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Open Education

Patrick Blessinger
TJ Bliss

12. A Practitioner’s Guide to Open Educational Resources: A Case Study

Howard Miller


Entering into the world of Open Educational Resources (OERs) is not simply a matter of embracing a social justice-oriented stance about cutting ties to expensive textbooks and providing greater access to higher education. There is a practical side to making the transition from textbook-dependent courses to OER and, especially, for an individual professor or group of faculty members working without an existing OER-supportive institutional infrastructure (i. e. experienced OER users to serve as models and mentors, librarians well-versed in identifying and accessing OER, and instructional designers able to provide assistance), there are a number of very real challenges. This contribution examines one college professor’s journey to OER, along with challenges and lessons learned along the way, as he strove to gain an understanding of how to implement an OER-supported curriculum. The chapter provides a model of a an OER-based course module, discusses the impact of the “Four R’s” of OER (Reuse, Revise, Remix, and Redistribute) on decisions regarding how best to employ OER within a new or existing college course and ends with a series of questions to consider when preparing to engage with the transition to OER

Texte intégral


  • 1 The opening two paragraphs of the Introduction appeared previously as part of an editorial, co-wri (...)

1In June of 2012, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) set forth a list of ten recommendations in support of Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which had been adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 on the heels of World War II. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a soaring document that envisions a world where freedom and dignity, safety and security, are viewed as the norm. Among the 30 articles that comprise the Declaration, the one that is most germane to the context of this book and chapter is that of Article 26, which states that “everyone has the right to education” (United Nations, 1948). Of course, back in 1948, no one was thinking about the application of this principle to higher education beyond the notion that it must be “equally accessible to all on the basis of merit” (United Nations, 1948). While accessibility to higher education remains a significant issue globally, a vast majority of institutions serving the educational needs and interests of postsecondary students at present are less bastions of meritocracy then they are pathways to knowledge and skills necessary for the workplace and for the possibility of upward mobility that is linked to the kinds of employment that require a college education. By the time of the 2012 UNESCO World Open Educational Resources Congress in Paris, the concept of “access” had become less narrowly focused on the delivery of instruction to the “best and brightest” and more on meeting the needs of the “interested and willing”.

2Conceptually, that is exactly what the OER movement has been about, the free access to educational tools, resources and content to the widest possible audience, with a general call for the democratization of higher education. Specifically, the World OER Congress called for:

  1. A universal fostering of awareness and use of OER.
  2. Enabling the use of information and communications technologies.
  3. Developing and reinforcing strategies and policies on the use of OER.
  4. Promoting the understanding and use of open licensing frameworks.
  5. Supporting capacity building for the development of quality learning materials.
  6. Fostering strategic alliances for the widespread use of OER.
  7. Encouraging the development and adaptation of OER across languages and cultures.
  8. Encouraging research on OER.
  9. Facilitating finding, retrieving, and sharing of OER.
  10. Encouraging the open licensing of educational materials produced with public funds.

3These are lofty goals, indeed. But what do these mean to the typical college faculty member? How do we translate these goals into everyday practice? The purpose of this contribution is to address these questions from the perspective of one faculty member, who began making the transition from textbook-based to OER course content in the same year as the aforementioned 2012 UNESCO World Open Educational Resources Congress was meeting in Paris.

First Contact

  • 2 For more information about the project, see “Adopting OER: A case study of cross-institutional col (...)

4I first became aware of OER as an option for replacing textbooks when I was invited to participate in a grant project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation.2 Its purpose, as it was initially explained to me, was to develop course materials in support of learning outcomes that would be made available to multiple participating institutions. My initial reaction was one of skepticism, concerned that I might be asked to participate in a project that would get me involved in a tug-of-war between competing industries (technology and book publishing). Nevertheless, I agreed to attend a preliminary meeting in Cerritos, California under the aegis of Lumen Learning, which had obtained the New Generation Learning Challenges grant under which we would be working. There we met with faculty from a number of partnering colleges from across the country gathered to discuss the proposed project. It was at that meeting and, subsequently, at the Open Education Conference in Park City, Utah that I began to understand the distinct advantages of making the transition to OER — advantages that convinced me to set aside my initial reticence.

  • 3 The Affordable College Textbook Act was co-sponsored in the Senate by Dick Durbin (D-IL), Al Frank (...)

5To begin with, OER frees students from the expense of textbooks, amounting to a saving of millions of dollars (University of Minnesota, 2015; Lumen Learning, 2016). Efforts to increase the use of OER as a means of reducing costs include a bill known as the Affordable College Textbook Act (2015) that was introduced in both the US Senate and the US House of Representatives in October of 2015.3 While the bill never made it beyond the point of being referred to a committee, it is notable for calling for the expansion of the production of open textbooks at colleges and universities, and for disseminating these under a “nonexclusive, permanent license to the public”. That bill referenced a report by the College Board identifying the cost of textbooks and supplies at four-year public institutions of higher education during the 2014–15 academic year to be $1,225, a figure that is more meaningful to an individual college student than the millions of dollars cited as an overall savings.

6Beyond the cost factor, however, there are other benefits to adopting OER. The use of such resources provides students with access to learning materials from the very first day of class. This is no small consideration. In a survey of more than 2,000 college students from 150 institutions across the country, 65% of respondents reported they had decided against purchasing their textbooks due to the cost (Center for Public Interest Research, 2014). A majority of these (94%) said they made the decision despite their concerns that failure to buy the textbooks might negatively impact their grades. In addition, half of those surveyed said the cost of textbooks influenced their decisions on how many courses to take per semester. And while it was not part of this survey, many students who do buy their textbooks postpone doing so, pending release of financial aid funds. Certainly, the availability of course materials from the start of the semester puts all students on an equal footing, at least in terms of access.

7OER can be delivered in ways that are supportive of students’ schedules and learning styles. Short videos and narrations (e.g. voice-over PowerPoint presentations) available online at any hour of the day can enhance the comprehension of visual and auditory learners in ways that textbooks cannot begin to duplicate. Using the “flipped classroom” model, students can be directed to these materials prior to class so they can be better prepared for in-class activities. For courses that are taught exclusively online, such delivery models also provide a sense of “presence” of faculty members, especially when they incorporate videos of themselves explaining the content or use recorded narratives presentations that incorporate their own voice.

8From the perspective of faculty members, OER allows classes to get off to a “running start”, with the full expectation that all students have access to the course materials and can start using them immediately. The OER model allows faculty to draw on many different sources and adopt or adapt them in ways that make sense for the course scope and sequence, and for the students. It encourages faculty to be creative in the delivery of course materials, to reshape existing materials, design new ones, collaborate with colleagues who are teaching the same course at their home institution or at other colleges or universities or to “bring the world” to their students through connections with outside agencies or speakers. Faculty are limited only by their imaginations and the availability of supportive technologies that allow them to incorporate virtual museum tours, guest lectures, lab experiments and other experiences to enhance the students’ learning. Finally, using OER provides opportunities for doing research on the effectiveness of various teaching approaches and course delivery systems. The OER “movement” is still relatively young and evidence of its impact on student learning, engagement and retention is very much open for research.

Adopting/Adapting Open Educational Resources

9A number of those who attended these initial sessions with me decided not to continue with the project. One issue of concern that several expressed was the potential loss of autonomy and academic freedom regarding their courses. Some, too, were loath to abandon their textbooks, while others hesitated at freely distributing their “intellectual property”. Nevertheless, I was sufficiently convinced that there would be a definite advantage to our faculty and students, and I agreed to table my own concerns and become a participant in the grant. In my capacity as an experienced literacy educator, I began working with my cross-institutional colleagues to focus on developing a common set of student learning outcomes that were broad enough to encompass our collective goals, yet with sufficient room for meeting local needs. What we had in common was a target body of college freshmen and a goal of identifying OER materials that would support their reading skills in ways that would improve their ability to understand the wide range of texts they would come across during their first two years as college students within the general education curriculum. What we failed to anticipate, however, was what we did not have in common — the specific students with whom we were working. Each of us worked with students with varying learning needs and degrees of “college readiness” and while we could agree to the learning outcomes, we determined that the best approach for us would be to set about applying them to our local purposes.

Challenges and a Plan

10In my case, the target students were college freshmen enrolled in our institution’s “Freshman Seminar” course (now reconceptualized as “Critical Inquiry”). My introduction to OER had consisted largely of an immersion into the beliefs, values, and potential benefits of using freely accessible, openly licensed content and instructional media in lieu of the traditional textbook. But coming face-to-face with the task of converting a conceptual framework into practical reality was daunting. There is a certain sense of assurance in using a familiar textbook and supplementing it with lectures, models and practice materials; it is quite another thing to eschew the textbook altogether. Hence, the most challenging question for me was this: To what extent, and how quickly, would I be able to turn the course around? This challenge was exacerbated by the fact that I did not “own” the Freshman Seminar course, which was a key component of the general education curriculum, with a well-established set of competencies to be met. Fortunately, I benefited from having a very positive relationship with those who did have that responsibility. I had conducted numerous workshops for the instructors and had laid out the groundwork for their understanding of critical literacy, an important focus they were very much interested in. They were eager for specific materials they could use with their students; now all I had to do was to come up with them.

11In the end, I decided to tackle the task by creating a series of self-contained modules. The benefit for using modules is that these can be brought into the course at any point, allowing instructors the academic freedom to use one or more of them at any given time, dependent on the needs of their particular group of students. I decided to apply the skills to academic texts in math, science, and history, since most freshmen take courses in these areas in their first or second semester. The initial set of skills is identified here:

Table 1. Skills Addressed in Critical Literacy Course Modules


Outcome(s) Addressed

Brief Description


MODULE 1 Reading Math 1

Understanding core vocabulary

Strategy lessons on comprehending vocabulary (using math text)

Exercise 1: Using the Context
Exercise 2: Using external sources

MODULE 2 Reading Math 2

Comprehending text

Identifying main ideas and key concepts (using math text)

Exercise 1: Identifying main ideas (explicitly presented in text)

MODULE 3 Reading Math 3

Comprehending, analyzing, and drawing conclusions from text

Comprehending, analyzing, and drawing conclusions from text (using math text)

Exercise 1: Applying skills to “unpacking” math word problems

MODULE 4 Reading Science

Drawing inferences from text

Identifying main ideas and key concepts where these are implicit rather than explicit

Exercise 1: Inferring main ideas

MODULE 5 Reading History

Analyzing, synthesizing, drawing inferences, and evaluating text

Critical analysis of text (using history text)

Exercise: Questions 1–4 (drawing on textual content)

The Search for Resources

12Once the skill set was identified, the next step was to begin the search for OER materials that would appropriately address the desired outcomes. As a veteran educator with a long history of using search engines and a knack for coming up with the right combination of key words to find the elusive perfect materials, I was optimistic about quickly obtaining what I would need. Unfortunately, however, as I was embarking on this project, the broader focus of the education community with respect to OER was on MOOCs, those “massive open online courses” being developed simultaneously at that time by Coursera, Udacity, edX and many others, aimed at drawing in many thousands of students and opening up the possibilities of higher education to all comers. The creation of repositories of well-vetted OER materials that could be easily accessed by individual faculty members was not yet a high priority and the quality of existing repositories was not at all certain (Atenas and Havemann, 2014). In brief, I hit a snag, albeit a fortuitous one that led me to gaining a fuller and more authentic understanding of what is meant by the “Four R’s” of OER: Reuse, Revise, Remix, and Redistribute — all of which came into play as I embarked on the creation of these course modules.

The Four R’s in Practice

13The target audience for these modules was college freshmen who, as readers, tend to struggle (or decline to struggle) with content literacy, especially where the content and topics are unfamiliar. Even familiar words may cause confusion when they acquire new meanings that are content-specific (Module 1). Well-written texts provide support, but students need to know how to recognize and avail themselves of the support (Module 2). Unfortunately, not all texts are helpful; rather, they may assume a degree of knowledge and experience that may or may not exist, and students need to learn to draw inferences when there is little other support available to them (Module 3 and Module 4). Finally, students need to learn to read with a critical eye, recognizing that what they are reading represents a number of decisions on the writer’s part: what to include, what to leave out, how to sequence the information, what support to provide and what words to choose. There is always a bias — something that college students should learn to understand so that they can evolve as engaged learners rather than passive note-takers and memorizers of information (Module 5).

14The modules, along with their attendant exercises, were created so that they could be used in accordance with the needs of the students and the purposes of the instructor. They can be used individually or collectively; sequentially or reordered during a short, focused time period or spread throughout a course or portion of a course. They can be presented to students to do independently by way of introducing or practicing a set of skills, or under the direct guidance of the instructor. The modules, however, were not, designed with the intent of serving as substitutions for direct instruction. Thus, it is expected that the instructor will introduce the skill set addressed in any given module, and will follow-up with an analytic discussion and/or additional work — preferably applying the skills to other types of course-related reading.

  • 4 All of the modules have been uploaded to the OER Commons website ( and (...)

15Each module consists of an instructional component and a set of exercises. The tone of the instructional component is intentionally friendly and inviting, in the manner of a supportive teacher, with the expectation that the students will be engaging with the material independently and will perhaps be more responsive to a “guiding voice”. One sample module is laid out below: Reading A Math Textbook — Main Ideas and Key Concepts. In creating the module, I reused, revised and remixed existing OER text (in this case, drawn from an open source math textbook) by combining it with instructional content that I developed. I subsequently redistributed the newly minted module via this chapter and by uploading it (and all of the other modules) into the OER Commons website4 for others to reuse, revise, remix and redistribute.


Reading A Math Textbook — Main Ideas and Key Concepts


16There are books available that you may elect to read to find out more about the history of mathematics or to gain insights into the mind of a particular mathematician. But the typical math textbook you will encounter will be packed with information, examples and problems to solve. Think of it as a guide for “doing math”.

17Through this set of short lessons and exercises, you will learn and practice using the kinds of skills that will help you to read and understand a mathematics textbook.

Reading for Main Purpose

18Read this excerpt from a college algebra textbook.* Read it the way you normally would.

19Now go to Exercise 1. [Note: Exercises can be found following this instructional component of the module.]

20[* This and all other textbook samples used as part of the learning module on reading math are excerpted from Beginning and Intermediate Algebra by Tyler Wallace, an open source (CC BY) textbook available for free download at​book/​book.html]

Rule 4: Slow down, but first speed up

21OK. Let’s take another look together.

22Here is the excerpt again:

23I asked you to read the excerpt and then answer two questions.

  1. What would you say the author has in mind as the main purpose of this section of the textbook?
    1. To show you different ways to work through a math problem.
    2. To introduce the mathematics concept of “order of operations”
    3. To introduce new mathematics vocabulary words
    4. To show how adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing can be done in any order
  2. What has the author done to help you to see the main purpose of this section?
    1. Put things in a logical order than can only lead to one conclusion
    2. Underline key points
    3. Tell you up front what the purpose is
    4. Summarize the main purpose at the end of the selection

24The correct answers are b and c, respectively.

25How do I know?

26Good question.

27You will often be asked to summarize what you have read, or to identify the main purpose or to find the main idea or the key points. This is not an easy task. The truth is, you are not really being asked to make your own judgment about these things. Instead, you are being asked to get inside the mind of the author and determine what that person considers to be the main idea.

28It really is the writer’s (and the editor’s) responsibility to give you some guidance. Good readers know how to appreciate and take heed of that support.

29In the case of this textbook excerpt, you have been given guidance. The author has identified the purpose right up front:

Objective: Evaluate expressions using the order of operations, including the use of absolute value

30You could quibble (and I would agree) that the phrase “including the use of absolute value” throws things off a bit, but the author has done you a real service by providing the objective and by using bold face to draw your attention to it. You may not know a hill of beans about “order of operation” going into the chapter, but at least you understand that this is what the chapter will be about. Every little bit helps!

31The writer also has given you additional visual clues to help you stay focused on the main points of the excerpt. Notice the use of indentation, underlining and additional bold face to focus your eye on what is important.

32Remember, the purpose at the point is to determine and stay focused on the main idea of a selection. That does not mean you can afford to ignore everything else on the page. Still, it is a start.

Rule 4: Slow Down, But First Speed Up

33Poor readers don’t concern themselves with the kinds of clues that we have been talking about. The goal is to get from the top left-hand corner of the page down to the bottom right-hand corner as quickly as possible. But it’s not a race. The purpose of reading the textbook is to actually learn something.

34You will need to do some careful reading. But it pays to begin by trying to grasp the main ideas(s) that will be covered in the selection. Look for words that are highlighted in some fashion, or words like “objective”, “purpose”, “introduction”, or “summary”. Most textbooks will offer these supports, with the specific intention of guiding you toward understanding the main idea.

35With a little bit of practice, you will learn to do this quickly and efficiently. You can either make a mental note of these key points, or — even better — write them down so that you get into the habit of creating chapter-by-chapter summaries.

36Now go to Exercise 2 [Note: Exercises can be found following this instructional component of the module.]



38Questions and Instructor’s Answer Key for Module 2: Reading Math — Main Ideas and Key Concepts

Exercise 1 (For correct answers and discussion, go to Content Module)

  1. What would you say the author has in mind as the main purpose of this section of the textbook?
    1. To show you different ways to work through a math problem.
    2. To introduce the mathematics concept of “order of operations”
    3. To introduce new mathematics vocabulary words
    4. To show how adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing can be done in any order
  2. What has the author done to help you to see the main purpose of this section?
    1. Put things in a logical order than can only lead to one conclusion
    2. Underline key points
    3. Tell you up front what the purpose is
    4. Summarize the main purpose at the end of the selection

Exercise 2 (Intended to be done independently)

39Read the following excerpt from the same college algebra textbook. Make note of the clues you are provided.

40Question 1: In one sentence, explain the main or key purpose of this excerpt.

41FOR INSTRUCTOR: The purpose of this excerpt is to give some basic understanding, with examples, of how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide positive and negative numbers.

42Question 2: How do you know?

43FOR INSTRUCTOR: The purpose is stated directly at the beginning of the excerpt, and the author has boldfaced the heading in order to alert the reader as to the purpose.


Conclusion and Lessons Learned

45The above represents one model of how OER can be adapted without incorporating costly textbooks that may or may not provide the content that meets the needs of a particular course taught by a particular faculty member to a particular group of students. That is the real strength of OER – its malleability to serve many different purposes, whether it is used to supplement or to supplant existing materials within a course. This chapter has focused on the pragmatic questions encountered by one faculty member in a journey towards making the use of OER a common practice in the college classroom.

46The lessons learned are these: anyone considering transitioning a course from a textbook-reliant style to an OER-based one needs to go in with both eyes open wide to the challenges that exist. Faculty should also carefully consider all of their options, including the possibilities of retaining the textbook, seeking a new textbook, using OER to supplement an existing textbook or making the transition to OER a gradual one, allowing for time to try out various components and/or methods of delivery. Faculty should consider these questions as a means of guiding their decisions regarding the use of OER:

  • Do you “own” the course you are thinking of developing or switching over to OER? Are there approvals required for courses changes, curriculum committees to consult? Are there components of the course that must be retained?
  • Will changes impact previously identified student learning outcomes?
  • Will changes impact course assessments?
  • If you wish to (or are required to) collaborate with others teaching the same course, would this be a barrier?
  • How do you want to deliver course content? Do you need the assistance of an instructional designer to work out how to incorporate videos, voice-over PowerPoint presentations, podcasts or other technology?
  • Do you want to switch to a “flipped classroom” model that incorporates more pre-class experiences for your students and that opens up live classroom time for other kinds of activities? If so, what changes would you want to make in the face-to-face classroom time?
  • Similarly, if you want to use a model that is strictly online, how will you organize the course materials so there is a logical sequence for the students to follow?
  • Is there someone to turn to for help if unanticipated technological problems arise that interfere with students’ access to the course materials?
  • Are you prepared to preview all of the course elements prior to the start of each semester, knowing that websites or links to them sometimes change or disappear altogether? Do you have a “Plan B” in mind, just in case?
  • Are you prepared to update content on a regular basis in order to take advantage of changes or innovations in your field?
  • Are you willing to share your materials in the true spirit of OER?

47There is still a need for further research into the impact of OER on student learning, and there is a need to continue the development of the tools and resources to support the transition to OER. Much of the work in doing that has been funded by various foundations — Hewlett, Gates and others — and much of the funding has been absorbed by the top tier colleges and universities that have the infrastructure and the additional financial means to support it. But attention spans are short and pockets are not infinitely deep. It will take local efforts by individuals and groups of faculty, along with cross-institutional collaborations, in order to make the use of OER the norm rather than the “pilot project” at our institutions of higher education.



Atenas J. and Havemann, L. (2014), Questions of Quality in Repositories of Open Education Resources: A Literature Review, Research in Learning Technology, 22, pp. 1–13,

Center for Public Interest Research (2014), Fixing the Broken Textbook Market: How Students Respond to High Textbook Costs and Demand Alternatives,

Congress. Gov. (2015), Affordable College Textbook Act,

Lumen Learning (2016), Open Outcomes: Cost Savings,

United Nations (1948), Declaration of Human Rights,

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2012), 2012 Paris OER Declaration,

University of Minnesota (2015), U of M’s Open Textbook Network Reports Student Savings of $1.5 Million from Open Textbooks,’s-open-textbook-network-reports-student-savings-15-million-open-textbooks-0


1 The opening two paragraphs of the Introduction appeared previously as part of an editorial, co-written by the chapter author and Jordan Jay, Professor of Education, Lincoln University, Missouri, published in Global Education Review (Volume 2, Number 3) an open access journal, in September 2015. The writers served as co-editors for a special issue of the journal on the theme: “Open Education Resources and MOOCs”,

2 For more information about the project, see “Adopting OER: A case study of cross-institutional collaboration and innovation”, co-authored with Nancy Pawlyshyn, Dr. Braddlee, and Linda Casper,

3 The Affordable College Textbook Act was co-sponsored in the Senate by Dick Durbin (D-IL), Al Franken (D-MN) and Angus King (I-ME), and in the House of Representatives by Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX) and Jared Polis (D-CO).

4 All of the modules have been uploaded to the OER Commons website ( and can be readily accessed there and used under a CC By Creative Commons license.


Professor of Education at Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, New York, where he serves as chair of the Department of Secondary Education. Previously, he was a member of the Teacher Education Faculty at Lincoln University, Missouri. Howard began his career as a classroom teacher, and for twenty years taught reading and English in public schools in the United States. He has presented numerous professional workshops and has published close to four dozen articles and book reviews in professional journals. He has been actively engaged with the use of Open Educational Resources for the past five years, has presented at the Open Education Conference, co-authored an article on the use of OER at Mercy College ( and recently served as guest editor of an OER-themed issue of the open online journal Global Education Review (


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