Texas Learn OER: A Newbie’s Introduction to Open Educational Resources

In 2014 I retired from teaching, but even at that time, I recall hearing about Open Educational Resources and wondering what they were and why I should pay attention to them. I remember thinking at the time that free teaching resources couldn’t possibly be as good as the paid, published textbooks that were much more widely used at the time. After all, I thought, textbooks are rigorously revised, vetted, and edited before publication. With all of these hoops to jump through, how could they not be superior to free resources? And so, at the time, I discounted OER, even as I struggled with some common problems that many instructors encounter when using standard textbooks: large segments of content that were not relevant to my lessons, and content that should have been included in the textbooks and wasn’t. These struggles, of course, caused my students to use their textbooks less than they would have desired, especially considering the prices they were paying. If we had been using textbooks that were more tailored to the needs of the classes (i.e., OER), the students could have saved quite a bit of money. They would have used their textbooks more frequently, and I would have been more satisfied with the textbooks as the instructor. However, I quit teaching not long after hearing about OER, and thus I never really had the opportunity to explore its possibilities.

Five years elapsed before I started my position as the senior administrative assistant for DigiTex, and not long after that, I was reminded of the Open Educational Resources that I had heard about during my teaching days. One of the significant projects that we undertook in early 2020 was the development of Texas Learn OER (TLO) in collaboration with Carrie Gits, Head Librarian and Associate Professor at the Austin Community College Highland Campus. While Carrie authored this training, I had the opportunity to serve as an editor, and in this role, I was able to experience Texas Learn OER firsthand. In a sense, I “took” the course, and it was quite an education! 

Picking up where I had left off as a professor, I had three important questions about OER:

  • What are open educational resources, and how can they be used in the classroom?
  • How can I find quality open educational resources? They are free, so how do I know that their quality is comparable to that of commercial textbooks?
  • Where do I find all of this free material?

As I dove into the course, I found that it thoroughly addressed all of these questions. Previously, I had thought that OER would be privately authored textbooks only, but TLO taught me that there can be many different types of OER, all of them potentially useful in the classroom. I also learned that the term “open” doesn’t just mean free, but includes permission to use the resources according to the 5Rs (revise, remix, reuse, retain, and redistribute). Here I encountered a concept that was entirely new to me: the licensing of open resources. I had always assumed that if a resource was free, that it would be completely unrestricted for all use, without any rights retained by the author. The TLO training taught me about the six different Creative Commons licenses. This was news to me! A work can be open and free while allowing the author to retain some rights. Had I known this when I was teaching, I might have been more “open” to OER!  

Learning about OER licensing also addressed some of my concerns about the quality of the resources. I liked knowing that authors of OER share their work with some rights retained (usually a simple attribution) because this encourages authors to put their best foot forward, so to speak, and potentially lends some credibility to the resources. It’s still up to each instructor to evaluate the quality of OER for use in the classroom, but this is true even of commercial textbooks, for what else is a professor doing when selecting a textbook for adoption, if not evaluating the quality of the text and choosing the text that will most closely meet the needs of the class? For any newcomers to OER, the TLO course includes a very helpful evaluation checklist which guides the instructor through a consideration of the resource’s clarity, accuracy, adaptability, appropriateness, accessibility, and supplemental resources. I found this list very helpful and would certainly have made good use of it, were I still teaching. 

I was also pleased to learn that one doesn’t just perform a Google search for OER materials (although this is one legitimate way of finding free teaching materials, as long as one evaluates them properly); rather, open educational resources are often housed in repositories such as OER Commons, Skills Commons, or the newly created OERTX Repository. Not only do these repositories provide instructors with easy access to a wide variety of OER in centralized locations, but they also address the concern of finding higher quality resources.

Thanks to my experience with Texas Learn OER, I have a much greater appreciation for, and understanding of, open educational resources. Whereas I once viewed OER as inferior to commercial textbooks, I now have a better idea of how valuable these resources can be to both students and instructors. Not only do OER open up new instructional possibilities, but they also benefit the students greatly by making college more affordable and accessible. Had I known all of this, I would have used OER back in the day!