OER: Does the “E” stand for equitable?

With renewed calls for an examination into the diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts of educational institutions, it is critical to consider the role of libraries and their work in these efforts. Open educational resources (OER) and initiatives, often administered through libraries, can be tools to further equity and are worthwhile pursuits and points of consideration now, more than ever.

The rapidly rising cost of college is a both an economic enigma and an issue of equity. When a college degree is the ticket to higher wages for a whole lifetime’s worth of work, the price of admission should enable everyone who wants to take part to do so.

graffiti that says "for all"
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

There is a cost element of equity, and there is a representation element, too. While a free textbook may make it easier for everyone to acquire and access the resource (provided they have internet access), that textbook might still be out of reach to students who see examples and pictures about people and situations that are not at all familiar. OER can provide an opportunity to address this inequity.

Kharl Reynado, in a blog post for OpenStax, wrote about her experience attending the Open Ed 2018 Conference. She recounted hearing from Professor Jasmine Roberts, who teaches communications at Ohio State, discuss how OER has affected her relationships with students:

“While teaching, her student brought up a relevant example to their learning material. OER allowed her to quickly edit her textbook to incorporate the student’s idea. Though some people may see this as a very small gesture, I think that it can have a huge impact on how students see their place in education.”

This is an impact not only on how students see their place in education, but also whether they see it at all. Many traditional, commercial textbooks feature stock photos of white people with homogeneous origin stories and experiences. Students need to see people who look like them in the places they look every day; we can have a role in this through selecting images and anecdotes for OER that better match our students.

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Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

In a recent essay for the New England Board of Higher Education, Robin DeRosa, the director of the Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, wondered:

“For some students (and even contingent faculty and staff in our universities) COVID has augmented inequities that were already baked into their lives. Our continuing institutional failures to ameliorate or address these inequities can no longer be tolerated, both because the vulnerable in our colleges are at a breaking point from a global pandemic and because we have been called out by a national social justice movement that is demanding that we make real change at last. Is open education a way to answer this call?”

She goes on to explain why she thinks that yes, open education can be a solution. More than just alleviating the cost burden on students, DeRosa writes, OER “asks us to rethink the kind of architecture we want to shape our education system.” This is a time of great potential for positive change across all aspects of our lives, and OER can be a catalyst for such change in education broadly, because when we think more in the framework of open education, we think more about the benefits of opening other aspects of the physical and metaphorical campuses, too.

a man teaching a woman sitting at a table
Photo by Monica Melton on Unsplash

OER can also help faculty work with their students to learn about equity and issues of equity, as demonstrated by examples from all kind of educational institutions. The Community College Consortium for OER has collected case studies and examples of this work, and The OER Starter Kit includes a section on Diversity and Inclusion that makes the connection to open pedagogy and offers exemplar in-class activities. This work is being done—and you can do it, too.

This post was contributed by Georgia Westbrook, Open Educational Resources & Instruction Librarian