Students' Vital Role in OER

Through creating and spreading open educational resources, students learn more and make an impact on the world, writes Christina Hendricks.

December 13, 2017
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When I first started learning about open education and open educational resources about five years ago, I knew OERs were different than other educational resources in that they have an open license, but I thought of them as similar in the sense of being created by instructors in educational institutions. But it’s clear to me now that students also have a valuable role to play in creating and revising OERs, as well as in promoting open education more widely.

An open education movement with students is much more effective than without, and creating and revising OERs can be a valuable way for students to learn and to have their work make a larger impact than just earning them a grade.

Asking students to contribute educational resources that are made publicly available and openly licensed is a way to avoid what David Wiley, chief academic officer of Lumen Learning, calls “disposable assignments”: assignments that are marked for a grade and otherwise add no value to the world. Student work in many courses can be very useful to other students in a course, to community groups and to the wider public.

Wikipedia projects are one way for instructors to involve students in OER creation or revision while contributing to a widely used public resource. As one student put it in a quote on the Wiki Education Foundation website, “There is much gratification in leaving your personal mark on something that will help others to learn.”

In addition, writing for Wikipedia can help students gain important digital and information literacies, such as learning how to find and cite reliable sources and how to write for a nonspecialist audience. At the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, in Canada, students are editing Wikipedia in courses ranging from food, nutrition and health to Canadian literature and human ecology. The Wiki Education Foundation provides many useful resources for those wanting to incorporate Wikipedia assignments into their courses.

Students can also provide valuable contributions to open textbooks -- textbooks that are openly licensed and provided at no or low cost (printed versions usually have a nominal cost). It might seem that only upper-level students would be able to do so well, but that need not necessarily be the case. As Plymouth State University professor Robin DeRosa puts it, “Students are the perfect people to help create textbooks, since they are the most keenly tuned in to what other students will need in order to engage with the material in meaningful ways.”

One of the books DeRosa created with students is The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature, in which students gathered public-domain texts, wrote introductions and created discussion questions and assignments to accompany them. One of the examples in a newly published “A Guide to Making Open Textbooks With Students” from the Rebus Foundation features students adding new chapters to The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature, while in another example student lab instructors for a course in economics revised and added new content to an open microeconomics textbook from OpenStax.

The Open Logic Project, an international collaboration of people contributing to an open textbook in logic, includes a number of graduate and undergraduate students, and students also contribute to the open textbooks in the Libretexts collection, including those in chemistry, mathematics and humanities.

Other Student OER Projects

Students are working on many other kinds of OERs as well. At the University of Edinburgh, a group of undergraduate students revised existing OERs to add materials on LGBTQ health for the medical education curriculum. Graduate and undergraduate students at the UBC Vancouver are writing open case studies that can be used in educational or other contexts. The UBC Vancouver geography department has a website showcasing student research projects on environment and sustainability issues, including case studies, infographics and projects in geographic information science.

In addition, eCampusOntario (Canada) has recently established a student experience design lab, in which students work on projects such as a platform for students and faculty to create virtual reality experiences and a repository of student work done in courses -- all of the outputs of this lab will be openly licensed.

Furthermore, the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, has developed a program to support OER adoption in which undergraduate students work to locate OERs that align with a number of courses at the university, and graduate students provide reviews of those OERs. Along somewhat similar lines, students at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland are working as open content curators “whose role is to repurpose materials created by staff and students around the university to ensure they can be released under open license and shared in places where they can be found and reused.”

Student Advocacy

Promoting open resources is a natural fit for student advocacy, given concerns about the rising cost of higher education. But students are not only interested in saving money; many are also excited about the opportunity for student work to have more of an impact by being made publicly available, reusable and revisable by others. I have found in my own work that student advocacy is crucial, as students often have powerful voices when speaking to campus administrators and government leaders.

The #textbookbroke campaign on Twitter and other social media, often organized by student governments, features images of students showing how much they spent on textbooks for a term in order to reveal how expensive textbooks are. In British Columbia, student leaders from Simon Fraser University, UBC Vancouver and UBC Okanagan launched #textbookbrokebc in 2015. The student association at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada has taken a somewhat different road to support OER adoption: last year the association provided certificates of innovation for instructors who use OERs.

Student support for OER adoption and creation can have wider impacts on university policies and practices. In Scotland, the Edinburgh University Student Association’s advocacy provided an important impetus for the development of an OER policy at the university that “encourages staff and students to use, create and publish OERs.” At the UBC Vancouver, student government leaders worked to get language into an important guide to promotion and tenure for faculty in the teaching stream at UBC. Faculty in that stream must engage in “educational leadership,” and the new language in the tenure and promotion guide clarifies that contributions to OER can be counted as one way to show educational leadership.

I can no longer imagine being an effective open educator without working closely with students, and I hope this article has provided inspiration for others to do so, too!


Christina Hendricks is a professor of teaching in philosophy and deputy academic director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Other examples of student contributions to open education can be found in this blog post.


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