Creating Affordable Content Programs

Chapter 15 – The Open and Affordable Course Material Initiative at Penn State

Julie Lang, Joseph A. Salem, Jr., and Jennifer Sparrow

by Julie Lang (Penn State), Joseph A. Salem, Jr. (Michigan State), and Jennifer Sparrow (Penn State) (bios)


The formal open and affordable course material initiative at Penn State was launched in February, 2015, when Provost Nick Jones created a university-level Open Educational Resources (OER) Task Force. Members included representatives of the Penn State World Campus, the University Libraries (UL), Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT), faculty, and student government. The task force was chaired by Barbara Dewey, Dean of University Libraries and Scholarly Communication.

The Task Force was charged with helping to systematically implement OERs in support of teaching and learning, and with increasing student access and affordability—key items on the President’s agenda. Three specific outcomes were specified: proof-of-concept pilots of OER adoption, an investigation of consortia in support of OERs and affordable course content, and development of a plan for making open and affordable course content available at Penn State.

The Task Force completed its work over the subsequent 18 months, consulting widely and presenting on open and affordable course content throughout the university. Notable accomplishments included two semesters of pilots and data collection, a focus on open and affordable course content at the TLT Symposium in 2016 and in TLT-sponsored faculty development programs, and an OER Summit hosted by the UL during Open Education Week in March, 2016, that highlighted the work of the Task Force and work already underway at Penn State. The summit was a good indication that the Task Force’s work had been successful, as over 100 faculty and staff participated either online or in person.

OER Task Force Findings

One key takeaway of the OER Task Force was that that significant work was already underway at Penn State. Notable programs include the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute, which has a long history of creating OERs in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, and the Office of Digital Learning (formerly the e-Learning Institute) in the College of Arts and Architecture, which converts courses materials from textbooks to faculty-created mixed media.

We also found high levels of satisfaction with OERs among the faculty and students who participated in the proof-of-concept pilots, and a strong interest in and need for a multi-faceted approach to access and affordability, with OERs part of a larger strategy. And we discovered that Penn State was uniquely able to scale open and affordable course content adoption and related savings due to two advantages—the Commonwealth Campuses, and its significant investment in instructional design.

One of our most significant findings was that, although faculty interested in transitioning their courses to open or more affordable course content options were well supported through available instructional design or librarian expertise, these services and expertise were not easy to find, and there was no formal way to market them.

One of our most significant findings was that, although faculty interested in transitioning their courses to open or more affordable course content options were well supported through available instructional design or librarian expertise, these services and expertise were not easy to find, and there was no formal way to market them. There was also a lack of centralized leadership. Due to the very decentralized nature of Penn State and to its geographical distribution (24 campuses across the entire state), the Task Force identified strong partnerships at the University Park campus and throughout the Commonwealth as a significant need.

Both the UL and TLT repeatedly emerged as units working in support of open and affordable course content and innovations in digital pedagogy. With strong partnerships and an administrative presence on the Commonwealth Campuses, each agreed to dedicate a position and resources to lead the university’s effort. Julie Lang, an instructional design lead already working in strong support and partnership at the Commonwealth Campuses, agreed to be the OER Lead in TLT, and an Open Education Librarian position was created in the spring of 2017, and filled in August of that year by Amanda Larson.

Additional Task Force recommendations included leveraging Penn State’s Unizin membership and joining OERu and the Open Textbook Network as early consortial partners to support access and affordability; creating a faculty development and incentive program; leveraging library-licensed resources in courses; developing a strategy for hosting locally-created OERs; and developing a university-wide strategic plan for OERs/affordable course content. The report of the OER Task Force is available at

This chapter describes the collaborative approach to supporting course affordability at Penn State, as well as select initiatives that have advanced open and affordable course content.

To implement the recommendations of the task force, an OER Working Group was added to the Penn State strategic plan structure in early 2017. All three authors participate in the Working Group, and help advance open and affordable course content initiatives in their daily roles as well.

This chapter describes the collaborative approach to supporting course affordability at Penn State, as well as select initiatives that have advanced open and affordable course content. Although not completely unique, Penn State’s program is fortunate to have the support of the Provost and several committed partners, and the visibility of being included in the university’s strategic plan. We hope that our colleagues at other institutions will find it useful to read of the success and challenges of such a well-supported program.

Collaborative/Comprehensive Approach to OERs

Building a Program – Networks and Projects

In 2014, Dr. Barron, president of Penn State, issued his priorities for the university, which included increasing affordability for students. Faculty and staff recognized that related efforts needed to leverage the university’s rich resources, and extend beyond the work of individual faculty members.

OER Coordinator

In the Fall of 2016 we intentionally began building our program, shifting an existing position into a full time position supporting OERs, and changing the position title from Instructional Designer to OER Coordinator.

Julie Lang had previously worked with Penn State Campus faculty and staff on shared degree programs—programs offered across geographic locations so that students can complete a degree without moving to another campus. Because her work assignments provided many opportunities to collaborate and develop relationships across campus locations, Julie was well positioned to work with the instructional design community across the Commonwealth to recruit, develop, and support faculty in the adoption, adaptation, and authoring of OERs so. Since one of the Coordinator’s primary roles is this collaboration with faculty, it is useful to consider a few successful collaborations to date.

One early collaborator was a faculty member who authored two open textbooks for her Spanish I and II courses, receiving technical support from two instructional designers at her local campus, and replacing the expensive online homework system students were required to buy. The faculty, instructional designers, and Coordinator collaborated throughout the process, sharing their work using Pressbooks.

One Earth Science instructor used a number of open resources freely available online, incorporated interactive activities using H5P, a free and open-source content collaboration framework based on JavaScript, and delivered the content to students in an organized ebook via Pressbooks. She received positive feedback from her students, who had previously complained about the difficulty of locating the various resources included in her online course.

One senior faculty member, who attended a faculty development session on access and affordability, was intrigued at the thought of saving his financially strapped students the cost of a textbook, and adopted the open textbook Statistics from OpenStax. He checked in at a regional faculty development event and reported that all students had the book on the first day of class because it was freely available, and he heard fewer excuses when the first homework assignment was due. At another campus, one of the local instructional designers introduced a faculty member to the Coordinator, and they discussed the issue of a course text going out of print. They eventually solved the issue by adapting open resources in Pressbooks, incorporating H5P content to help students check their reading comprehension.

These collaborations show how key relationships can lead to successful projects, and illustrate the infrastructure and expertise we made available in order to support our faculty. To further this support, we also created Pressbooks training materials for faculty and staff, along with resource guides on using low-cost content provided by the library.

We also organized online meet-ups with faculty who wanted to discuss the best pedagogical approaches to using OERs. These meet-ups were a place for instructional designers and librarians to point staff who were exploring OERs. They also allowed college and campus instructional design units to see the work being done and explore how they could customize materials to the meet the needs of faculty they were supporting, and provided faculty involved with OERs from the beginning to use the training documentation to discuss their work with peers during meetings and conferences.

Projects were formed out of these conversations. During the 2017 Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) Symposium, for example, three Spanish faculty from three separate locations approached a faculty member who had authored an open textbook, asking about collaborating on open resources for a higher-level course. And two math instructors from two different locations approached the OER Coordinator about adopting OpenStax books and adapting a book to include some of their own resources.

In addition to the work with campus designers, the OER Coordinator has had opportunities to work with faculty and staff at University Park, Penn State’s largest and main campus. Instructional designers at University Park are employed within academic units. At the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, for instance, which has been offering open online courses for many years, the instructional designers supporting these courses were very receptive to learning how to create an entire online open course, from licensing to faculty buy-in. Another valuable resource at University Park (although it serves all faculty and staff throughout the campuses) is the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence (SITE). The OER Coordinator worked with an instructional consultant from SITE on the local ID2ID program (a professional development initiative that matches up instructional designers to work on self-selected projects and collaborate on professional development activities). They developed a face-to-face training session for faculty who were getting started with adopting, adapting, and authoring OERs, and presented the materials they created in an all-day event for faculty who had received seed grants from the office of General Education to develop integrated courses. This allowed the OER Coordinator to engage with University Park faculty—often, due to their research agendas, the most difficult audience to reach.

Open Education Librarian

As part of its commitment to lead the open and affordable course content program at the university level, the UL created the position of Open Education Librarian in early spring of 2017 and successfully filled it with a start date of August, 2017. This is a tenure-track faculty position reporting to the Head of Library Learning Services, the foundational teaching, learning, and student engagement department within the UL. The goal for the position is that it will co-lead the open and affordable program with Julie Lang, the OER Coordinator in TLT.

This position is responsible for building partnerships and creating strategies to develop, assess, and maintain services to integrate OERs and affordable course content into the curriculum. A significant focus is on partnering with faculty, librarians, students, and instructional designers to create, adapt, and adopt open and affordable course content at the course and program level. The position is also responsible for setting the strategic direction for open and affordable course content initiatives throughout the UL.

Amanda Larson is the current Open Education Librarian, and has already been successful in developing partnerships, with TLT in particular. She has also elevated the national profile of Penn State on open and affordable initiatives, serving as inaugural SPARC Open Education Leadership Fellow, coordinating Penn State’s participation as a charter member of the Open Textbook Network Publishing Cooperative, and serving as a member of the Open Textbook Network Advisory Board.

Collaboration of the OER Coordinator and Open Education Librarian

The OER Coordinator and Open Education Librarian are complementary positions; each requires specialized knowledge, but includes opportunities for collaboration and shared work on many projects.

The OER Coordinator contributes knowledge and expertise in using technology for open publishing, content creation, and instructional design, consulting with faculty to transform their courses to accommodate affordable and open content. She is responsible for assigning and overseeing OER Support by the TLT Instructional Design Team, including production support staff members, multimedia specialists, and programmers, and serves as the project manager for the adaptation and authoring of of open content. The Open Education Librarian provides knowledge and expertise on open licensing, open publishing, and open pedagogy, as well as library resources on OERs and low-cost course adoption, adaptation, and project authoring. Working together, they give faculty support and guidance not only on providing affordable course materials but on delivering pedagogically sound courses that provide a high-quality learning experience.


Our early strategies focused on educating faculty and identifying low-hanging fruit for some early projects. Once we had a variety of projects, we began to focus on creating a successful workflow and establishing best practices for our campuses/institution.

With any collaborative project it is important to establish project goals and timelines from the very start. During the first meeting with faculty we work on defining their goals.

With any collaborative project it is important to establish project goals and timelines from the very start. During the first meeting with faculty we work on defining their goals. What are they trying to do? Do they want to replace a textbook that students must purchase with an open textbook? Is that even possible? Sometimes open textbooks do not exist for higher-level courses and niche subject areas. In that case, we consider replacing the textbook with open resources from a variety of open content repositories, and discuss how to share the content with students. In Penn State’s work, OERs are any type of educational materials available to the university community with little or no cost. We therefore point faculty to library resources and to publishers who have agreed to provide materials at a cost of fifty dollars or less per student.

We next discuss the project’s timeline. Adoption of existing materials takes the least amount of time. We recommend that the faculty choosing this option examine their course goals and lesson objectives to make sure these are in alignment with the new open textbook being used for the course.

Adaptation is a longer process, and there are a number of reasons faculty might choose it. An open textbook might, for instance, contain extra chapters not needed for a course; we then use Pressbooks to import the desired chapters. In addition, faculty can write additional content to cover material not addressed in the imported chapters. They might also want to use open resources from a variety of sources, and we can import and combine these into a single resource in Pressbooks. When there are no useful open textbooks, we begin to explore OER repositories such as Merlot and OER Commons. Finding resources is usually not a problem, and we can often find several high-quality resources in formats ranging from Word documents to online interactive simulations. Organizing and rating the resources, however, can become problematic, and take a lot of time. We developed a spreadsheet to help faculty track what they find and describe how it might help students to meet the course goals and lesson objectives.

For authoring an open textbook, the first step in our workflow is the creation of a general table of contents. While every page needn’t be thought out, the faculty member should have an idea of the topics for each chapter book before they start creating content. Typically, the table of contents is created in a collaborative document such as a note in a Box folder or in a Google Doc. This allows the faculty member and instructional designers to view and comment and to ask questions about the topics.

Once the table of contents is complete, we start creating that structure in Pressbooks. This can be done by faculty or student production assistants. We have hired three undergraduate production assistants to help faculty publish original open content. The majority of faculty projects have been designed and developed in Pressbooks, with faculty members writing content in a Word document and uploading chapters into Box folders. The students then take the content and import it into Pressbooks. The faculty can easily view the content by going to a URL, and can leave comments for the student production staff—a Pressbooks feature that cuts down on emails between faculty and student production staff, thus saving a great deal of time.

Textbook content for some projects is widely available, and student production staff can assist faculty in searching for open resources to replace high-cost materials. One project for a Kinesiology course on stress management, for example, used some of the many free and open resources available online for this popular subject area. A student production staff member was assigned topics connected to lesson objectives, and placed the URLs and brief synopses of resources in a Box note for faculty to explore and respond to with comments, questions, and feedback; the student then imported selected resources into Pressbooks.

Student production staff have also been incredibly helpful creating H5P content within Pressbooks. Pressbooks is based on the WordPress platform, which offers an H5P plugin that makes it easy to create self-check items such as multiple choice, drag and drop, and embedded videos with questions. Faculty indicate in Pressbooks where they would like the interactive content to be created, student staff use the plugin to create that content, and faculty then provide feedback and can request modifications or changes.

Leveraging the Penn State Membership in Unizin

The Unizin Consortium contains many of the same institutions that are a part of theBig Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA), and Penn State’s OER Coordinator is a member of the Unizin Affordable Content Group. In the past year this group has helped pilot an e-reader called Unizin Engage, which allows members to offer students published materials at a significant discount. We are also working on best practices for using Pressbooks. Both the Affordable Content Group within the BTAA and the Unizin Teaching and Learning committee include faculty and staff who are not only highly knowledgeable and skilled in the adoption, adaptation, and authoring of OERs, but are very approachable and eager to answer questions or suggest helpful resources.

One of the year’s highlights was a Content Creation Camp co-sponsored by BTAA and Unizin. Penn State was well represented, with faculty serving as two of the three discipline team leads. The initiative arose from Ohio State’s realization that content question banks were a missing piece in the successful faculty adoption of OERs. Published materials allow faculty to access a wide array of quiz and exam questions, but when traditional textbooks are replaced with open resources, those question banks are lost. The camp, held at the Big 10 Center in Chicago, was an effort to encourage cross-institutional collaboration among faculty in three general education subject areas: medical biology, macroeconomics, and sociology, and the Penn State faculty were excited about the opportunity to collaborate with faculty in their disciplines. During the camp they learned more about creating high-quality questions, and determined the further work needed when they returned home.

Each team was asked to create a 1,000-question test bank, with each of the 3,000 questions following sound design principles, tied to 25 item-writing guidelines, and reviewed by members of that team and a psychometrics expert. Questions were made available, at no cost, for download and import into course management systems. Ohio State conducted a survey of camp participants, and reported that 100% felt that facilitators were engaging, the agenda well-organized, and the environment conducive to learning.

It was exciting to speak with faculty after the event, and hear their enthusiasm and praise of the Ohio State organizers. The camp opened their eyes to the possibilities that exist in creating open content with collaborators, and showed them that they’re not alone in their quest to provide high-quality open content to their students.

Penn State continues to work with Ohio State on this initiative, and met with the organizing team in early December, 2017, to discuss the best ways to move forward with the overall initiative as well as the technology required for faculty to create questions and provide feedback.

Creating Strategic Faculty Development Initiatives

One professional development goal for the OER Coordinator, derived from task force recommendations, is to design, develop, and deliver an OER faculty development program. During the Fall 2017 semester, the Coordinator met with instructional designers and with the OER librarian to discuss how to support faculty in adopting, adapting, and authoring OERs. The Coordinator also researched best practices in facilitating faculty development in OERs within higher education, and reviewed programs at other BTAA and Unizin member institutions. This work continued into the Spring Semester, with the first faculty development and incentive program offered during the summer of 2018 and using the following metrics for assessment:

  • Did faculty implement OERs into their courses after attending the program?
  • Did faculty who attend the program follow up with questions or consultations?

We will also conduct a faculty survey/interview after the program to gather feedback and find out what, if anything, is missing that would be helpful to include in future programs.

Faculty engagement is key to project success.

Faculty engagement is key to project success. For this project, we were able to leverage the successful model developed by TLT over several years of emerging project development. TLT provides both broad and deep support for faculty-driven curricular projects, including instructional design, faculty development, instructional technology, and support for research in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). These in-depth partnerships can last a semester or longer, and the resources dedicated to these projects vary depending on technical and curricular support needs. The history of these faculty engagements is available at the Faculty Fellows website.

For this OER development initiative, TLT was committed to a multi-semester engagement with faculty, with support including an instructional designer, technology support staff, a graphic designer, and a copy editor. Instructional design and technology support were provided by full-time staff, available through a shift in personnel after several projects were completed. Graphic design and copy editing were done by student wage employees, in positions funded out of an emerging projects budget.

This structure followed the Faculty Fellows model of support—both broad and deep—that TLT has provided in the past, with a comprehensive set of agile and adaptive resources for different project needs and timelines. It also allowed the team to address any changing demands for services.

Faculty recruitment started with TLT leveraging existing relationships across the 24 Penn State campuses, and reaching out to faculty who had participated in faculty development workshops on Shared Programs, E-Learning, and Blended Learning. TLT also put out a call for proposals that included an outline of the range of supports available to faculty, including instructional design, technology, copy editing, and graphic design. Proposals were evaluated not only for the content that would be covered, but for the impact OER materials could have on courses with large enrollment and multiple sections across campuses.

Throughout the process, the research group within TLT collected data on the process itself and the impact of OERs on student learning. Students in courses using OERs were surveyed on their use of OER materials, whether they preferred them to traditional textbooks, the ease of use, and the perceived impact on learning. Students reported they were neither more nor less distracted when using an ebook versus a traditional textbook, and frequently noted the benefit of not having to carry a heavy book around campus. Overall, students were pleased with the experience, felt it had a positive impact on their learning, and were particularly happy with the reduced cost and first-day access.

Faculty engagement has grown as we offer more services and events, and as the strategic planning process makes the open and affordable course content program more visible.

Creating a Central Online Presence for OERs

One of our biggest challenges has been to communicate the OERs and opportunities available at Penn State. The OER Task Force developed a website——to serve as a clearinghouse for all open and low-cost initiatives and materials at PSU, showing initiatives in progress, promoting upcoming events (the 2016 OER Summit, for example), and serving as a place for instructional designers and librarians to direct faculty for advice and support.

The OER Coordinator took over maintenance of the site after the Task Force Report was accepted, and she and the new Open Education Librarian have planned several improvements, including:

  • A Faculty Showcase highlighting the work of faculty throughout the Commonwealth in adopting, adapting, and authoring low-cost and open course materials.
  • Videos of faculty describing why they decided to adapt, adopt, and author open resources, and of students discussing the positive impact of faculty decisions to commit to affordable course materials.
  • Faculty reviews of instructional materials we have developed on finding and adopting open resources.
  • Additional resources to help faculty adopt and adapt materials, with places in which faculty can post reviews.
  • Links to faculty-authored openly licensed content.

We are also planning improvements to the licensing page, including the development of online modules for intellectual property instruction.


Although the open and affordable program has made significant progress over the last three years, we have encountered some challenges. Currently, for example, there is no centrally supported/structured initiative in place to incentivize faculty to adopt, adapt, and author open resources. During the summer of 2017, the OER Working Group charged with implementing OER Task Force recommendations partnered with the Office of General Education to support faculty who were developing courses to meet new program requirements and who wanted to make those courses open or affordable. While that partnership is anticipated to continue, a standalone faculty development and incentive program is under development for the summer of 2018.

Because the Open Education Librarian’s appointment did not start until August, 2017, the Online Learning Librarian, Subject Librarians, and Copyright Officer took on the work of addressing copyright and licensing questions. This made the librarian’s transition more challenging, as several initiatives were well underway and well developed when she began.

In some disciplines, textbook decisions are linked to agreements with particular publishers, which stymies the creation and adoption of OERs for high-volume, high-cost textbooks. Several publishers also have direct-to-faculty arrangements, also a challenge for implementing new initiatives. Our Working Group includes representatives from the university bookstore (Barnes & Noble), with which we have a strong partnership. We are seeing the development of a widespread preference for all vendor relationships related to course material to be coordinated by the bookstore; this would help simplify the materials being assigned.


Despite these challenges, several of our initiatives have found early success. The Pressbooks implementation through Unizin, for example, has resulted in several textbook resources. Notably, one colleague has been teaching from the textbook that she authored for Spanish I, and is working on another for Spanish II.

For the fall of 2017, UL piloted ebook licensing of academic and university press books assigned for World Campus courses. Course material adoptions were reviewed and titles meeting library collection development criteria were identified, licensed, and added to each course through the course reserves system. For the fall pilot, 164 ebooks were licensed in 140 courses, providing a potential $383,937 in student savings for an investment of just over $20,000 in licensing.

Also in the fall of 2017, TLT and UL piloted a first-day access program using the Unizin Engage platform. Seven faculty members participated, with the 233 students in their nine courses receiving course materials through a first-day access model allowing them to opt out of payment; in return, the courses received deep discounts of approximately 70%. Access fees for the pilot programs were covered by Penn State, and first-day access was assessed both financially and as it related to student success. In the spring of 2018, the pilot was expanded to include the Barnes & Noble platform, with Barnes & Noble filling the role of content coordinator and, eventually, price negotiator.

Following the Task Force’s recommendations, Penn State joined the Open Textbook Network (OTN) in 2017. The OTN training event was held during Open Access Week in October, 2017. Separate sessions for faculty and for support staff were held, as well as a lunch with student government leadership. At least 50 faculty participated in the session either in person or online.

Next Steps and Lessons Learned

Our next priorities, both in our daily roles and as members of the OER Working Group, will focus on moving select initiatives from pilot phase to scale and then to sustainable programs. First-day access, ebook licensing, and faculty incentive programs are among our top priorities for transitioning from pilot to program. To support Penn State’s strategic plan, one of our general strategies for scalability is to align our work on open and affordable course content with emerging initiatives supporting the plan’s Transforming Education goals.

Throughout our work, we have repeatedly been told that our most important task in gaining acceptance and trust around the use and production of OERs is to develop positive relationships. At some point, we have each met naysayers—faculty who have told us, flat out, that OERs will never work. Opening the lines of communication around what is possible in open pedagogy has, however, turned many critics into partners, and increased their level of commitment and time. With the right support, even the busiest person working with the most complex subject matter can find a way to adopt, adapt, or author open resources in a realistic amount of time.

Additional Readings

Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources. (2016, February 16) OER and best practices for faculty development. Retrieved from

Greene, T., Draker-Fortis, K., Overholt, M., Black, J., Callan, A., Ramsdale, J.,…O’Reilly, J. N.D. The open faculty patchbook: A community auilt of pedagogy. Retrieved from

Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching. Faculty development. Retrieved from

Wright, M. (2016). Evidence-based principles for online faculty development. Educause Review. Retrieved from

Author Bios:

Julie Lang is the Open Educational Resource Coordinator for Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT). Julie works with faculty, instructional designers, and librarians to advance the adoption, adaption, and authoring of open content to benefit students at Penn State and beyond.

Joseph A. Salem, Jr is the former Associate Dean for Learning, Undergraduate Services and Commonwealth Campus Libraries at Penn State. In this role, he was responsible for the teaching and learning program in University Libraries and Access Services, both of which play central roles in support of open and affordable course content adoption and creation. He served as a member of the Penn State OER Task Force and led the OER Working Group charged with advancing recommendations from that task force as part of Penn State strategic plan implementation. He has published and presented on open and affordable course content. Joe is now University Librarian at Michigan State University.

Jennifer Sparrow is the Senior Director for Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) where she leads a team of learning innovators. TLT collaborates across the entire institution to transform teaching and learning. The work is grounded in the values of: accessibility for all learners, reliability and credibility of all work, and strong partnerships with faculty, students, staff and vendors that enable new ventures in teaching and learning. Jennifer champions the following: innovation in teaching and learning with technology, strategic opportunities for faculty development, the advancement of flexible, active learning spaces, and research in the scholarship of technology-enhanced teaching and learning.


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Chapter 15 - The Open and Affordable Course Material Initiative at Penn State Copyright © 2018 by Julie Lang, Joseph A. Salem, Jr., and Jennifer Sparrow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.