Using Open Educational Resources to Support Academic Achievement in a First-year Humanities Class

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Well-designed digital learning environments combine effective management strategies with collaborative learning processes (ISTE Coaching Standard 3: Digital Learning Environments). Open Educational Resources (OER) are instructional materials (such as textbooks, multimedia learning tools, and lesson plans) that can be used free of charge by instructors and students to customize, reduce costs, and increase the connectivity (timeliness, authenticity of audience, access to real-world learning communities, etc.) of learning, but that also call for effective instructional use and management.

Hilton (2016) surveyed a number of studies of the impact of OER on college student learning outcomes, and of student and faculty perceptions of OER, concluding that OER provide similar outcomes to textbooks and address the problem of textbook costs, which can deter students from purchasing books. In my own experience I have found that OER may be a good choice for student learning not only because they make course content more financially accessible but because they can be tailored to student needs, learning styles, and interests with much more flexibility than a textbook.

Considerations

Choosing to use OER in course design does involve the instructor and the institution in the responsibility to mitigate some of the potential barriers or difficulties they pose. For example, while OER can enhance the content of a course, they can play a role in reducing engagement between peers and between students and instructor. For this reason, they may not be ideal for diverse and nontraditional learners who would benefit from more instructional interaction. Similarly, I have consistently heard from my students that while they appreciate the convenience and some of the affordances of digitized text, many students believe that they understand and remember what they read best when they read from a book that they can touch, write on, and experience in three-dimensional space. A third consideration of how OER may actually compromise learning has to do with access; their use may disenfranchise students who do not have a reliable internet connection or who have limited technology skills or software or hardware.

In addition, three important contextual concerns that should inform instructors’ and designers’ thinking as we implement OER are quality control, intellectual copyright issues, and sustainability. The open nature of OER leads to a need for users (whether programs and institutions or individual instructors or designers) to establish and use criteria for evaluating the accuracy and academic credentials of these materials. Allowing individual faculty to use OER may compromise the consistency across sections that use of a required textbook ensures and that is a goal in standards-based education. Second, though OER are created in order to be shared, U.S. copyright and “fair use” laws still apply, and OER need to be “re-mixed” in ways that give attribution to both licensed and public domain sources (Moore, 2017). States such as Oregon have created higher education OER guidelines that address matters of access and quality (Freed, Friedman, Lawlis, & Stapleton, 2018).

A final ethical consideration that is easy to bypass in the rush to create a strategic institutional plan or a new coursepack is that of sustainability. This issue involves considering how our short term choices in instructional modes and materials impact the education in the long term. For example, movement away from the use of textbooks has driven up the cost of textbooks and also encouraged textbook companies to transform themselves into digital content providers. And while the prefabricated digital learning materials now being marketed by what formerly were textbook companies may have many attractive functionalities such as “intelligent” tutoring software, the ease with which these new materials can in turn be adopted by instructors to replace teaching can further distance students from learning as a carefully thought out and human-mediated process.

For these and other reasons, I’ve used OER sparingly, aiming to make and test one innovation at a time. I began with using OER from my field, writing instruction, using peer-reviewed resources provided by disciplinary associations and networks such as the WAC Clearinghouse or internationally recognized writing labs such as the Purdue OWL. I also try to find valid and reliable ways to assess and document the impact of my use of digital resources, at minimum by frequently collecting student feedback and giving students opportunity to choose the digital resources that work best for them. In the case of OER textbooks, I first used OER as supplements or as options, an approach that works best in courses, such as many writing courses, that are not textbook-driven, and that helps me maintain alignment with textbook requirements across sections in my institution while still taking advantage of the way OER can be tailored to student interests, learning styles, and learning levels.

Instructional Design with OER

When designing instruction, the basic steps I follow involve:

  • Identify the concepts to be learned
  • Identify barriers to learning
  • Identifying research-tested “best” pedagogical and disciplinary practices to be used
  • Decide how the unit fits into the overall scope of the course or create the comprehensive syllabus and structure for the course
  • Develop the tools and instruction

Designing an online or a technology-enhanced course involves more consideration, throughout the steps of this process, of factors such as accessibility, universality of design to support various types of learners, considering and supporting digital skill sets, and promoting cognitive, social, and instructor presence (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000).

Lehman and Conceição (2013), in their book-length survey of models of student persistence and presentation of online courses design strategies based on their model for supporting supporting student persistence, also identify a number of institutional and instructional supports and tasks (for example, creating forums for both content-related and non-content-related interactions such as technical support and office hours;  providing “Netiquette” guidelines; and considering how to help students prioritize tasks) that instructors like me should consider throughout the design process.

At the community college where I work, I have taught an the first of a three-course humanities sequence several times. This 100 level course provides a transfer credit and is often taken by students with little previous college experience. By requirement, HUM 121 is a textbook-oriented course that involves a survey of worldwide cultures from pre-civilization through the Western medieval era, also packing the disciplinary perspectives of cultural studies, art history, philosophy, and religious studies into a 15-week, 3 credit hour timeframe. Because of these constraints and the needs of my student population, my challenges in teaching this course include getting students interested, motivating them to read the required textbook, motivating them to learn vocabulary and disciplinary content that requires memorization, and supporting them in making the deeper connections that drive exploration, discovery, and authentic, personal learning.

This coming semester, the learning environment my students and I share will have some technological conditions that may act as further constraints or as opportunities. This course will be offered in a hybrid format, such that one of the three weekly contact hours involved in face-to-face instruction will be replaced by equivalent, asynchronous virtual instruction. The section will also be offered in what my institution terms a “global” format, meaning that some students will be present in a classroom for the two hours of weekly contact, while others will join on an individual computer from a remote site, while still others may be dual enrollment students who join as a group through a single computer. While I think that such a diversity of access formats inevitably leads to a privileging of one of the forms of attendance (for instance, on-site students may receive more teacher attention because of their physical proximity, or remote students in group settings may receive more instructor attention because of the problems associated with the relative number of layers of technology between them and the instructor), an equalizing factor is the fact that all students have access to the LMS course shell and associated student accounts (email, any software I embed, etc.), though not all students may have access at home. And while students and I are required to connect with content and one another using one or more other technologies (such as web-conferencing tools and the college website), one of my priorities for course design is to deliver as much content as possible in one place, using the shell as a hub. An opportunity that I have this semester is to use a slightly redesigned version of our LMS system, D2L/Brightspace. All these affordances and constraints make this a perfect time to re-examine the use of OERs to support these specific learning needs.

These, along with the considerations I listed above, mean that the three areas of most important consideration for me in the selection of OER for this course will be the (1) nature and quality of any open educational materials, (2) copyright and licensing issues, and (3) how the tools and resources are used.

While the instructional and infrastructure challenges discussed above pose possible barriers, what makes designing this course fun is prioritizing the focus on designing effective learning experiences. The other pieces are all means to that end. Through the design process steps sketched above, I’ll be building:

  • Learning experiences aligned with institutional curriculum outcomes and/or state guaranteed transfer standards, disciplinary and pedagogical best practices
  • Integration of educational technologies
  • Student technology training and support
  • Learner experiences that according with Universal Design and WCAG accessibility principles
  • Connections to means of social and cognitive engagement
  • Connections to institutional supports through the learning environment

The shift to a hybrid format has caused me to conceive of the course’s basic unit in terms of a series of one-week learning experiences or modules. While this may not sound like a big change for the organization of a survey course, this shift includes: a sense of how students’ learning process should unfold over a week, how technology will enable me to help students organize their time and learning tasks more effectively, and how the tasks assigned might need to change. The basic learning task sequence for a week will involve the following steps: Read, quiz, vocab, discuss, mini-lecture, connect and create.

Our synchronous class meetings will be on Monday. The week’s learning activities will begin with turning in annotations of readings the evening before class. Rather than requiring students to turn in reading notes or summaries or relying on reading quizzes for accountability, I would like to provide an accountable reading assignment that is also motivating. One way to achieve this is to begin collaborative discussion during the reading process through the use of collaborative annotation tools. This will transform reading from an independent and unsupported task which students often avoid to a collaborative one in which readings can be approached more critically, multiple readings can be documented, students can ask and answer questions and make connections to other texts, reading discussion can begin before class and continue after class, and documented group interaction around readings can be used by small groups to support collaborative research projects.

I’m exploring using Stanford university’s Lacuna software for collaborative annotation or Hypothes.is. Both tools are free but may present barriers in terms of institutional willingness to partner or access to digitized content. In this first iteration of this hybrid format, the institution issued student textbook requisitions in print form prior to assigning the course in a hybrid format, so I’m seeking some retro-fitted funding to possibly create access to a digitized version of the textbook. In the absence of this funding, I can still have students access many of the primary source readings (which because of their antiquity can be located in the public domain) included in the textbook. OER resources for such primary source readings include the public domain primary source collection at Project Gutenberg and primary source archives curated by university humanities and digital humanities departments, such as Fordham University’s Internet Ancient History Sourcebook.

Two important considerations for facilitating collaborative engagement will be 1. making it easy for students to engage with each other and the content; and 2. fostering participation. While I hope that Lacuna can foster the first, with some thought I should be able to use another easy-to-access software format or the “groups” or other features of my LMS shell to help students see and comment on one another’s work. To foster participation, one approach I’d like to try is to provide a work style survey that can help students self-select groups in a judgment-free way based on a knowledge of shared work styles. For instance, they could self-select into groups for those who prefer to plan ahead or who prefer to get work done at the last minute.

The next step in the learning activity chain will involve quizzes. Online quizzes that students take before class can reinforce reading content and help students monitor what they have and have not learned. In the past, I’ve given students unlimited opportunities to take and re-take 10-15 question, selected response and short essay quizzes at the conclusion of each reading and before a deadline. The intent was that in addition to providing accountability for reading, students would use quizzes to reinforce learning. I found in this context that few students used these quizzes more than twice and many took them only once, with poor outcomes indicating incomplete reading of course materials, and concluded that they were not very effective with this student population either in providing accountability or concept and vocabulary practice. Rather than scrapping the quizzes, I’d like to retain them and see if students will use them for practice more after doing group annotations.

Next, to continue to address the difficulty I’ve encountered with students learning the vocabulary terms of the many disciplines they encounter in HUM 121, I plan to begin each synchronous session with vocabulary study. The first 10 or 15 minutes of class will use vocabulary learning tasks such as Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC)-oriented short writing tasks that move students from contextual mastery of terms to the ability to apply terms as part of their personal vocabularies, to having students develop their own tools for learning, say, architectural vocabulary terms. Finally, I hope to embed vocabulary learning in the course by the use of OER texts and resources, as I’ll discuss below.

Once students have read and begun to learn basic organizing concepts, they need to learn to work with primary sources, to process those sources and make connections between those sources, and to display their knowledge. Skill in these three areas will build a foundation for the more in-depth projects students may be able to undertake in higher level humanities or in digital humanities courses. (I’m blown away by what Miriam Posner’s students at UCLA can achieve in a 100 level Digital Humanities course focused not on survey content but on research approaches and technologies: http://miriamposner.com/classes/dh101f17/assignments/final-project/ .) These three levels of work with sources will be supported by classroom discussions, which I plan to have students lead by adapting the fishbowl discussion technique, by mini-lectures, and by a short written analysis that students will submit near the conclusion of the week’s learning, the topics for which will emerge not only from the primary source readings and visual objects, but from the week’s collaborations.

Finally, the capstone project for the course will be a presentation in which students explore issues that provide cultural and sociological background for understanding one or more of the significant primary sources engaged in the class. For example, if a primary source is the Roman satirist Juvenal’s “Against the City of Rome,” students could explore a cultural or sociological contextual topic such as Roman Religion and Cultic Practice or the Roman Welfare State. This project will be supported throughout the class by a series of milestones. Equally important, the project will be supported as well as by a series of short tutorial-style assignments that will support students in working with sources (for example, by approaching attribution not merely as a matter of avoiding plagiarism but of participating in and facilitating a conversation), in processing sources (for example, students will use TimeMapper to create spatial, chronological, and conceptual organization of a topic), and in displaying sources and showcasing knowledge (both in written and visual form). OERs will form a key part of this project, serving not simply as primary or secondary resources but as contexts in which students re-process information and see approaches to inquiry.

In a previous digital archives project for students in a 100 level literature class, I found that providing students with access to instructor-curated digital archives of primary sources boosted student inquiry. For this class, I’ve also decided to provide students with a limited body of high-quality suggested resources (which they may opt to add to). I took these resources from university librarian-curated or university department-curated research guides. One source, Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR), is written for instructors rather than students, but provides good models of inquiry topics, provides overviews of critical central ideas or sources that students won’t necessarily know about, displays the use of the same sorts of vocabulary terms students engaged with in their textbook but in a different context, and suggests “activities” that students may find useful for their own learning as well as for using in a presentation. The project design will prevent students from over-reliance upon any one source or type of source. I hope that the presence of OERs on the syllabus, as support materials for the projects, as sources I will model use of in my participation in class discussion, but not necessarily as assigned reading will encourage and make it easier for students to engage in exploration throughout the course.

The six OERs I selected are included in the preliminary course schedule and resources here.

They will need to be reviewed for accessibility features before the syllabus is finalized.

Supporting motivation and collaboration

An important principle in supporting motivation is to provide both consistency and variability in course structure. In this course design, the consistency of weekly course tasks with variable facilitators and activities and a progressive sequence of benchmarks and supporting assignments will help achieve this.

Another aspect of the consistency of a course is the degree to which collaboration is fostered consistently across the course. I believe that one reason group participation in asynchronous activities (such as the collaborative reading annotation activities I plan for this course) can be notoriously difficult to achieve in online courses is that students perceive many collaborative activities (such as threaded discussions) as poorly integrated into the learning of the course, and this perception may be correct. Fostering collaboration includes teaching students how to provide meaningful feedback, making it safe for students to do so, being highly present as an instructor, providing means for self- and peer-assessment that holds students accountable, and integrating collaboration into the culture of the course rather than just into discrete activities. My goal for my use of OERs is that, with appropriate modeling and use, these will also will foster collaboration, serving as go-to rather than required resources that can foster exploration in whole- and small-group discussions, so that, as students will be supported in knowing how to handle primary resources by the time they get to their projects, they’ll also be supported in knowing how to use open educational resources, and what it feels like to look work with well-curated academic OERs.

References:

Freed, B., Friedman, A., Lawlis, S., & Stapleton, A. (2018, June). Evaluating Oregon’s open educational resources designation requirement: A report for the higher education coordinating commission. Retrieved from: https://www.oregon.gov/highered/research/Documents/Reports/HECC-Final-OER-Report_2018.pdf

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. Retrieved from the Athabasca University website: http://cde.athabascau.ca/coi_site/documents/Garrison_Anderson_Archer_Critical_Inquiry_model.pdf

Hilton, J. (2016). Open educational resources and college textbook choices: a review of research on efficacy and perceptions. Education Tech Research and Development, 64(4), 573-590.

Lehman, R.M. & Conceição, S. (2013) Motivating and retaining online students: Research-based strategies that work, Jossey-Bass / Wiley. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/spu/detail.action?docID=1376946

Moore, K. (2017, March 22). Attribution statements for remixed OER content [Website post]. Retrieved from: http://openoregon.org/attribution-statements-for-remixed-oer-content/

Redmond, P., Abawi, L., Brown, A., Henderson, R., & Heffernan, A. (2018). An online engagement framework for higher education. Online learning, 22(1), 183-204. doi:10.24059/olj.v22i1.1175

One Reply to “Using Open Educational Resources to Support Academic Achievement in a First-year Humanities Class”

  1. Stephanie, I really like the approach you took when discussing OERS, particularly the pros and cons. Though I am wholeheartedly pro-OERs, I sometimes find myself needing to write down information from a digital text to remember it better or sometimes wishes I had a physical text to manipulate. I also appreciated your considerations of content consistency among the same course taught by different instructors, and sustainability of OER choices with impact on textbook companies (I actually had not thought of that implication prior to your post!). It is impressive the various engagement formats you will be faced with in your hybrid class, however, you have developed a very logical, engaging, and supportive approach to this issue. I am quite curious to learn which of the collaborative annotation tools you end up using and what feedback the students give you after completing this learning chain. Thank you for a wonderful post!

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