of our individual and communal narratives. Using the qualitative research known as “coding” (Rossman et al., 1998; Hesse-Biber and Leavy, 2010; Lincoln and Guba, 1985, Saldana, 2009) we uncovered and culled common themes. Coding involved individually reading through the narratives to discover and name the emergent ideas; we then discussed and adjusted these themes as a whole in a consensus-building process. After deciding on the themes, we reviewed the narratives again to re-code them against the common themes. This coding process is a way to glean themes from the rich narrative; the iterations in coding establish face validity as well as intercoder reliability. The final, resulting themes are grounded in our own experiences. Of course, there are many interpretations of the same data set; the process of collaboratively negotiating the themes corroborates their shared nature. The intent with this process is not to objectively validate a single, “accurate” result, as one might seek to do in positivist scientific traditions but instead to crystallize insight for the action research. In the following section, we introduce our themes, provide excerpts from our narratives and offer additional reflections on each.


The meaning of education

I’d originally thought that opening education meant reflecting on what “open” is, but what I really find myself pondering is what “education” is. — Deborah

[…] in terms of the planetary conditions, social and environment, I see that there is a need to transition to ways of being that honour all sentient beings. This is a lofty aspiration, I realize, but it’s one that originally inspired me to get involved in the current research around open education resources. So, I see that there is a need in higher education to adapt to complexity in which we are living. As I see it, we [engineering educators] don’t know how to do this. — Linda

Our effort to use OER catalyzed questions about the activity that we call “education”. In a lament about the global path of environmental and economic inequity, Linda (an engineer) asked how educators would design education if not just humans, but also animals were equally invested and vocal stakeholders in higher education. Many disciplines treat such universalism as a given value. However, engineering curricula in the US tend to prioritize technical skills and to treat as politically neutral the lack of consideration of the political questions of engineering (Cech, 2014).

We realized that we do not often scrutinize our daily contributions to this system of higher education and that our deeply-held values are often displaced by what seem to be the “necessities” of our employment. For example, our institution, like many in the US, includes in its mission references to values such as life-long learning and ethical development, and yet markets the neo-liberal value of the college degree as a means to future employment. For what are called “professional degree programs” (Brint et al., 2005; About Carnegie, 2015), such as in engineering or architecture, the curricula are often substantially informed by external advisory boards that are populated by industry representatives. Many faculty, administrators and students assume that educators’ roles are to “equip” the “students” with the necessary skills and knowledge for their future employment. These assumptions then drive course design. Courses are organized around inherited learning objectives, historically fashioned by what someone, somewhere has deemed useful to students’ future employment. Moreover, “useful” is often defined very narrowly within the course content, such as numerical problem-solving of basic mechanics. With limited focus and industry-driven content coverage, textbooks often overlook universally useful content and practices, leaving course builders without support or resources for integrating such practices as group work, student-led problem-solving or metacognitive skills. While our institution espouses values of critical thinking, ethical reasoning, discovery and making positive contributions to society, its structure and practices often prioritize the interests of stakeholders who have social and economic power; the interests of those who lack power are not considered. Throughout the course of our meetings, our PAR became increasingly aware of our habitual participation in the value of education as a means to the end of employment. (For some of us participants representing the liberal arts, this was noted as, perhaps, an unconscious but nonetheless real survival technique in an environment that questions the value and sometimes the very presence of our disciplines — thus, the “end of employment” here is a challenge that applied to both students and faculty).

To be clear, it is not that we desire unemployment: rather we noted that in the triage that is teaching, any development that supports humanistic goals is often displaced by any development that seems “necessary”. We, therefore, began to ask questions such as

  • Who is being served by this education?
  • Who is not being served?
  • What does it mean to educate?
  • Is this education missing something of critical importance?

While these philosophical questions may be without an answer, we recognized that they are questions that often go unasked — yet these are the very questions upon which the meaning of education rests. The education philosopher Krishnamurti emphasizes that we can find the beginning of such meaning in a scholar’s ability to confront and recognize the extent to which her scholarship creates not “a subtle form of escape” from uncertainty but rather a means by which to embrace uncertainty about both self and subject matter (Krishnamurti, [n.d.]). We, in part because of our work with OER, see teaching as an experimental scholarly discipline (McKeachie, 2006), a laboratory for discovery — self-discovery as well as student-discovery — through critical listening and “teaching with your mouth shut” (Finkel, 2000).

Indeed, teaching openly calls to pedagogy as political action, such as Paolo Fiere’s seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) argues, with the dynamics of education greatly determining the effectiveness of education. As Fiere makes explicit, “banking” models that emphasize transmission over critical thinking and knowledge ownership are mirrored by the educational dynamics implicit within the physical artefact of the authoritative classroom text: an artefact that professors select, assign and parrot through assignments, lectures and activities; an artefact that students purchase, absorb and reproduce by demand.

The assigned authorized textbook divests students and teachers of their own critical and creative thinking capacity, of the sense of community discovery, inquisitiveness and collaboration. Instead, the textbook provides a fixed, repetitive model that carries the feeling of safety and authority without the necessary challenges to organization that true learning and knowledge ownership requires. Embracing an alternate dynamic embodied through not a singular, static artefact but rather through the organizational challenges presented by a customizable course of study — perhaps via OER — invites a certain degree of disruptive, creative chaos. This chaos is an opportunity for both the instructor and the student to delve more deeply into subject-knowledge and self-knowledge in a manner that has tremendous implications for educational efficacy.

As we began to work through our individual experiments and to reflect on their progress with one another, each of our seven instructors employed “a text” in various ways (Table I). Six created self-authored texts and five instructors engaged students in a variety of authoring activities. For instance, Deborah had students produce OER texts for state school students’ use. Catherine had current students create video materials for future students’ learning. And Amy used student-authored texts within the classroom.

This variety of approaches began immediately to enlarge our understanding of what is involved in using OER. The extent to which our small sample of instructors (and their students) authored novel material while using OER suggests that there may be something about OER or shedding the notion of “purchased text” that encourages an active, audience-driven voice to emerge, and that encourages some instructors to include their students in the generative, creative process. In embracing “authorship”, these instructors also confront the struggles that deep understanding of knowledge — and the production of knowledge itself — entail, placing them either directly or sympathetically on the plane of learning with their students, rather than the plane of transmission above and apart from their students.

The textbook enhances power differentials in education

As the instructor I can act as a guide with the great and less-great — and [OER have increased] my own willingness at last to relinquish some of the control that I felt I needed to have when I first started teaching. — Deborah

I didn’t want to write micro-managing, authoritarian tests or endless margin and end comments all quarter […] I wanted my students to feel empowered and powerful, to walk out of the class not just knowing new things but feeling the impact these things were already having in their lives. […] I wanted to feel that way, too: empowered, not mired down. Strong and free — not strong in spite of having been beaten down. Bigger and lighter and more dynamic than the systems that attempt to contain me. — Amy

The replacement of traditional textbooks with open or low-cost options opens onto the trust and power dynamics at play in the relationship between faculty members and students. James Koch (2014) claims that, historically, the textbook market has been considered a “trust market”: students purchase textbooks because a trusted authority tells them to do so. A problem with trust markets is that “the person who tells you to buy something is not the person who has to pay for it” (Koch, 2014) — and the person who tells you to buy something is sometimes the person who benefits financially from its sale, as is sometimes the case with faculty-authored textbooks. The selection of a textbook thus has broader implications than the determination of appropriate course content; it factors into the relationship that students enter into with faculty. These financial, emotional and relational considerations make the decision to move to open resources particularly significant.

All the participants in this learning community are committed to creating trustworthy environments and to actively contemplating the power differentials at play in higher education. As faculty we are attempting to establish relationships with our students that make transparent not only course expectations but also self-reflections on processes and intentions. That first point of contact in building trust is often through the “required textbook”.

Teachers typically encounter the textbook through a combination of channels. Some university instructors write their own textbooks, but that model is far less common. In the more usual scenario, an instructor chooses a text because it is one traditionally employed within the discipline, one that is familiar, or one that has been recommended by a publisher’s representative. In the case of self-authored textbooks, the authority and credibility of the instructor becomes both augmented by the existence of this evidence of expertise, and problematized in light of the instructor’s profit from its required purchase.

We believe that an OER model promotes critical thinking, community interest and self-knowledge more effectively than the traditional ways in which faculty select textbooks. When faculty select or create OER, consultation with the publisher’s representative is often replaced by consultation with a university librarian (or some other specialist) who can assist in identifying and locating openly licensed materials and who prioritizes the interests of the students, instructors and university. This person is knowledgeable about OER and motivated by efficacy, inclusivity and support. By working closely with faculty across multiple disciplines and courses, the librarian becomes a hub of institutional memory, a point of contact and dissemination not only of resources but also of educational practices, concerns and culture based on community and educational goals — the very premise upon which the institution is predicated.

Students, for their part, must form their own ideas of the institution’s goals. Students typically encounter the textbook through a campus bookstore and the initial, meaningful signifier the book offers as to its significance, potential or burden, is that of price. According to a 2014 study conducted by Ethan Senack and the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGS), 65% of students surveyed reported opting not to purchase a textbook because it was too expensive (Senack, 2014). The current generation of entry-level students, born and raised with a wealth of freely available resources via the internet, has less and less reason to perceive the “required textbook” as anything other than a costly imposition. While this impression is sometimes perceived as an empty complaint made by some, the fact is that for many under-privileged students, especially first-generation and financially disadvantaged students, the cost of textbooks can be a deterrent to enrolling or remaining in a course — or in higher education at all.

Meanwhile, publishers’ educational products are becoming more complex and multi-media driven in an attempt to cater to every aspect of every student’s educational needs. Materials are far more than “texts” — they are more comprehensive, interactive and visually stimulating. Instructors receive materials for integrated presentation, testing and learning-exercise systems. All of these already determined features drive up textbook and course costs while increasing distance between teachers, students and content — their value for improving student learning is still to be researched. Indeed, recent experiments in fully online education indicate that the personal relationship that develops between a teacher and a student is critical to both student success, as well as student retention among underrepresented learners (Jaegers and Smith 2010; Means, B. et al. 2010). It is our experience that OER, in contrast, invites students to feel they are part of the educational process because of the value their instructors place on OER choices. By replacing the publisher’s representative with the librarian, the closed-access text with an open education resource, and pre-packaged technological systems with tailored, personally designed points for student-teacher interaction, the OER educator closes the educational gap and opens possibilities for the university to function more as a community and less according to corporate models of educational banking.

The meaning of authority and credibility

I’ve had to really consider whether I am the sole credible author of education in the classroom […] challenging my identity as a teacher. — Linda

Opening education resource[s] eventually meant, for me, an opening up to myriad conflicting issues of credibility. — Amy

Being “open” in this way has made me think about who authorized a point of view. In my mind it is the existing power structure (which is most of the time White [sic] male). — Liz

Such fundamental questioning of expertise can be, for individuals certified as “experts” and produced by the same system, disconcerting. For example, Liz became increasingly aware that authorized points of view in the field of engineering in the US predominantly derive from the field’s white-male demographic. What are alternative “credible authorities”? If we do not consider the questions of who has credible authority in education, are we at risk of unconsciously reinforcing existing inequitable power structures? And how does one become a credible authority?

As academics, we have systems in place for assessing and evaluating the strength of the materials we use in our classrooms — systems that help to cut down on the time-consuming process of researching new materials. We rely on tradition and on efficient short-cuts to assessing credibility via famous names, institutions, publishers and the recommendations of colleagues or publishing representatives. All of these lean more toward conservation and repetition than toward our group’s aims of education: exploration and development of new approaches, ideas and insights into content. Furthermore, all of these defer the question of credibility and authority, putting off “the moment of crisis”. Indeed, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, those habits of text selection can become such unquestioned, conventional habits that they rob us of the strength required to roll the moment towards its crisis and ask, “Do I dare? Do I dare? Do I dare disturb the universe?” (1920).

Collaboratively reflecting on our OER experiments caused us to see and question our use of and deference to authority. Many of us experienced crisis and exhilaration in equal measures as we sought to develop not only materials but the means of distributing, engaging and organizing those materials. During our meetings and in blog posts, instructors voiced their unanticipated encounters with questions such as “Do I get to say this without reference to a text or something that represents the traditional perspective?” “How much of this do I myself know empirically, and how much am I reporting?” or “At what point did this thing I think I know and hold to be true, unconventional or original, become my own?”

Of course, such crises of self-knowledge, subject-knowledge and self-reflection should form the basis of most academic inquiry. They are, to be sure, questions we explicitly or implicitly challenge our students to confront almost daily. Placing ourselves in an attitude and position to ask them of ourselves makes students of us too, and serves to help us identify with our students at the same time that we strengthen our intellectual authority and credibility. Just as we constantly ask our students to change themselves, so do we need to engage ourselves to model this change process. The tradition of scholarship itself demands no less than constant, rigorous, intellectual and personal development — and that requires the confidence to place one’s credibility and authority at risk.

The Risks Associated with Change

It is the case for me that I feel myself “failing” to accomplish what I desired to accomplish. [...] When I am thinking about my own failures (and this is all too frequent), I find myself afraid, filled with fear and sad. Sometimes I even seem to “create” the very thing that I DON’T want. I think there is a lesson to learn in this. — Linda

It strikes me that fear, of failure or of other things, is exactly what we’re trying to help our students get comfortable with. [...] I’m trying to be a little bit gentle with myself about the time frame [...] trying to anticipate and build in the delays that heretofore have certainly felt like failure. — Catherine

I’ve been thinking more deeply about [failure] lately because of the discussion at our last meeting, in which I was saying that I felt tired and somewhat burdened by all of the ground work that I was doing for my students to help get this new project launched, and Linda asked me why I felt like I had to do all that. Well, I felt like I had to do all that because I want the project to work, because I want the students to be in the best position to learn, blah, blah, blah […] or maybe I just need to be in control of every single thing and I’m not willing to let the students fail a bit. After all, their worry or frustration may reflect badly on me! (Cue wicked grin.) So I’ve pulled back a bit, trying to ask the right questions and help them ask the right questions, waiting to see what happens. — Deborah

I am fearful — of too many things to list here at the moment. But reading about my colleagues’ fears, their reminders of the value of fear and failure, and their refusal to despair, is a kind of joyous reminder of what we, too are here for — and not just our students. We are here for the ongoing project of “wow”, for the learning we couldn’t anticipate, the epiphanies that come with the struggles. In that sense, I think that the support of a group like this, even when it’s at a distance, is precisely the kind of support I have needed here at Cal Poly. — Amy

The risk of using a different type of educational resource can bring about the fear of failure. At the level of classroom, we start to ask questions such as, “Might the students miss out on learning if I choose the wrong text, or if I let them create OER?” We felt this fear as we let go of the safe structures of publishers and traditional textbooks. We also felt fear as we self-authored videos, not only viewing our image on camera but also realizing how often we make errors in lectures and how “goofy” we look. All of this is quite visible when we step into the role of an OER co-learner. In fact, we no longer appear as an expert to ourselves. All our failures, desire to control outcomes and insecurities are available for view — and re-view.

There is also fear stemming from the institution of higher education that is charged with conserving the status quo. Textbook publishers, bookstores and authors all may challenge us and ask questions such as, “What is the basis for your choice in educational resources?” These valid questions fuel a sense of uncertainty as we traverse this OER landscape.

There have also been tragic examples of institutional backlash. The case of Alain Bourget, a math professor at California State University — Fullerton, provides a very recent example of the risks involved in selecting course materials that may not be embraced by departmental authorities. Bourget selected what he believed to be a better set of materials for his “Introduction to Linear Algebra and Differential Equations” course than those mandated by his department and authored by the department’s chair and vice chair; they also were less expensive (one text was free). His decision resulted in an official reprimand and the threat of dismissal, with the university contending that he “violated policy and went against orders from the provost and former dean of the math and sciences college” (Leung, 2015). Bourget contests this claim, but was aware that his decision could raise issues: “I knew it would cause me trouble in the department (but) I feel completely dishonest trying to sell a book I don’t believe in” (Leung, 2015). Setting aside the questions of protocol and the sacred pillar of academic freedom raised in this particular case, the issue of risk associated with change is powerfully exposed by Bourget’s experience. While our learning community participants were not constrained by departmental mandates, the risk of departmental disapproval and/or disciplinary action is one of which we were all aware. It is clear that the fear of running afoul of even an unspoken departmental preference for certain materials can contribute to a faculty member’s decision about whether or not to adopt or create an open resource.

Questions about our Own Identity as Participants in Higher Education

I wanted to bring those practices, community, and critical reflection to my classes here! Part of that journey has meant a need to be willing to set aside my own biases about education (I have this special knowledge which I will impart to you, and I will assess how well I impart that knowledge by grading YOU!) and open my classes to an approach that is more about formation (I have been at this a while, and I can and want to help you, and I, too, am learning and growing and looking for transformation from all sources, including you.) — Deborah

By opening up the protocols to learn, and then even the goals, I have learned profoundly from my students. I have looked at myself as the subject that I was learning about, and used my students as the teachers and the data to see myself. — Pete

[...] this experience placed me squarely in the same sort of territory I was asking my students to stand: to be unfinished, exploratory, open to new ideas and discoveries, and to finding a path toward new knowledge or understanding of their subject instead of grasping frantically at what they already thought they knew or believed. It required me to bring my espoused values into line with my practices, and my perspective into line with my students’ own. — Amy

As educators, our identity includes the label “expert”. We have spent years building our reputations. We found that using OER actually causes a deep questioning about our positions in society. Krishnamurti (1953) sums up the depth of the shift:

What is the true function of an educator? What is education? Why are we educated? Are we educated at all? Because you pass a few examinations, have a job, competing, struggling, brutalizing ambition, is that education? What is an educator? Is he one who prepares the student for a job, merely for a job, for technical achievement in order to earn a livelihood? That is all we know at present. There are vast schools, universities where you prepare the youth, boy or girl, to have a job, to have technical knowledge so that he or she can have a livelihood. Is that alone the function of a true educator? There must be something more than that...

We were confronted with the reality that our students sometimes know more about how to be publicly learning: students model the grace of voicing uncertainty and curiosity for us. Even as “experts”, we too need to learn much not only about our subjects but also about our relationship to our subjects. These questions of identity were made more approachable by the open and accepting nature of the OER faculty learning community.

Figure 2. A pictographic representation of the insights gained through opening education in community. Opening education through the use of OER revived the essence of scholarship through a shift in individuals’ identity as learners and an expansion in our knowing. This opening was facilitated by a diverse community with a shared purpose that created a safe place, offering normally-hidden perspectives and allowing deep self-reflection.


Through the process of collaboratively engaging with OER we encountered some of the ways that we embody and perpetuate dominant power in our education system. We found ourselves, through our process of community dialogue and exploration, contemplating normally unexamined assumptions: the meaning of education; the nature of power differentials in education; the meaning of authority and credibility; the risks associated with change; and our own identity as participants in higher education. Choosing to use Open Educational Resources revives the premises, practices, and socio-political implications of scholarship in its ideal form. That makes adopting OER a radical move in a system that needs more radical movement. Such adoption placed our expert educators in a position that more closely resembles that of learners and positioned us more empathetically in relation to our students, turning us into not just a faculty learning community exploring OER but a much broader community of co-learners that included our students as experts on their own learning processes and requirements. A strong support system for such radical moves can make these experiences both easier to navigate for students and faculty and more likely to endure in the institutional memory — especially if support staff including librarians can become impartial custodians. In summary, this modest case study has revealed that educators must build personal capacities in implementing OER, capacities that are facilitated through community support — a community that in its essence opens itself to the diversity of values, interests and being that individuals embody, that opens itself to sharing the experience of elation and failure that accompanies classroom experimentation and that opens itself to being educated in the process of being supportive resources to one another.


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1 This work was supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (DUE1044430). All views represented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the National Science Foundation. We gratefully acknowledge the helpful insights provided to us by John Belshaw, Rajiv Jhangiani, Ken Udas and Patrick Blessinger.