What’s “Open” During COVID-19? In Global Pandemic, OER and Open Access Matter More than Ever

By Lindsey Gumb

Residential college and university campuses across New England abruptly closed their doors last month during the COVID-19 outbreak, and while some schools were in session and students were asked to vacate, many others were on spring break and students were asked not to return. In both situations, students found themselves at home or in new environments where they waited to see how their education would progress online and remotely.

Among many variables associated with the chaos and stress of the pandemic, a lack of direct access to learning materials like textbooks has arisen as one of the major roadblocks to student learning in the era of COVID-19.

As a nation, we have continued to observe a sharp rise in textbook prices since 1977, which leaves many students enrolled at postsecondary institutions, public or independent, unable to afford the required learning materials for their courses. As a band-aid solution, students often rely on borrowing a copy of the book or material from a classmate or the campus library—options that became obsolete overnight when campuses closed and we entered this new world of social distancing and online learning and course delivery. When access barriers to learning materials like textbooks exist, either financial or circumstantial (as in the case of COVID-19), we know that students’ grades and academic trajectory suffer, and ultimately institutional retention can take a hit. Having been laid off from part-time jobs, denied unemployment and mostly left out of the COVID-19 stimulus package, college students have enough stress and anxiety right now—the last thing they should be worrying about is not having access to their textbooks. Enter OER (Open Educational Resources).

Are those “solutions” really OER?

Textbook prices are only part of the access barrier issue. As teaching and learning shifts fully online during the COVID-19 pandemic, educators have been forced to more closely consider and analyze how copyright restrictions set by publishers may limit their students’ access to these essential learning materials. The last few weeks have shown more than ever why true OER have significant value in ensuring students have access to their learning materials, because they are free and have licenses that allow for reuse and retention without limitation. This is not the case with publisher content like textbooks or the many online learning “solutions” they offer in which access is only semester-long, not in perpetuity like OER. These materials, even if offered free of charge by the publisher right now during the pandemic, will inevitably shuffle back behind a paywall at the end of the semester, disproportionately harming students affected by conditions out of their control brought on by COVID-19 (displacement, illness, caretaking responsibilities, etc.) and who may need to retake courses and need access to the materials again.

OER providers like Lumen Learning, Saylor Academy and the Open Course Library have full online courses ready to be adopted and easily integrated into learning management systems with very little effort needed by faculty members. The content is customizable. Students have immediate, free access, and unlike publisher content, access to the content won’t be lost when the semester ends.

OER, however, is not and cannot be the blanket solution for ensuring students have access to their learning materials during a time like this. In fact, we’ve heard stories from across the region of institutions handing out technology and hotspots to help address the digital inequities that exist for so many students. The Community College of Rhode Island awarded nearly 700 students grants to acquire computers or gain internet access with an additional 61 iPads distributed to students who requested them. OER are primarily digital resources, and students need an internet connection to at least initially download the resource onto a device. While they are free, OER will still require other institutional support systems to make sure our students have everything they need to equitably participate in their remote learning.

Freeing information

This isn’t just about students’ access to textbooks. Also at issue is the current publishing industry’s suppression of access to information. SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Research Coalition) defines Open Access (OA) as the “free, immediate, online availability of research articles coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. OA ensures that anyone can access and use these results—to turn ideas into industries and breakthroughs into better lives.” The American Library Association and academic librarians have long been advocating for OA policies that remove barriers to scholarly, peer-reviewed research that are typically only accessible to those who have an active academic affiliation such as faculty, students, staff at colleges and universities. Institutions pay outrageous annual subscription fees on behalf of their community members to access this content, and those who have no affiliation pay a fee to access each article.

We’ve seen recently many news organizations such as the New York Times, Bloomberg, and The Atlantic have removed the paywall on articles pertaining to COVID-19 so that the public has access to pertinent information that could potentially be lifesaving. OA fosters the same spirit except, instead of news, the information is peer-reviewed research, often generated by researchers through federal grant funding, aka “your tax dollars.” New research, particularly in the medical field, can have an immediate impact on public health. If that information is behind a paywall, only the privileged will have access to that potentially life-saving research. In January, a Washington Post article Scientists are unraveling the Chinese coronavirus with unprecedented speed and openness strongly illustrated this point. The genome sequence of the coronavirus was posted in an open access repository for genetic information and literally overnight, Andrew Mesecar, a professor of cancer structural biology at Purdue University, got a hold of it and started analyzing the DNA sequence. The immediate domino effect of having this information freely available has led to an international collaboration of scientists working together to aid in this public health crisis. Victoria Heath and Brigitte Vézina’s recent blog post for Creative Commons, Now is the time for Open Access Policies—here’s why, reminds us that “we must cooperate effectively to respond to an unprecedented global health emergency. The mantra “when we share, everyone wins” applies now more than ever.”

Robin DeRosa, director of the Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University, notes “there is a link between public health and Open. The open sharing of research and data can help us quickly collaborate to find medical solutions. Open pedagogy can help us involve our students in our fields’ responses to the pandemic and remind us that the digital divide can complicate remote learning. And OER can remove barriers for students and faculty who need to shift to more ubiquitously available resources. Open is about public infrastructure more than it is a set of free textbooks.”

For more on the basics and supporting research of OER, check out Open Matters: A Brief Intro and see additional resources at the Open Education and Open Educational Resources page on NEBHE’s website.

Lindsey Gumb is an assistant professor and the scholarly communications librarian at Roger Williams University, where she has been leading OER adoption, revision and creation since 2016, focusing heavily on OER-enabled pedagogy collaborations with faculty. She co-chairs the Rhode Island Open Textbook Initiative Steering Committee and the is Fellow for Open Education at the New England Board of Higher Education. She was awarded a 2019-20 OER Research Fellowship to conduct research on undergraduate student awareness of copyright and fair use and open licensing as it pertains to their participation in OER-enabled pedagogy projects.


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