Creating Affordable Content Programs

Chapter 11 – Evolving Supports for Faculty to Embrace, Adopt, and Author OERs

Kimberly Johnson and Karen Pikula

by Kimberly Johnson and Karen Pikula (both from Minnesota State) (bios)

Introduction: Context for Minnesota State

Minnesota State, one of the largest public postsecondary systems in the United States, is comprised of seven universities and 30 two-year community and technical colleges on 54 campuses across the state. The system employs nearly 9,000 teaching faculty and serves approximately 400,000 students each year, offering certificates and degrees in technical, pre-baccalaureate, baccalaureate, graduate, and applied doctoral disciplines. Across the system, nearly one in four students is classified as low-income. Tuition rates continue to rise and our system struggles with equity in access and completion. With research showing that lowering or removing textbook costs makes higher education more accessible  and results in greater student success (Fischer, Hilton, Robinson, & Wiley, 2015), the issue of increasing access and affordability for students through reducing or eliminating costs for course materials has the potential to impact our students in multiple, positive ways.

In recent years we’ve seen a rapid expansion of interest in open educational resources (OERs) across our campuses, largely due to the efforts of Minnesota State college and university student associations.

In recent years we’ve seen a rapid expansion of interest in open educational resources (OERs) across our campuses, largely due to the efforts of Minnesota State college and university student associations. Students United, the university student association, has identified affordability (which includes advocacy for tuition changes as well as costs for materials) as one of its “issue campaigns” for 2017–2018.  And LeadMN, the college student association, has an extensive Affordable Textbooks Campaign, with a student toolkit, OER pledge forms for students and faculty, and a contest to collect student stories. Student representatives serve on system-wide councils and committees, and have also taken their concerns about the cost of course materials to the state legislature, resulting in dedicated OER funding to Minnesota State in the last budget cycle. The issue of affordable content has thus received the attention of nearly everyone in this large state postsecondary system.

In response to the legislation and to interest across the Minnesota State system, the system’s Educational Innovations program offered grants for the 2015–16 academic year to raise awareness and encourage the adoption of OERs. Some institutions used grant dollars to create faculty support and development opportunities, and it became apparent that these elements were critical to the adoption of OERs. At Central Lakes College (CLC) the OER faculty development work, led by psychology professor Karen Pikula, emerged as an impressive and effective approach to encouraging and supporting faculty. Kimberly Johnson, Director for Faculty Development for Minnesota State, identified this  work as a potential model for systemwide support, and Kimberly and Karen have worked together to scale efforts for faculty across the system.

In this chapter we share our focus on faculty support and faculty development, including our work with the Open Textbook Network (OTN) and our campus project grants. We look at the approaches we’ve used to overcome the barriers faced by faculty when adopting OERs, and highlight the CLC Learning Circles model and our efforts to expand it across the system.

System goals and offerings

While the effort to increase affordability for students involves multiple constituencies, faculty lie at its heart, as they make the final decisions about the textbooks and materials used in their courses. So while we continue to engage college and university leadership to support affordable content efforts, we have focused on faculty needs and development in order to have the greatest possible impact.

One early effort included the development of a strong partnership with the OTN, which is based at the University of Minnesota. As part of that partnership, OTN and Minnesota State facilitators have offered trainings that include data on textbook costs and the impact on students. After the training, faculty participants are offered a stipend of $200 to provide a peer review of an existing textbook housed in the Open Textbook Library. Nearly 300 system faculty have participated, and a recent survey revealed that approximately 75% have since reviewed textbooks and 33% report adopting OERs in their classes. We are pleased with these numbers, yet sobered by the fact that 300 faculty is a small percentage of the nearly 9,000 instructional faculty in our system. Given the recent report from the 2017 Babson Survey Research Group that faculty awareness of OERs across the country remains low—only about 10% of respondents reported being “very aware” or OERs (Seamen & Seamen, 2017)—we know that this level of training continues to have great value and should remain part of our approach.

Along with the OTN training, the system office has offered grants for campus faculty projects designed to reduce costs for students by raising awareness and adoption of open curricular materials as alternatives to higher-cost publisher textbooks. This structure allows campuses to tailor projects to their specific needs, and has been quite successful for funding innovation projects. Nineteen OER projects, at a cost of nearly $400,000 since the 2015–16 academic year, have received funding. Projects range in scope from single departments working together to create a bank of OERs to collaborative student and faculty creation of an open text for college-wide first-year experience courses. Although all projects have resulted in savings to students—over $750,000 to date—many remain specific to the context of a single department or institution, and not much content has been shared widely. In addition, evaluation data has revealed multiple challenges that will need to be addressed in the future.

If we are serious about expanding OER adoption, it is critical to understand faculty hesitation and the challenges they face in adopting and integrating OERs into their courses, and to provide support in overcoming those challenges.

If we are serious about expanding OER adoption, it is critical to understand faculty hesitation and the challenges they face in adopting and integrating OERs into their courses, and to provide support in overcoming those challenges. To better understand the issues, we surveyed 200 Minnesota State faculty who had participated in the OTN training (60 respondents, or 30% response rate). About a third reported adopting an open textbook for their own courses, and many others indicated interest in campus or system supports to adopt or author materials. In that same survey, and through feedback on the campus grant projects, we identified obstacles and challenges that were preventing faculty from adopting OERs in their courses—primarily a lack of time, lack of availability of relevant OERs, and a lack of ancillary materials to accompany existing open texts (test banks, PowerPoint files, and other materials often provided by commercial publishers). None of these challenges could be overcome with our existing OTN training. As educational developers we also recognize that asking instructors to change behaviors and practices requires more than training workshops; development happens only with a more sustained, meaningful, and supportive approach.

As we considered responses to faculty-identified challenges in order to encourage wider adoption of OERs, we identified a campus grant project that had been quite successful and that offered the possibility for expansion beyond one college. The OER Learning Circles project from Central Lakes College, a community college in central Minnesota, created three cohort-based pathways that allow faculty to tailor their learning and next steps based on their own level of interest and experience: understanding and reviewing open textbooks, redesigning existing courses to eliminate textbook costs, or authoring open materials. This project design incorporates principles of effective professional development for instructors: 1) an understanding of faculty as adult learners that encourages critical reflection and opportunities to act on those reflections (Brookfield, 2006); 2) the need for quality learning environments that build on the varying needs, strengths, and interests of participants (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000); and 3) a focus on specific content that occurs over a period of time to engage colleagues in a coherent, supportive cohort (Desimone, 2011). This successful model is one that we are moving to scale up and across the Minnesota State system. Before sharing those plans for the system, we look more closely here at the OER Learning Circles project at Central Lakes College.

Beginning of a movement: OER at Central Lakes College

Central Lakes College (CLC) is a community and technical college with two campuses in central Minnesota which serve approximately 5,500 students annually. The OER movement at CLC began with a faculty professional development day presentation in January, 2015. The Dean of Technology and the librarian arranged for three individuals to present to faculty on OERs: the Director of the Center for Open Education and Executive Director of the OTN, the Minnesota State System Director of Academic Technology, and the Minnesota State System Director for Policy, Procedure, and Intellectual Property. This presentation explained OERs, the system office’s engagement with the University of Minnesota to offer stipends for faculty to review OERs housed in the Open Textbook Library, the legal aspects of Creative Commons licenses, and fair use and copyright and their meaning in terms of OERs and academic freedom.

This presentation jump-started faculty interest in OERs, and many faculty began to investigate OERs and participate in the open textbook review opportunities being offered by the system office. Responding to this interest, CLC created an informal OER committee made up of the librarian and the Dean of Technology and supported by the Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs. The developing OER movement at CLC had five core elements key to its success:

  1. support from administration
  2. academic technology supports
  3. dedicated commitment of the campus librarian
  4. willing partnership of the campus bookstore manager
  5. inspired faculty choosing to adopt OERs, redesign their courses around OERs, and even author OERs.

In 2015, CLC applied for grant funding offered by the system office to support faculty in the review, adoption, and creation of OERs, with a goal of saving our students money on textbook costs. CLC also offers the Post-secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO), which allows high school students to take classes at the college; tuition is paid by the state, but CLC provides textbooks and course materials. With textbooks for students in this program costing CLC approximately $250,000 per year, increased use of OERs for PSEO would result in substantial savings for the college.

OER Learning Circles – theoretical framework and rationale

The OER Learning Circle model, written into the grant, funded the creation of a series of cross- disciplinary, collaborative faculty circles. The Learning Circle concept is deeply rooted in constructivist and experiential learning theories, and in active learning strategies. Research with novice teachers identified several things they believe are required in faculty development opportunities to ensure a successful transfer of knowledge from a professional learning experience to the application of that knowledge in new or novel situations: dedicated time to work on professional development activities, opportunities to engage in authentic interactive activities with experts in their field, and opportunities to engage in reflective conversations about those experiences with colleagues and peers (Pikula, 2015). This closely aligns with Dewey’s (1959) theory that students learn by doing and develop habits and skills that are useful well beyond the learning circle context. It also encompasses a broader view of transfer that moves beyond the idea of the moving of discrete bundles of skills from one context to another, to seeing it as the moving of dispositions or “habits of mind” from one context to another (Bereiter, 1995).

Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle forms a simple structure for the Learning Circle process, where “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (p. 38). Aligned with earlier work by Pikula (2015), OER Learning Circles engage in the process of boundary crossing (Tuomi-Gröhn & Engeström, 2003a; Tuomi-Gröhn, Engeström, & Young, 2003b), where learners recreate new skills in new contexts by building on foundations they have created in earlier contexts. Learning is thus a fluid, situated process that does not end when the learner leaves the classroom (Hager & Hodkinson, 2009).

OER Learning Circles focus on each individual faculty member’s own learning cycle, supporting them in identifying individual goals for participation, the ways in which these goals are related to their content areas and departments, and the impact their work will have on themselves, their students, and their learning community. The Learning Circles also focus on reflection and journaling, analyzing and documenting experiences, and a “pay it forward” aspect of sharing those reflections and conclusions with colleagues to assist in current and future OER work. The active engagement of participating faculty in the weekly OER Learning Circle sharing sessions, as well as the cross-disciplinary collaboration and online discussion posts, allow faculty to demonstrate their “intention to learn” and to then participate in an “active phase of learning,” both of which are critical aspects of experiential learning (Moon, 2004, p. 126).

The opportunity for “learning through reflection on doing” (Felcia, 2011, p. 1003) is facilitated by the faculty member and librarian leading the Learning Circles. Jacobson and Ruddy (2004) argue that “”a skilled facilitator, asking the right questions and guiding reflective conversation before, during, and after an experience, can help open a gateway to powerful new thinking and learning” (p. 2). For this reason, it is very helpful if the facilitators have a passion for OERs and a background in learning theory, pedagogy, and instructional design.

OER Learning Circle – the process

The OER Learning Circle process at CLC is a librarian- and faculty-driven initiative. Faculty participants are selected through an application process. The institution’s OER committee reviews applications, and successful applicants are notified by email of their selection. Sample criteria for selection include a course with high PSEO or concurrent enrollment, a course needed for a Z-degree (a two-year degree that can be earned with “zero” costs for course materials), a course scheduled to be taught in the next academic year, a high-enrollment course (>50 students per year), a faculty member new to OER Learning Circles, sustaining support for a current OER course, and potential significant savings to students and the institution for the next academic year.

Selected faculty choose one of three designated pathways: OER materials review, OER course redesign, or OER authoring. Faculty on all pathways are eligible to receive a stipend and work in facilitated, cross-disciplinary, collaborative opportunities with other faculty members. They share ideas and support each other throughout the process, but there are different expectations for each pathway:

  • Faculty on the OER materials review pathway complete a work plan, a textbook comparison template, and a review rubric (using the BC Campus Criteria Checklist).
  • Faculty taking the OER course redesign pathway create an online course shell using their selected OER materials or create a hard copy portfolio of content, objectives, and assessments for their course. Faculty choosing to accept a stipend for their work license a copy of the course to CLC for department use. This helps move OER adoption from the level of the individual faculty member to the level of the department, making our OER efforts more sustainable.
  • Faculty choosing the OER authoring pathway work individually or collaboratively to create OERs that will be shared and licensed to CLC. These resources may be textbooks or other open resources such as test banks, portfolios of worksheets, assignments, quizzes, videos, podcasts, and/or PowerPoint files.

All participants are required to attend 80% of the weekly 2–3 hour OER Learning Circle meetings, held for 10 consecutive weeks during the fall or spring semester, or during five consecutive weeks of a summer session. These meetings take place in a computer lab where faculty can work individually or collaboratively in small groups. Faculty are required to create, submit, and update weekly work plans and journals. Participating faculty are encouraged to partake in optional discussions designed for the sharing of ideas, thoughts, challenges, successes, and pearls (aha moments or special takeaways) from their week’s work. Faculty on all pathways share their completed projects at the final Learning Circle.

In addition to the face-to-face OER Learning Circle activities, faculty have the support of an online course room through our system-wide learning management system, Brightspace D2L. The course room is structured with weekly modules for each of the three pathways, and provides faculty with access to additional support modules, folders for submitting weekly work plans and journals, and optional discussion forums to share and discuss pearls from their individual experiences. Because the project seeks as well to model best practices in teaching and learning, including online course design, the online course room also includes modules dedicated to Universal Design for Learning, Quality Matters (QM), case studies, and simple templates designed as time-saving measures that provide organizational structure as faculty review OERs, redesign their courses, and author OER materials.

A critical piece of the OER Learning Circle process is letting faculty know that their work is not only appreciated, but supported …

A critical piece of the OER Learning Circle process is letting faculty know that their work is not only appreciated, but supported (Pikula, 2015), so participants are paid a stipend for their work. The stipends range in value: the stipend for the OER textbook review pathway is $200– $500, while participants in the course redesign and authoring pathways receive $1500. While these are adequate amounts that create an incentive for faculty to make a change, they cannot fully compensate for all of the time participants dedicate to their OER Learning Circle work. They do, however, show faculty that their work is appreciated and supported by the institution and by administration.

Expanding the model to new partners

At CLC, the OER Learning Circles model has been extended to include high school partners and collaborating college faculty in OER concurrent enrollment Learning Circles. These provide a collaborative cross-disciplinary environment in which high school faculty and their college collaborators work together to discover, adopt, redesign courses, and author OERs for their courses. These OER Learning Circles (known as Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs, for secondary educators) have been highly effective, with the adoption of OERs resulting in cost savings for the high schools, the college, and students. OER concurrent enrollment Learning Circle participants begin their work with four basic questions in mind:

  • What OERs will we research and review?
  • How will we evaluate them?
  • What are the gaps?
  • How will we supplement the gaps? (Pikula & Preimesberger, 2017)

The OER College in the Schools (CIS) Learning Circles are structured differently than the CLC Learning Circles. High school instructors attend from various locations within the region. Their administrators have agreed to provide classroom substitutes when they attend, so consideration for these arrangements means it is not possible to hold consecutive weekly meetings. Instead, the OER concurrent enrollment Learning Circles meet for three hours five times over the course of the semester. The meetings begin with a provided lunch and a sharing session in which participants discuss their work, things they have discovered unique to their content area or their students, successes and/or challenges they face, and other OER work, strategies, or pedagogy. This is a time for review, reflection, sharing, and collaboration. These activities are led by the high school or college faculty, and often start discussions focused on assessment, outcomes, content, and delivery.

The CLC concurrent enrollment Learning Circles culminate with a final “Findings Summit” to which participating high school principals, superintendents, and college administrators are invited. Participants in the first session were enthusiastic about OERs overall and about the opportunity to pilot OERs during the project, and every participant adopted OERs for use in the next academic year.

The CLC OER Learning Circles and the concurrent enrollment Learning Circles have been critical elements in the successful meeting of the institutional goals for OER work at the college. Our purpose was to increase awareness and adoption of open textbooks and other open access materials, beginning with textbook reviews and then moving to OER implementation, course redesign, and the authoring of new or ancillary OERs. The creation of an A.A. Z-degree (a degree program path with zero cost for class materials), continued work on a corresponding low-textbook-cost degree, partnerships with our concurrent enrollment high schools to promote OER use in our concurrent enrollment classes, and the refinement and creation of print-on-demand services have resulted in increased student success and significant cost savings for students, the college, and our concurrent partners.

Scaling up and across the Minnesota State system

After a few years of offering OTN trainings and campus OER grant opportunities at the system level, we were looking for ways to move forward and support faculty ready to adopt and/or author materials. Although we recognized the need to continue with basic training in understanding OERs, we were concerned about the lack of support for faculty who were ready for more. We began by articulating the system office’s goals for OER support:

  1. Strengthen our partnership with the OTN as it evolves and expands its offerings (including work with librarians and Creative Commons (CC) certifications).
  2. Continue to raise awareness of OERs through virtual or face-to-face trainings with faculty across the system.
  3. Encourage collaboration with colleagues across institutions to support growth in the use of OERs.
  4. Where possible, align our OER work with other strategic priorities, especially transfer pathways (building seamless pathways for students to earn an associate’s degree at a system college and then continue on for a bachelor’s degree at a system university), and reducing costs for students in developmental education courses.

As we saw with the OER campus grants, the funding of campus projects provided space and opportunity for local, innovative approaches to advance OER adoption, so we looked to these projects for inspiration to move forward on a system level.

As we saw with the OER campus grants, the funding of campus projects provided space and opportunity for local, innovative approaches to advance OER adoption, so we looked to these projects for inspiration to move forward on a system level. The success of CLC’s initiative caught our attention. The OER Learning Circle model felt scalable with current resources and technology, and it seemed possible to adapt the model to align with system goals. We thus created our statewide OER Learning Circles program with two different pathways for faculty, each with different expectations and compensation. The first pathway is the OTN Authoring Projects, which call for faculty at two or more institutions who will collaboratively author course materials for developmental education courses or any courses that are part of completed transfer pathways. Developed materials will be CC-licensed and meet the criteria for acceptance in the OTN, and participants will receive funding for a three-credit course release.

Our second pathway is the OER Course Redesign or Ancillary Materials Authoring Project. Faculty can choose to redesign an existing course around OERs or create ancillary materials to support an existing open textbook for use in a course. Anything developed will be CC-licensed, and participants will receive funding for a one-credit course release.

While the model for the system OER Learning Circles is very similar to the CLC model, the weekly meetings over a ten-week period will all be virtual, and the online course room is likely to play a more significant role. This faculty development will meet our system goals to encourage collaboration, and will align with other strategic priorities.

Mindful of the experience of faculty working to create a Z-degree through Achieving the Dream who found that “collaborating with colleagues on the development and/or collection of OER materials is appealing to many faculty members but can be challenging” (Griffiths, et al., 2017, p 18), we’ve funded a CLC Learning Circle facilitator to oversee and facilitate the systemwide OER Learning Circles.

In February, 2018, nearly 30 faculty from 16 institutions began work in the OER Learning Circles. We are excited about the next steps with OER faculty development, and have multiple evaluation measures built into the systemwide OER Learning Circles for spring 2018. We will be looking closely at both the model and the final products, and hope to demonstrate substantial savings for students as meaningful return on this faculty development investment. This will help us determine next steps.


In our large, diverse system, we have spent some years raising awareness of OERs, funding small campus-based OER projects, and laying the groundwork for a broader systemwide opportunity to support faculty ready to move beyond awareness to adoption and/or authoring. Minnesota State continues to invest in supports for faculty as we work to expand awareness and adoption of OERs across the many colleges and universities in the system.

Our faculty development efforts began with introducing faculty to OERs through partnership with the OTN and through our “OER 101” trainings. Faculty participants were encouraged to peer review textbooks in the OTN, and provided a small stipend for doing so. This served to raise awareness of OERs and to reassure faculty of the quality of existing open textbooks. Unfortunately, it didn’t always lead to OER adoption in courses; subsequent surveying of faculty revealed multiple barriers to adoption and authoring, including the lack of time and supports as well as the lack of available disciplinary texts or ancillary materials supporting existing texts.

In addition to the OTN trainings, the system office was providing small grants to campuses for projects related to OERs. There were many of these small-scale efforts, so we looked to them for potential faculty support and for development models that showed promise for the system as a whole. The OER Learning Circle model at Central Lakes College was one such project. With the availability of additional funding, we created a scaled-up version of the OER Learning Circle to support faculty interested in redesigning courses around free materials or authoring textbooks or ancillary materials. The pilot, with nearly 30 faculty from 16 colleges and universities, is running through spring 2018. This effort has not only shown tremendous success in meeting our goals for increased OER adoption and authoring, but has proven to be positive and impactful in multiple, unexpected ways.

OUTCOME – why is this working?

The work completed by faculty in the OER Learning Circles exceeded all of our expectations. The resulting OER materials are of the highest quality, authored by instructors who are masters of their content. We also discovered gems, such as the unexpected value in peripheral pedagogical, accessibility-related, and culturally relevant components of the created materials. Examples include:

  • The creation of accessible text, using style headings for text and Alt Tags for images along with sans-serif fonts for more web readability.
  • Video links that include closed captioning.
  • Use of a variety of names that indicate diversity, including Latino/a, African/African-American, Native American, and more.
  • Examples from authors of diverse backgrounds when possible.
  • The updating of research examples and sample topics to reflect student diversity and interests, and the replacement of dull, dry, generic-sounding (“old white”) names.
  • The addition of folklore and ideas from other cultures and religious traditions to broaden everyone’s understanding of and approach to big ideas.
  • The inclusion of modern materials, including Ted Talks and speeches of modern-day philosophers who are female, indigenous, or not from a Western context.
  • “Sample speeches” collected by students and representing diverse topics and students.

We also saw bridges of collaboration, peer support, and guidance resulting from the weekly web conference Learning Circles, in which faculty could share successes, ask for help with concerns, and connect with colleagues from different disciplines across the college and university system. Faculty who had taught for many years shared their experiences and thoughts with newer faculty, and newer faculty shared more recent research-based ideas and examples. Faculty collaborating on one resource from two or three voices worked together to make sure the voice of the resource was consistent. Faculty provided new contacts to Learning Circle colleagues that led to added cross-institutional supports and the sharing of ideas, and often shared their knowledge through impromptu presentations in response to a fellow faculty’s questions.

With this successful pilot, we look forward to finding the means to continue to offer this model to faculty across our system. It is also our intention to think about sustainability and expansion by sharing resources to promote the model’s use at individual campuses and to colleagues outside the system who might be interested in applying this to their own contexts.


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Quality Matters

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Author Bios:

Dr. Kimberly Johnson is the Director for Faculty and Instructional Development for the seven public universities and 30 two-year colleges of Minnesota State. Faculty development priorities include supporting new faculty, addressing issues of equity and inclusion in teaching and learning, and supporting the adoption and integration of open educational resources across the complex and diverse Minnesota State system. An English language teacher for over 25 years, she is a co-founder of the MinneTESOL Journal, an open-access journal for English language practitioners and researchers. She holds a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Karen Pikula is a Psychology instructor at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, Minnesota and serves as the OER Coordinator for the 37 universities and colleges of Minnesota State. She also coordinates the Central Lakes College National Joint Powers Alliance grant, a grant focused on engaging College in the Schools instructors in OER adoption. Her professional interests include instructional design, faculty development, student-centered learning, open educational resources, open pedagogy, online instruction, teacher attrition, student success, and reading research on the practices of successful 21st century colleges. She holds a PhD in Educational Psychology from Capella University.


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Chapter 11 - Evolving Supports for Faculty to Embrace, Adopt, and Author OERs Copyright © 2018 by Kimberly Johnson and Karen Pikula is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.