Beyond the Horizon: OER, Open Pedagogy, and the CUNY Graduate Center
by Luke Waltzer, Teaching and Learning Center
When New York State invested millions of dollars in 2017 to encourage the adoption of open educational resources (OER) throughout the state’s public university system, CUNY was ready to work. Several campuses have for some time been building the infrastructure to support OER, supported by such initiatives as the Achieving the Dream OER Degree Program. Library staff across the university sprung to action, launching initiatives to help faculty find free and open alternatives to expensive text books and to develop Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) courses. Centers for Teaching and Learning also began to help faculty think about the pedagogical challenges and opportunities that accompanied course conversion. Collegiality within the system facilitated sharing of ideas, structures, projects, and solutions.
The goal of the investment from New York State has been to save CUNY undergraduates money on textbooks, and on those terms this program has been a success. According to the “New York State Open Educational Resources Funds CUNY Year One Report,” the first $4 million investment resulted in a savings of $9.5 million for more than 76,000 CUNY students. This is already a remarkable achievement, without factoring in ongoing investments in this second year.
An influx of resources at this scale into an institution as large and complex as CUNY comes, it should be said, with certain challenges. At CUNY, even successful investments rarely maximize their impact. Arcane and byzantine rules govern budgeting, procurement, and hiring, and a significant amount of teaching labor is performed by skilled but contingent faculty with limited capacity to take on additional work. Despite steady guidance by CUNY’s Office of Library Services (OLS), administering OER funds has been a bureaucratic chore for everyone involved, folks who at CUNY were working beyond capacity already.
The program’s emphasis on saving undergraduates money now has made it difficult to have conversations about how we ensure that what we build is sustained. Change is constant at CUNY, and the state spigot for this work will not be open forever. How do we prepare for an open future with less funding for these projects than we now have? How do we insure maintenance of this investment, and not outsource the work of infrastructure and sustainability to third party vendors who may or may not meet our community’s needs in a couple of years? How do we honor our faculty’s desire to maintain control over the fruits of their intellectual labor, even if that work is licensed openly? OLS has facilitated discoverability and archiving by pushing our OER community to engage the OER Commons and CUNY’s institutional repository, Academic Works. At the CUNY Graduate Center, we’ve complimented this approach by thinking beyond the horizon, focusing on the cultural, intellectual, and digital infrastructure that can sustain this investment for years to come.
Our campus doesn’t have undergraduates, though our students teach 6,500 courses across CUNY each year. We don’t oversee undergraduate curricula, though most of our faculty are based at one of the other CUNY institutions, and our students navigate these curricula as teaching fellows and adjuncts. We benefit from being at the figurative and literal center of the city, as a consortial institution in the middle of Manhattan, a location that brings faculty and staff from across CUNY into the building as they teach and work on projects or committees or other programs. Scholars at the Graduate Center who are interested in thinking about programs at the massive scale of this university are lucky to be able to do so here, and our contributions to CUNY’s OER project have been built from that position.
At the Teaching and Learning Center, along with our partners in the Digital Initiatives and the Graduate Center Library, we want to make sure that definitions of “open pedagogy” don’t get lost amidst the rush to save students money on text books. We've focused on raising awareness of approaches to open pedagogy among graduate students—the “professoriate of tomorrow”—by hiring two Open Educational Technologists. We’ve developed strategies to make the open digital platforms that we support—the CUNY Academic Commons and Manifold—more hospitable to faculty who are teaching with open educational resources. We have advised colleagues in the American Social History Project who have won a National Endowment for the Humanities/Office of Digital Humanities grant to create an OER out of their seminal social history textbook, Who Built America: Working People and the Nation’s History? And, we have sponsored work by graduate students that identifies the strengths and weaknesses of OER in selected fields, with the goal of laying the foundation to support OER scholarship projects down the road.
This approach lays a foundation for persistent OER engagement throughout CUNY by solidifying the infrastructure upon which open pedagogy can flourish, and by opening up a variety of spaces for scholarly engagement with OER by faculty.
Open Educational Technologists
In year one of the OER grant period, the Graduate Center fielded several requests for instructional designers and educational technologists who could support OER projects across CUNY. Graduate students have long been a source of this kind of labor at CUNY and beyond, but with the influx of resources the demand began to outpace the supply. Solidifying such support is crucial. University educational technologists can sharpen a project from envisioning and planning through execution and support. They provide an informed link in the feedback loop between end users and project staff. If our goal is to sustain investments in educational technology and open pedagogy that are currently coming into the university, we need to encode those investments in the infrastructure that supports this work. Talented educational technologists can help us do just that.
In Fall 2018 we hired Laurie Hurson and Krystyna Michael, two educational technologists whose expertise has been honed by working on a variety of teaching, learning, and digital projects around CUNY over the past several years. They understand CUNY faculty and students and have research interests in open pedagogy and the digital humanities that have in the short time they’ve been on the job have deeply enriched the two platforms where much of their work is focused: the CUNY Academic Commons and Manifold.
The CUNY Academic Commons
The CUNY Academic Commons is in its tenth year as an open source software project built for and with faculty, staff, and students at CUNY. The Commons' user base has expanded rapidly over the past three years as more undergraduate courses are taught using the platform. Many of these users are new to teaching on the open web.
Over the past two years the Commons Team and the Teaching and Learning Center developed two faculty fellows programs which were intended to help us better support undergraduate teaching and OER-related projects across the university. We also have partnered with librarians at Lehman College, who have worked with campus faculty to build out OER projects using the Commons. These projects have shaped the Commons’ recent development trajectory, as the last three major releases—1.13, 1.14, and the forthcoming 1.15—have all been planned in close dialogue with the experiences of the dozens faculty and staff who have worked with us on these programs. The Commons now features a redesigned the invitation process to make it easier to add users to sites and groups, site templates and plugin packages that make it easier for new users to get their sites and projects up and running, and a new site and group launch process to help users decide what kinds of spaces they want to create. The Commons will also soon begin collecting metadata about use that will allow the platform to better surface and index public activity. Each of these innovations make the Commons more accessible across the CUNY system, and will help the Commons team better understand trends in usage and tailor support going forward.
The Graduate Center’s Digital Scholarship Lab, directed by Matthew K. Gold (who also directs the Commons), has for the past few years been working with the University of Minnesota Press and Cast Iron Coding developing Manifold, a platform for publishing networked, iterative, media-rich, and interactive monographs on the web. Manifold has great potential for developing and teaching with OER, and CUNY faculty have been building out projects at https://cuny.manifoldapp.org. You can read more about those projects and the platform in general in Krystyna Michael’s contribution to this project. Paul L. Hebert, a graduate student in English and adjunct professor at Queens College, has written about the pedagogical value of creating and teaching digital editions of historical texts on Manifold in this essay.
OER Literature Reviews
Transitioning courses away from proprietary text books or building courses around open texts creates opportunities to open up our pedagogy. Both approaches require modularity, fine tuning, and the purposeful selection of materials, since faculty are choosing not to outsource these pedagogical decisions to publishers.
Robin DeRosa’s Open Anthology of American Literature, in which she guided her students through an editorial process of curation and presentation, shows how OER-aligned teaching creates space for authentic learning tasks that make course material and disciplinary engagement much more urgent for students. It’s a project that she has developed and refined over multiple semesters, and which in this piece she and her co-author Scott Robison place within a broader set of student-driven OER work.
Doing this work is challenging for faculty who are already strapped for the time and resources necessary to develop truly impactful, custom OERs. As such, the majority of investment at CUNY over the past two years has been in course conversion rather than OER development. CUNY Graduate Center students are well positioned to contribute to OER creation, as they are deeply engaged with emerging scholarship in their fields and teaching with a fair level of autonomy. They are, however, structurally discouraged from pursuing this work in a sustained way, as they almost never have assurances of what they will be teaching from semester-to-semester, and thus can’t afford the risk of developing projects, on spec, that may not have opportunities to deploy or carry forward.
In addition to the thinking about the infrastructure necessary to sustain open work at CUNY going forward, we’ve been thinking about how to scaffold towards vibrant and creative approaches to OER remixing and development. An Intro to Sociology text book written to structure student engagement with contemporary immigration issues in New York City would be a powerful teaching text in CUNY’s classrooms. An art history text built to structure engagement with New York City’s museums would bring the discipline alive for CUNY students in ways texts written for students in other locations might not. A Spanish-language instructional text that acknowledges and harnesses the Spanish written and spoken across the lived experiences of CUNY students would connect, authentically, with the lived experiences of students learning a language in an already multilingual community.
These ideas and more emerged last academic year when eight graduate students from five disciplines at the Graduate Center participated in a project to review OERs in their fields. The resulting essays, published as part of this package—and contextualized by Graduate Center librarian Elvis Bakaitis here--will be valuable to anyone looking for a point of entry to working with OER in those disciplines. In addition to providing links and qualitative evaluation on a number of OER, these scholars have made a forceful case how OER can facilitate a range of approaches to open pedagogy.
Inés Vañó García sees OER practices as challenging the hegemony of textbooks in Spanish language courses that eschew cultural content and instead emphasize formal and grammatical instruction. A critical lens that acknowledges that students are already immersed in daily Spanish by virtue of being in New York City, and that harnesses students’ embeddedness in this language has the potential to enrich the learning experience for students and faculty alike.
Jason Nielsen builds upon Robin DeRosa’s work to explore how taking an open approach to the early American literature encourages faculty to think in new ways not only about the licensing rights attached to teaching and learning materials, but also about accessibility, flexibility, functionality, democratization of knowledge, and integrating local knowledge or experience into course conceptualization.
Gwen Shaw and Helena Shaskevich argue that despite a history of technological conservatism, Art History has a number of well-resourced, well-designed projects catering to broad audiences across multiple media formats.
Claudia Crowie and Miryam Nacimento evaluate a range of open access and open educational resources within Cultural Anthropology, and provide an overview for faculty that assesses coverage, representation, and accessibility in these resources. They warn that OER practices risk "reinscribing asymmetries of power in the discipline by elevating certain intellectual voices over others.” They suggest strategies for how faculty can combine OA and OER approaches to countering such tendencies.
Elaine Sandoval and Natalie Oshukany note a western bias across many OER for music and ethnomusicology, and think through strategies for integrating the audiovisual artifacts that are so important for studying these fields. They also explore the opportunities that OER-engaged work create for community building around open pedagogy within the field, ranging from the level of the individual assignment through academic departments and up to the professional societies.
The projects above represent a snapshot of the state of work on OER at the Graduate Center a year-and-a-half into New York State’s massive investment, and demonstrate our campus’s ambitions to carry this work forward. The OER literature reviews offer a range of approaches to help faculty enter conversations about OER and open pedagogy not only in their fields, but in all fields. They also provide the foundation for future work on OER across CUNY and beyond, which will happen on the Commons, on Manifold, and across other spaces as well.