Making Open Educational Resources Count


Last week was Open Access Week on Twitter and the hash tag #openaccess is still flying around the social media sphere to hype up various Open Educational Resources and open platforms for research that have been developed (or are currently under development). Links and tweets share educational materials, unlock archives through digital means so that researchers can access and utilize them, and mine “big data” for innovative new directions in thinking, learning, being, and doing. Like many avant-garde practices, it’s a Dutch initiative (along the lines of other social innovations the Dutch embrace warmly, like socialized medicine, biking everywhere, paid maternity and paternity leave, forward-thinking immigration policies etc etc……). I’m happy it’s sparking a discussion across the globe over who has access to resources, and how. As author Neil Gaiman reminded readers this week in the Guardian, we need open access in all forms (he was speaking specifically in support of public libraries that face looming austerity cuts in the UK) as “our future depends on libraries, reading, and daydreaming” – in both concrete and virtual forms.

Conversations around open access are near to my heart, and especially those on Open Educational Resources as I’m currently researching the effects MOOCs have on teaching and learning as part of my fellowship at the Schwartz Institute, and I have built and run an OER-style website for art history instructors over the last few years. I have listened to OER leaders I admire, like Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker of Smarthistory, and Sal Khan of KhanAcademy, extol educational resources that can be accessed by everyone. And I agree. Wholeheartedly.

However, over the past few months I’ve had many conversations that have begun to temper (but will never extinguish) my passion for these kinds of resources. The conversations have been with colleagues and friends, all emerging or early career academics. We’re all encouraged to publish. Publish, publish, publish. Publications are still the holy grail of academia – the way to land a job, and keep it; the way to maintain respect amongst peers and senior figures in our fields; the part of the resume, we’re all told, that really counts. And now, many academics are being encouraged by their seniors to create OERs for institutions eager to be seen at the avant-garde of teaching, learning, and technology. These are often younger academics who are using tech skills their seniors do not possess. If they’re not doing it institutionally, then they’re innovating independently, striking out and creating their own OERs as ways to connect with peers and truly collaborate as researchers, teachers, and writers.

And yet, Open Educational Resources are not “publications.” They’re innovative ways to share information. They’re labors of love for many of those who work on them. They’re mind-blowingly effective for students and teachers in the classroom (I can attest to this having switched from using a physical survey textbook to an online, OER-style crowdsourced virtual textbook in the last year). OERs are a hot topic of conversation at any THATCamp or Digital Humanities conference. But the Humanities fields still fail, for the most part, to recognize digital publications as, well …… publications. Which leaves the conundrum thus: either the publication of OERs will trail off as this generation of academics is reviewed by their seniors and told that “non-traditional” publications don’t “count.” Who has time, when all is said and done, to write sustained, high quality texts that will not help them retain their livelihood (rhetorical question!); OR this generation of academics, especially those in the humanities, will join together and make it known that this type of publication not only DOES count, but can be hugely beneficial. I know which scenario I would prefer.

OERs are not here to replace older, more traditional forms of publication and knowledge sharing. It’s a case of “and-and” rather than “either/or.”


  1. Great post! I think the second scenario, coupled with ongoing dissatisfaction with the walled garden, slow, unresponsive, unhelpful model that had for too long plagued academic publishing, is the most likely outcome. The departments/programs that don’t recognize the value of OERs (and other “non-traditional” publications) are going to find themselves withering away. Then we’ll see just whose livelihood gets threatened!

  2. Beth Harris says:

    Indeed a real conundrum. Maybe one day contributing to a resource like Smarthistory will officially count toward tenure and promotion, since it is – in many ways – a co-authored textbook. In the meantime, I don’t think it makes sense to see this as either/or. Graduate students prepare to teach classes. How much work is involved in turning those lecture notes and teaching strategies into an 800-1000 word essay? A few hours perhaps?

    Don’t we all have a few hours to contribute to an OER in our discipline?

  3. Beth, Joseph, thanks for both your comments!
    Beth, as I point out at the end of the post, it’s definitely not an either/or but an and-and (or a win-win) to have “traditional” publications and new forms like OERs.
    Where I think your idea gets complicated is that it takes an excessive amount of time for an emerging instructor to pull together a lecture. “A few extra hours” for them to make it into an essay for an OER means a few hours more in terms of unpaid work that has to be fitted inbetween the internship (also unpaid) and the babysitting/bartending job(s). While it is imperative that people at all levels of academia participate in OERs in order to legitimize them – as you so rightly point out – as textbooks and serious feats of research and authorship, it has to come from somewhere else than the already disenfranchised grad student-cum-contingent-adjunct.

    We need provosts and chancellors and museum directors and curators – people with real power – to back (and contribute) to these types of resources. Some do. Smarthistory is awesome! I’d like to see more happen.

  4. Renee says:

    Michelle, I am so glad you wrote this! I know it’s something we’ve chatted about in the past and I think it’s important to look forward with very cautious optimism because we have a long way to go. Where do we start? We recognize teaching as an important part of the profession, which actually isn’t done is most schools, and we recognize the hidden labor of teaching. (I’d also argue that there’s got to be some exploration of the gendering of academic labor, and the emotional labor of creating OER, here but that’s a whole other thing.)
    That’s where we start! But part of that start is recognizing that it’s not like writing print textbooks gets you a step toward tenure either — at most institutions.

    And perhaps more to the point, I’ve actually found that as I’ve built my career I don’t have a few hours to turn over to writing an essay for an OER, and I’m not even a traditional academic! I thought it was something I could do in my spare time from materials I already had, but that also devalues the resource. Anything I produce would be specific to the format/context I’m producing it for, so it’s actually a complete mindset change. Earlier on in my career I spent many hours writing for an OER and I’m proud of that work but I just couldn’t continue it. I wound up feeling immensely guilty that I couldn’t. I don’t think any early-career anyone should feel guilty because they can’t (or simply won’t) do extra unpaid labor.

    I *want* OER to work but I think, like ANYTHING involving pedagogy, we have to take a step back to keep taking steps forward. I think the question of digital, analog, emotional, and pedagogical labor (and even the labor I put into writing this comment) has to be explored from a broader viewpoint. In terms of pedagogy and OER we focus on the micro. I’d like to see a conversation about the macro.

  5. Renee, thank you for such an insightful and clarifying comment. I agree with everything you’ve raised. In reply – I think there’s a really interesting CAA panel in what you say. Perhaps for a THATCamp, but I’d actually like to hear these issues of the different labors around an OER, and how they are valued, in the mainstream for once. If you ever want to co-propose, let me know!!

  6. Nancy Ross says:

    I think that Michelle’s comment above is a very traditional academic answer to a problem – step back, have a panel at a conference, wait and see, don’t be hasty. But how will that panel or those actions improve OERs, which need more action than talk? OERs work well because they get a product out and respond quickly to feedback.

    Art history is a discipline that focuses so much of its efforts on studying the avant garde but we generally engage with our content in a very traditional and conservative way. I hope that we can break out of this.

  7. Nancy, thank you for your comment!
    But, hang on a second. Where did I say “wait and see” or “don’t be hasty”? I’m a proponent of OERs (I have created one and spend a lot of my “spare” time supporting it!). What my post above is asking is “how can we make them count” and “how can we ask people who have real institutional power to get involved?”

    What kinds of concrete ways can we get those with institutional clout involved? You and I (we’re not provosts, chancellors, we do not hold purse strings or shape strategic mission plans) are already involved. We already talk AND act on OERs. What I want to know is how we can get buy-in from others higher up the food chain to sustain our involvement, because I’m seeing many colleagues at my level and just slightly above it getting burned when they spend too much time on OERs and not “trad publications.” OERs “work” yes, but for whom? Users – certainly. Institutions who can show their faculty are doing interesting things – yup. OER creators who get satisfaction from the form of publishing – absolutely…..until they need to keep hold of their academic job.

    I definitely don’t have the answers. I’m posing the Q. I hope we can break out of this too!!!

  8. Renee says:

    I also wanted to add that I think it’s possible to create, have broad conversations at a sort of (as much as I hate the word) meta level, AND be activists at the same time. Hybrid Pedagogy (though not an OER itself but of a similar variety) and the Digital Labor Commons ( both do a good job of demonstrating that.
    And we have to talk about labor! We must! Michelle, I’m planning to be at THATCamp CAA so that might be a good place to start this conversation to continue other places. Let’s talk further.

  9. I think “digital labor” would be a really (thought) provoking conversation for THATCamp, given that labor and its contingency is the legacy most higher education students are graduating into now. Please, please do suggest this as a conversation Renee, and Nancy, Beth, Joseph – please join that conversation if you have time and interest as you have so much to offer it.


  1. […] institute thinks about a lot, and which has been written about quite a bit on this blog, including this recent, eloquent, and thought-provoking piece by Michelle Fisher. Our roundtable was intended to do […]

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