Open Education as a lever for social justice and equity - Exploring the many on ramps of Open STEM education

Melanie Lenahan
Raritan Valley Community College
Carlos Goller
North Carolina State University
Kaitlin Bonner
Saint John Fisher College
Kaitlin Bonner - St. John Fisher University,

Carlos Goller - North Carolina State University 

Melanie Lenahan - Raritan Valley Community College

*All authors contributed equally to this article. The names are arranged in alphabetical order.

published Dec 21, 2022 10:57am

The Open Education Ecosystem can be thought of as a roundabout where educators and researchers enter into a high-impact landscape through many different on ramps, including Open Educational Resources (OER), Open Data, Open Science, Open Pedagogy, or any of the many aspects of Open Education Ecosystem. Here we describe these common on ramps, transitions, and intersections between different facets of the Open Education landscape and more importantly how Open Education can be leveraged to promote social justice and equity in STEM education.

Open Educational Resources (OER) save students millions of dollars, but the potential impact of these resources extends far beyond promoting equity through cost savings (Dembecki, 2022). Instructors often join the conversation about Open Education by using OER and quickly realize that OER are actually a launching point into higher-impact pedagogical practices. Before getting into using these resources to promote social justice and equity and engaging in Open Education more broadly we need to understand what OERs are and are not.

Open Educational Resources (OER) are not simply defined as any resources freely accessed on websites nor are they solely free textbooks. They are specifically freely and publicly available teaching, learning, and research materials where Creative Commons licensing enables retaining, remixing, revising, reusing, and redistributing the resources (5Rs, Wiley). The term OER is often used synonymously with free, but OER are much more than an alternative to standard physical and digital texts. OER can include software, datasets, teaching modules, laboratory exercises, research methods, computational scripts and workflows, study guides and test banks, and much more. At the very least, implementing OER in a course reduces the cost burden of education for students enabling all students to afford course materials. In addition to cost savings, OER can promote student success and in some cases even more so for students from minoritized populations thus extending equity beyond reducing cost (Colvard, Watson, and Park, 2018). The benefits of using OER are not the OER themselves, but what you can do with them. Adapting and remixing OER enhances the learning experience and promotes social justice and equity through resource modification. OER can be modified to achieve:

  • greater alignment to content, context, and cognitive level 
  • accessibility and ease of use
  • flexibility in pedagogical approach 
  • contextualizing for local or cultural relevance
  • prioritizing and promoting minoritized voices

Adapting, remixing, and redistributing does not solely rest in the control of the instructor, OER support progressive pedagogies that center students as co-creators of knowledge and creates opportunities for student choice and voice, a core tenet of Open Pedagogy. Returning to our roundabout analogy, instructors often enter the Open Education Ecosystem through OER with adoption of resources first and then adapting for use. These practices can lead to broader exploration of the roundabout such as implementing socially-just pedagogical change (Open Pedagogy), sharing research practices and methodologies (Open Science), publishing and sharing data broadly (Open Data) to amplify collective intelligence, increasing cognitive diversity and inclusivity, and promoting transparency in STEM education.

The Open Education Ecosystem Roundabout. Open Education Ecosystem hexagons surrounded by OER, Open Pedagogy, Open Access Publishing, Open Source Software, Open Science, and Open Data.Figure 1: The Open Education Ecosystem Roundabout. Graphic created by Dr. Karen Cangialosi (CC BY). Photo of Roundabout from in the background (CC BY). 

Navigation beyond adopting and adapting OER often leads to modifying resources for pedagogical approaches rather than just implementation of OER. Open Pedagogy prioritizes a learner-centered classroom rich with opportunities for student collaboration, agency, and autonomy by intentionally creating ways for students to take ownership of what they learn and how they learn. Through learner agency, students take an active role in their learning by driving decisions about course materials and assessments enabling them to personalize and optimize their own learning experience (Gao, OUP). Giving students control over their own learning empowers all student voices to be heard and valued. How can instructors facilitate student agency? Some examples include having students collaborate on syllabus content, co-create course resources and assignments, and inform course structure. Enabling student agency and autonomy in the learning space must involve trust. Trust in our students is an essential and socially-just approach to learning. Indeed, we must begin with trust to foster community and collaboration both within the classroom and beyond the learning space to the greater community. Promoting a sense of belonging is an essential component of an inclusive learning environment and a key aspect of Open Pedagogy.

How can we successfully center student learning and knowledge sharing in STEM when there is already so much material to cover? While implementing aspects of Open Pedagogy into your teaching practice is rewarding and impactful, it can be challenging. Some of the major challenges include heavy content coverage, large class size, and getting student buy-in. Students may be accustomed to the traditional lecture and exam style of teaching and need to adapt to a new learning paradigm, and faculty may feel reluctant to give up "control" over the classroom decisions and have trust in their students.

To overcome these challenges and to begin to make changes to their teaching practice, educators and instructional staff may consider making small and deliberate changes in the classroom that align with Open Pedagogy. For example, start by modifying just one class assignment or inviting students to weigh in on a single class policy change. Class assignments can be made more impactful by making them renewable or reusable for use by future students or the community. Sharing these student-generated artifacts openly brings students into the Open Education landscape as OER creators as they consider how to share their artifacts (using the 5Rs) and how to choose a Creative Commons license for their work.

Some examples of Renewable Assignments:

  • Portfolios
  • Video tutorials
  • Artwork
  • Musical compositions
  • Games 
  • Children's books
  • Podcasts
  • Blog posts
  • Infographics
  • Many more!

Student feedback and self-reflection on these types of assignments and regularly throughout the course enables students to collaborate and evaluate their own learning and learning progress. Providing these opportunities to practice self-regulation will help to improve this valuable skill set. They also allow instructors to build on these Open Pedagogy practices and consider alternative grading methods to evaluate student work that extend assessment beyond traditional grading methods.

Open education goes beyond the instructional materials and textbooks (OER) and pedagogical approaches used in a course. Few educators know the full extent of the open education ecosystem. Educators implementing some aspects of open education, but failing to implement other aspects due to lack of knowledge or experience represent "off ramps" or missed opportunities to engage students in practices that dismantle traditional power dynamics and foster co-creation. Broadly re-envisioning learning environments as communities that encourage exchange of ideas is needed to begin to change the traditional classroom dynamics, and this requires transparency and vulnerability. To foster meaningful sharing and collaboration, the educator must build a community based on trust and a pedagogy of care. Student contributions that are shared beyond the classroom promote access and equity by acknowledging the value of the intellectual contributions of all learners. Knowledge-sharing barriers can be technical or far more complex systemic conventions that limit access and equity. We must attend to scenarios where sharing is inappropriate. As educators exploring the open education ecosystem, we need to reflect on how the act of requesting student voices and using open education impacts all learners. Power dynamics and student agency  in a classroom setting are unavoidable, yet present an opportunity to speak about the challenges of being open. How can open education be leveraged to reduce student anxiety and motivation for achievement of grades? How can instructors be encouraged to adopt open pedagogy practices without losing the trust of their colleagues and administrators for "loosening expectations." During times of great mental stress for students and instructors, using open education to elevate student voices for access and justice must consider how our actions may increase vulnerability and stress. 



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