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How to Start and Maintain an OER Initiative

This article is an adapted version of a keynote presented at the 2022 Iowa OER Summit, held virtually March 1–3, 2022.

Published onMar 03, 2022
How to Start and Maintain an OER Initiative
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A few of you might be wondering, “Why is the title of this talk ‘How to Start and Maintain an OER Initiative,’ and not ‘How to Start and Grow an OER Initiative?’” It’s a good question, and one I’d like to answer immediately. While it’s often tempting to talk about how to grow an initiative and make it something bigger, our discussion will not cover that topic. After all, for many of us, we don’t need tips on how to do more work. We are doing plenty on our own. Instead, what many of us need are tips for maintaining the programs we have built, once we get them off the ground. As we’ve learned this past year with the GEER grants that IPAL, the Regents universities, and others have received to support OER work happening at their institutions, getting one-off funding and support for OER work is feasible.[1] However, keeping things moving after that support runs out can be difficult. So today I am going to discuss how I started the OER initiative at Iowa State University, how you can get an OER initiative started if you have nothing in place yet, and finally, how you can maintain and sustain that work with limited resources.

My Experience Starting an OER Initiative

I am the Open Access & Scholarly Communication Librarian at Iowa State University, and I manage the OER initiative at our institution. Since I came to Iowa State in 2017, our work has ballooned to an impressive degree.

We went from running one-off faculty panels about OER to supporting annual professional development workshops for faculty; we moved our small committee of volunteers to a campus-wide committee with an official charge from our Senior Vice President and Provost; we funded a grant program that supports faculty who are interested in adapting or developing open content; and much more.

Initiative growth over time

We were able to do all of that work because we were very lucky! When I started my position at Iowa State, there was already a grassroots OER Committee which included representation from a supportive bookstore that was interested in helping instructors adopt affordable content of all kinds, including OER. Our Student Government President at the time, Cody West, had learned about OER at a Student Government retreat, and was an extremely staunch supporter of our work. And our Center for Learning & Teaching was well-connected with faculty innovators interested in exploring new ways to support student success. Having all of those things doesn’t necessarily mean anything, though. To get our initiative off the ground, we had to use our luck!

Developing the OER Initiative at Iowa State

One of the first things I did when I started my position was to meet with each of these stakeholders and talk to them about why they were invested in our Open Education work and how I could partner with them to help advance their goals.

I worked with our Bookstore to get data on faculty who had reported the use of OER to improve our textbook adoption reporting and give us a more accurate view on the number of courses using free course materials; I worked with Student Government to pass a Resolution stating their support for faculty utilizing OER in the classroom; and I connected with our Center for learning & Teaching and worked with them to brainstorm new professional development opportunities for instructors.

I am not saying that you have to do all of these things to have a “good OER initiative.” What I am saying is that a lot of these pieces were already in place when I started my position at ISU. Leveraging the interests of my campus partners and making the most of the support I had available is how I was able to get so much done in my first few years here. Similarly, I would recommend that those of you building a new OER initiative consider where you’re lucky, where you already have support, and how you can leverage that support to do truly impactful work without having to push harder than you can.

These are just a few of the projects we’ve supported here at Iowa State. As we’ve done more work to develop our initiative, we’ve gotten to the point now where we are looking ahead at how we can keep our initiative sustainable and focused on the needs of the instructors and students at our institution. As we continue to grow and change, we’ll be bringing in new faculty champions, creating more sustainable workflows, and partnerships with our campus stakeholders to make the most of the support we have on hand. However, it’s likely that you aren’t at this stage yet. Maybe you’re just getting started with your work in Open Education. If you can see the value in starting an OER initiative now, allow me to share how can do that work.

Starting an OER Initiative at Your Institution

The first thing you should consider when developing your OER initiative is what you have to work with at your institution, and what needs you should be prepared to address. In other words, you need to run an environmental scan.

You can figure out what you tools have at your disposal in a few different ways. You can:

  • reflect personally on your experience and partners you’ve identified in the past

  • run a survey of your campus community

  • do a listening tour, talking to instructors about their needs and interests

  • put together a gap analysis document based on what other OER initiatives are doing and what you support would need to do the same

Regardless of the approach you take, you should get some useful information from the experience which you can leverage in discussions about starting or growing your OER work.

Build a Team

Once you’ve had a chance to take stock of your surroundings, or even before then, you’ll want to build a team. Again, this doesn’t have to be something official. When our committee at Iowa State first started meeting, it was just six like-minded people, half of whom were librarians, talking once a month about strategies we could use to support and grow interest in OER on campus. But there are some best practices to keep in mind when you’re building your team.

Build a Diverse Team

First, you should strive to build a diverse team. This includes diversity of race, gender, and ability, of course, but also a diversity of job class and departmental representation. Having a diverse team will help you do a better job recognizing the various needs of your campus community and it will help you get a broader perspective of the work you could be doing and how the work you are currently doing might be interpreted by different parties.

For example, Iowa State University’s Open & Affordable Education Committee includes members from the Library, Center for Excellence in Learning & Teaching, Financial Aid, Digital Accessibility, the Bookstore, faculty members, and a representative from Student Government. Thanks to this representation, we’ve been able to identify more venues for sharing our work, like through guest presentations at faculty learning communities, and we’ve been able to build out more support for the accessibility and assessment of OER projects in development.

Other common campus partners might include your Online Learning Office, Dean of Students, Information Technology, or department chairs and administrators who are interested in supporting your work. These latter representatives might not be able to attend every meeting, but they’re great to keep involved and up to date on your work.

Care for Your Team

As your OER Committee begins to explore projects that they can tackle as a team, you will need to be considerate of your team’s time and availability. There is a reason that Iowa State’s committee meets monthly rather than biweekly: our faculty and student members are very busy during the semester, and we want to make sure not to overload them with updates or potential projects. Making the most of the time you have together will be important, and setting up small working groups for individual projects can help you respect the time of your team members while giving them the chance to participate meaningfully on the committee.

Building off of this, I would recommend that any OER program manager or coordinator encourage your team members to pitch projects that interest them, and let those team members take point on their projects if they have the time to do so. Many of us, myself included, come into a job supporting OER with no back-up. Learning from your team, encouraging them to try new things, and helping them build something new can be both exciting for your initiative and freeing for yourself.

Go Where it’s Easy

Once you have identified your institution’s strengths and built your team, you should build out your work where you’ve identified a path of least resistance. In other words, go where it’s easy. If you find that you have one department that is very excited about adopting OER, work with them! Take advantage of lucky wins, and build a foundation that you can use when talking about OER with others on campus. Remember: you do not need to do the same things that someone else did before you, in the same order, or at the same level. Some OER initiatives may never develop a grant program at their institution. That’s okay! You can still do amazing things with the people and support available to you.

Never Build What You Can Borrow

Finally, never build what you can borrow. One of the wonderful things about the open movement generally and the open education community specifically is that people want to share their work. If you are jumping into this work for the first time, there are resources available to help you! You can reuse another institution’s handouts or marketing materials, tweak someone else’s slides, or share a YouTube video to showcase the impact that using OER has had on a student or faculty member at a peer institution. You don’t have to do this alone. In fact, you can find resources for getting started with OER and learning more in the Iowa OER Toolkit, which is free to access in Google Drive.

How to Maintain your OER Initiative

An OER initiative can be a lot of things. You can approach it from different angles, depending on what support you have at your institution. Similarly, the maintenance for your work will look different for different initiatives. I can’t tell you how to maintain your initiative, but I can give you five strategies for approaching that work.

1. Engage with Leadership

The first strategy I would recommend is to engage with the leadership at your institution. I say “leadership” here for a few reasons. I’ve worked closely with our Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost at Iowa State, but leadership doesn’t need to be a Provost, Chancellor, or President. Leadership can be the head of your Office of Distance Learning, the Dean of your Library, or a department’s Chair. You have options when it comes to working with leaders at your institution.

Regardless of who you’re working with, you should reach out early and find ways to align your work with their goals. This might entail using the language that they use in their vision and goals or finding connections between initiatives they support and your work with OER. For example, if your institution is working on a large-scale project to support student retention, you can share research that shows that the use of OER allows students to take more courses and progress more quickly through their degree path [2].

As you come to know these campus leaders, you can work with them on your initiative, sharing the impact you’ve had thus far and what you can do better with their support. Here I have a recommendation: don’t just ask for support. When you approach campus leaders with a request to partner or share ownership of your OER initiative, you should be prepared to provide a vision for how you can work together toward an improved OER initiative. This isn’t just about growing or improving your work, it’s about institutionalizing your initiative. Doing this will ensure that there is a vested interest in continuing to support the work you started and the instructors interested in OER at your institution, even if you have to step away from that work.

2. Standardize Change

Next, you’ll want to standardize your program’s work by creating consistency in how and what you do and by tying your work into larger institutional programs.

You can standardize your work by normalizing the programming you run on campus. For example, you might offer an annual OER 101 workshop or a spring luncheon for faculty to meet with their peers who are using OER in their courses. It’s common for new OER initiatives to try a lot of different things to see what sticks, but once you’ve found a rhythm to your work, it’s just as important to standardize what your initiative provides, and when, so you can plan more effectively around that annual or regularly running programming.

Incentives, in addition to programming, can help broaden the appeal of your initiative. While having funding for OER is wonderful, there are other incentives you might consider investing in at your institution. Often, what instructors need most is to know that the work they’re doing is valued. You can go about this in many ways:

  • get acknowledgment for open educational practices (the work related to using, creating, or teaching with OER) into tenure & promotion guidelines;

  • provide filters or badges for courses using free or low-cost content in your institution’s course schedule;

  • include OER goals in your departmental or institutional strategic plan;

  • provide awards, letters of recognition, or other methods for featuring OER champions on campus.

There are a lot of ways you can show that OER work is valuable work, and the path you choose might not even be on this list! But it is something that you should consider early on, so you can advocate for a stronger and well-rooted initiative that supports instructors and shows that open education work is valuable on more than an individual level.

3. Solidify Partnerships

You can also maintain your initiative’s work by solidifying the partnerships you made at the beginning. Maybe you have a committee or maybe you just have contacts in other offices on campus who can talk about copyright, accessibility, or instructional design as they pertain to OER. Regardless, as you continue your work, you will want to move away from thinking of these people as “contacts” and towards thinking of them as partners with defined roles in your initiative.

As an example, when I first started here I leaned heavily on the contacts at our Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching to get in touch with faculty. Now, I don’t just talk to them when I want to meet people; I also have meetings with them to plan workshops, embed our professional development into their own series, and partner with their staff on workflows to support faculty interested in using OER in Canvas, our learning management system. Standardizing this work and setting clear expectations has helped me to feel more comfortable when approaching my partners for support, and it’s helped them to feel less stressed by these interactions, since we’ve clarified what each of our roles are.

4. Maintain Visibility

Marketing and visibility are also a form of maintenance for your initiative. Getting people to know that you exist is often the hardest part of starting an OER initiative, and it’s something you need to keep going even after you’re established to ensure that new faculty, staff, and students are able to learn about and benefit from your work.

To maintain your program’s visibility, develop base presentations that you can adapt for different audiences across campus, and embed your programming in other offices that can speak to instructors and students about OER, whether that’s financial aid, advisers, department chairs, or instructional designers. Finally, and most obviously, it can help to develop a marketing campaign, logo, or system for sharing information about your work. This could be something as simple as a handout about your work or something more humorous, like the “OER you kidding me?” poster campaign that College of the Canyons ran in the 2010s (Figure 2). There are a lot of great examples you can build off of if you want to do something different with your initiative’s marketing.

OER you kidding me? poster from College of the Canyons

5. Advocate for Staffing

And finally, maintaining your initiative will require people who have dedicated time toward maintaining that work. Maybe it’s you or maybe it’s someone else, but if you don’t have OER built into someone’s job responsibilities, your initiative won’t be able to keep up its work when the semester gets busy. There are a few steps you can take to approach this process:

Collect Data

First, log the areas wherever you aren’t able to support a project or course because of a lack of dedicated time. If there is an ongoing trend in these areas—for example, you can’t support courses with accessibility needs because your campus partners don’t have the time—you may be able to advocate on their behalf if they could use additional staffing to support the requests coming in from OER-related projects specifically.

Review Your Peers

Do What You Can

Finally, when it comes to advocating for additional staffing, I recommend that you take small victories where you can get them. There is no guarantee that any of us will ever get funding for grants, staff, marketing campaigns, or even a professional development program that pays instructors to attend a workshop series. However, if you can get a little bit of support, that’s worth something. If you want to maintain your initiative, then you can and should be properly supported in that work.

Do Less with Less

Jumping off of the discussion about staffing, I want to leave you today on a final note that I hope has rung true through the rest of our discussion: give yourself the grace to do less with less.

Often, in the education sphere you’ll hear the phrase “doing more with less.” You should never have to do more with less. Do less, and explain why you can't do more, rather than trying to make things work. Ask for help, build partnerships, and lean on those partners to support you as you grow so you can maintain a level of work that is meaningful for you and which supports your institutional community.

This presentation isn’t called “how to start and grow an initiative” because where there is interest, growth will happen naturally. Maintenance, however, is something you need to do consciously. It requires you to step back and make change happen to ensure that you can keep going and do more in the future.

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