University of Western Ontario: New pilot program makes education more accessible

Five Western faculty members are embracing the use of open education resource course materials thanks to a pilot initiative spearheaded by Western Libraries.

The open education resources (OER) grant and support program offers instructor funding and in-kind support to integrate OER into teaching. The program is a partnership between Western Libraries, the Instructional Technology Resource Centre, the Centre for Teaching and Learning and Western Research’s knowledge exchange and impact team.

OER course materials are openly licensed and freely available for anyone to use, which saves students money on course materials, making learning more equitable.

“We are responding directly to students through this program,” said research and scholarly communication librarian Emily Carlisle-Johnston, noting a 2016 University Student Council policy recommending Western facilitate an open educational resources pilot.

“Cost is definitely one of the driving factors and is largely tied to equity and ensuring everyone has access to the material that will help them succeed in a course,” she said.

Open access to information has been a strategic priority at Western Libraries for a number of years. The program also aligns with a key pillar in Western’s strategic plan, Towards 150, aspiring to make the future of learning more equitable and inclusive.

Western is among a number of schools across Canada providing grants and support programs to make it easier for all instructors to create, use and share OER.

“We recognize embracing OER is not always an easy feat,” Carlisle-Johnston said. “Research conducted by an open education working group at Western a couple of years ago revealed the biggest perceived barriers around open education were time, awareness and expertise.”

Yet there are many benefits for instructors, including Creative Commons licensing, which allows the option to adopt and customize OER to the unique structure and context of their courses. “They don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but can build upon the work of their peers, swapping in more local and meaningful examples, and updating content when there are significant developments,” Carlisle-Johnston said.

Engaging course materials

OER grant recipient Alexis Smith, clinical practice faculty lead and lecturer in the Arthur Labatt School of Nursing in the Faculty of Health Sciences, appreciates the ability to keep her content current.

“My course is mainly focused on mental health, which is such an evolving subject area,” she said. “Although the textbook was published in 2019, much of the content is already dated because knowledge moves so quickly now.”

Smith, BScN’16, MScN’18, is also mindful of the costs incurred to students, and worried that only a few of the chapters in the $155 textbook were relevant to her course material.

“I felt obligated to include readings every week because they had purchased this textbook,” she said.

I think we all have a responsibility to think about students’ financial obligations. – Alexis Smith, OER grant recipient
Through the OER program, Smith can now replace the textbook with diverse course materials, including videos and virtual simulations. “That was a primary motivator for me,” she said. “In nursing or other practice-based concepts, students often learn best with visuals where the content comes to life.”

She also appreciates the in-kind support from the program partners.

“I’m a novice educator,” she said. “Choosing course materials and being able to modify course goals and meet learning outcomes is challenging when you’re new to teaching. This program gives you the support of library staff who have the specialized skills to help you find materials and the support of the CTL (Centre for Teaching and Learning) to help you embed those changes in the course in a way that’s purposeful. It allows you to transform your entire course. You’re helping the students save money, but hopefully also offering them a better learning experience through the whole process.”

Community of learners

An unexpected but welcome benefit for Smith has been the opportunity to connect with other grant recipients on formal cohort calls and follow-up discussions.

“I’ve now met people from other faculties who are really passionate, more experienced and further along in their OER journey,” she said. “I’m able to draw upon that and learn so much from them. I never would have made those contacts without this program. With new concepts like OER, you need that community of learners, and then hopefully you can be part of bringing someone else in your circle into that community and create that spread of knowledge.”