Practitioner Perspectives: A NEBHE Q&A with Heather Miceli on How OER Promotes Hands-On Learning While Saving Students Money

In the following Q&A, NEBHE’s Fellow for Open Education Lindsey Gumb asks Heather Miceli, an adjunct professor at Roger Williams University (RWU) and Johnson & Wales University (JWU), about her integration of OER-enabled pedagogy in her general education science course, which has helped push the narrative of Open Educational Resources (OER) beyond cost savings to include more engaged and hands-on learning opportunities for her students.

A 2019-20 OER Research Fellow through the Open Education Group, Miceli was an OER Faculty Fellow for three consecutive years at RWU and currently serves on NEBHE’s Open Education Advisory Committee.

While we often hear OER associated with affordability and cost savings, OER-enabled pedagogy is a set of teaching and learning practices that are only possible in the context of what David Wiley of Lumen Learning has called the 5R permissions (reuse, revise, remix, redistribute and retain). It allows for the expansion of the value of these free and openly licensed resources by placing students in the driver’s seat as content creators as they learn to position and value themselves as contributors to the knowledge commons and not just consumers of knowledge.

In 2018, Miceli’s students in her general education science course at RWU created websites in lieu of their final “posters” on topics where science and society intersect such as climate change, energy sources, DNA, vaccines and artificial intelligence. The students collectively decided to release them under a Creative Commons license, which allows for future sections of this class (and anyone else) to reuse and build upon these learning objects in ways that traditional copyright would never permit. In a nutshell, the associated permissions of this student-authored content allows for future contributions and expansion, while creating pathways for innovative teaching, learning and engagement that can be hard to achieve in general education classes. Student scholarship is no longer “disposable,” but rather renewable. Visit the project website to learn more about the process here.

Gumb: At Roger Williams University, you teach a required general education science course for non-majors using an OER-enabled pedagogy project. What does the project look like, and how does this student-centric approach affect how learners experience and participate in science?

Miceli: Teaching in general education science is a challenge because you have a classroom full of students who have had varying experiences with the topic over the years. Some in the class have had science teachers and experiences in middle and high school that turned them off science, and in the same class, others have taken several AP classes in high school. And yet all of them have to take my class as a part of the core curriculum. We automatically start almost at odds with one another, as many of these students would rather dedicate their time and effort toward their major course of study. Additionally, this is usually the last formal science education they will receive, so it’s really important to me that they have a good experience in my class, which involves allowing them to explore science through a lens that is both relevant and interesting to them and has value outside their own learning.

I have always allowed students to choose topics to investigate and present in my course. At the end of the semester, we would have these wonderful poster sessions where students would share their work. But afterwards, they would immediately throw away their posters—there was so much wasted effort and knowledge in that garbage bin when the semester ended. I decided to have my students create websites released under a Creative Commons license, which would be designed as learning resources for future students in my course—they would serve in lieu of a textbook and could be continuously updated and expanded by students enrolled in subsequent semesters.

Making this small change—incorporating a relevant, authentic, renewable project—has completely changed the tone of the course. My students are very receptive to the idea that they design content for their websites for future students just like them—that this work is meaningful outside their learning and beyond our classroom walls. They also discover that they are allowed to have a voice in science, that experts aren’t the only ones that can develop materials that others use to learn.

Gumb: How did you get involved and what keeps you here?

Miceli: I was actually introduced to the concept of OER while teaching at Johnson & Wales, but I didn’t realize it had a name for a few years. My department was looking for a cheaper textbook option and used a few open textbooks before we settled on an Openstax biology text. A few years later, I saw the opportunity to participate in an OER fellowship at Roger Williams, open to part-time faculty and paying a stipend—and I applied, thinking it would help me find new resources and focus on assessments in my course. What I didn’t expect was that an invited talk by open educator, Rajiv Jhangiani, focusing on open pedagogy and students as content creators would inspire an entire overhaul of my course.

What has been really spectacular about this work is that it saved me from career burnout. When I initially applied for the fellowship at RWU, I had been teaching as an adjunct for nine years and was right in the middle of working on my dissertation. Incorporating this pedagogy—and becoming a part of the OER community—has revitalized my teaching and research. My passion for teaching was reignited after several stagnant years.

Gumb: What has administrative support looked like since you started on your own personal open education journey? 

Miceli: I participated for three years as an OER Faculty Fellow at RWU, which provided me with a small annual stipend, funded through the provost’s office. Through the fellowship program, I was introduced to members of the administration whom I previously had not met personally, like our associate provost for teaching and learning. He, along with my coordinator, chairs and dean have been nothing but supportive in allowing me the space to attempt some pretty unconventional pedagogy. Administrative support is crucial in helping faculty participate and experiment in OER-enabled pedagogy.

Gumb: How has OER-enabled pedagogy changed your own teaching?

Miceli: Adopting OER-enabled pedagogy introduced me to a network of educators whose views on education were radical and refreshing. Through interacting with this network, I’ve taken so many more chances in the classroom that have nothing to do with open education. I realized that because this course doesn’t have any content-specific learning objectives, I could remove exams and replace them with topic reflections that allow my students to investigate their personal connections to each of the topics we discuss in the course. This has increased the engagement in the class, because everyone has a relationship to science, whether they know it yet or not. The most common feedback I get from students at the end of the semester is that they can remember a lot of the things they’ve learned because they can see how it is relevant to their individual lives, much more so than memorizing content for an exam.

At the same time, I’ve become very aware of the anxiety students have in my class and just how much the traditional grading system contributes to that anxiety. As a result, I removed traditional assessments, and I now only give feedback to students with the intention to improve their work—no points, no grades. Through this “ungrading” approach (to read more, check out Jesse Stommel’s work here), students self-assess and use reflections to determine their final grades in the course.

Gumb: What specific barriers do part-time faculty face when it comes to fully participating in the open education community? 

Miceli: Part-time faculty face a lot of barriers in participating in any professional capacity in higher education. Time and money are the main concerns. Nationwide, part-time faculty are paid on average $2,500 per course, and a significant percentage of them work at multiple institutions. As a result, part-timers are already at a disadvantage for attempting to make wide, sweeping changes to their pedagogy.

Even part-time faculty who may want to make a small change to incorporate an open textbook can feel stymied. I’m required to teach using only departmental-approved textbooks at Johnson & Wales, so I can’t just choose an open textbook for my course sections  Thankfully, many of the science courses at JWU use open textbooks, but not all of them do. It’s a little frustrating, because as a part-time faculty member, I have no voice in the textbook decision process.

On top of that, part-timers are not always allowed to participate in professional development opportunities. RWU’s OER Faculty Fellows is one of the few programs I have access to as a part-time faculty member and where my participation is compensated. There is a lot of unpaid labor that happens in the open education community, and it isn’t just part-timers that feel the stretch. Librarians and support staff have had OER support added to their job descriptions, and some graduate students who recognize the benefits of OER don’t have the support of their advisors to use it to enhance their teaching. Passion for teaching with OER can sometimes be exploited to perpetuate unpaid labor.

Gumb: What advice would you offer an educator who’s interested in ditching “disposable” assignments in favor of those that better center the student as the creator of learning objects?

Miceli: Start small. Don’t change everything at once. When I started my open pedagogy project, the first semester was literally all about testing whether or not making a switch from analog posters to digital websites would even work. I realized during that initial semester that I would need to spend far more time scaffolding concepts like copyright and Creative Commons licensing in order for any websites to go public. I’ve now spent five semesters on this project, and each semester adds a little more to the mix of pedagogies I use and revelations of lessons learned.

Also, trust your students. This is a mantra that I’ve recently adopted and just having it in my head feels like it’s completely shifted the way I approach teaching. I teach students who often have no desire to be in my classroom, but I trust them to do this work and they thrive when participating in these projects. And be lenient with them and with yourself. This will likely be a whole new experience for them and for you, and there will be stumbling blocks along the way (think COVID-19 quarantine!). If it’s not entirely successful, adjust grades as necessary, reflect and try it again!

Gumb: How has COVID-19 and the transition to remote learning affected this project or your pedagogy?

Miceli: I’ve been really lucky that because this project is semester-long, the students were already set up to collaborate remotely on their websites before the pandemic hit; they had group chats and organized their work in folders on Google Drive. So the transition has been pretty seamless. I’ve had a couple of synchronous check-ins with each group and they seem to be moving forward with the project without too many obstacles so far.

One thing that has helped in this crisis is the open community’s attitude and approach toward students. Most educators that work in this space have an inherent trust in their students. With this trust comes compassion and empathy, both of which have been absolutely necessary in these uncertain times. With every decision I make, I ask the question, “How will this impact any and all of my students?” Engaging with educators in this community has helped me realize the importance of that one question and has made me approach this conversion thinking of my students first, and everything else (content, assessment, etc) second.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>