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The Skills Agenda

Why you should start using open educational resources in your teaching

These learning materials can be freely shared and usually allow for the ability to adapt them to meet student needs.


Your students don’t buy the textbook because it is too expensive. The textbook has the same errors as the last edition. The bookstore is still waiting for the textbook to come in. Many instructors have faced one or more of these problems — but they don’t have to. By using an open educational resource (OER) such as an open textbook, instructors can dramatically reduce costs for students, and easily fix any errors, and students always have access.

In this edition of The Skills Agenda, I am delighted to bring in my colleague, Heather M. Ross. Heather is an educational development specialist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning and has led the university’s open educational practices (OEP) initiative, which has already saved students more than $5 million since 2015. It has also sparked the creation of several OER, as well as multiple projects where students have contributed to the creation or adaptation of OER.

What are open educational resources?

OER are learning materials that can be freely shared and usually allow for the ability to adapt them to meet student needs. These are possible because the OER is either in the public domain or carries a Creative Commons or another open license. The materials may have been created specifically to be open or they may have initially held a complete copyright license that either has expired or was changed to something more open. OER are usually written by instructors who teach on the topics covered or act as editors as students engage in the creation of learning materials as part of their own learning.

How can open resources assist in creating a more equitable and sustainable classroom?

Affordability is a challenge for many students attending Canadian postsecondary institutions. In addition to rising tuition costs, students (like all of us) face a rising cost of living due to inflation. These growing costs can create a barrier to accessing higher education, particularly for students from lower-income backgrounds, Indigenous students, international students and first-generation students.

Instructors have no control over factors such as tuition and cost of living, but they often have agency in selecting course learning materials. And while textbooks and other course materials may seem like a small part of the higher education affordability equation, reducing textbook costs can have a meaningful impact on the lives of students. It may be the difference between the need to work or to cut back on necessities: according to the American-based Education Data Initiative, “25 per cent of students reported they worked extra hours to pay for their books and materials; 11 per cent skipped meals in order to afford books and course materials.” It may also make a difference in their debt loads at graduation: according to Statistics Canada, the percentage of bachelor’s graduates with debt levels of $25,000 or over rose from 33 per cent in 2000 to 45 per cent in 2015 (most recent data available), with average debt levels varying by field of study.

According to BC Campus, open textbooks saved British Columbia students almost $35M since 2012. Many individual universities report their students’ saving from OER; be sure to look into the data for your own institution.

OER has other benefits. Being online, the materials have a reduced environmental impact. And while commercial e-textbooks have the same benefit, these textbooks are often only available to the student during the rental period, while open resources can be accessed by their students indefinitely, including any updates.

The ability to adapt OER also allows for the materials to better reflect the students in your courses. Historically, learning materials in Canada and other Western nations are Eurocentric and often fail to include contributions from women, BIPOC, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities. OER allows you to include the voices of those often excluded either through your own modifications or with contributions from students.

How can open educational resources provide instructors with greater flexibility?

After assigning a $100+ textbook, instructors can often feel duty-bound to include most or all of the book in their teaching to justify the cost. The textbook’s table of contents ends up making course design and content decisions that the instructor may not have chosen on their own. Open resources remove that pressure. Instructors can choose to use and adapt parts of multiple open resources, creating a customized package of material for their students while exposing their students to a greater number of voices and viewpoints than a single textbook authorship team.

How can instructors find open educational resources?

There are a number of online OER catalogues that include materials from across the disciplines. In Canada, BC Campus is the gold standard. Also, look into who at your institution leads your OER initiative and reach out to them for support in finding, evaluating, and modifying materials. Your library and teaching and learning centre would be good places to begin.

As you start thinking about your courses for the next academic year, be sure to consider whether OER might replace some or all of the textbooks you use. And if resources don’t exist, consider how you might work with colleagues and/or students to create new resources.

Continuing the Skills Agenda conversation

Do you use open educational resources in your teaching? Please let me know in the comments below. I also welcome the opportunity to speak with your university about skills training. Please connect with me at [email protected], subject line “The Skills Agenda”. And for additional teaching, writing, and time management discussion, please check out my Substack blog, Academia Made Easier.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

Loleen Berdahl is an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Dr. Berdahl’s most recent books include Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press; with Jonathan Malloy) and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science (Oxford University Press; now in its 4th edition with Jason Roy). Heather Ross is educational development specialist of digital pedagogies at the University of Saskatchewan.
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