Supporting Cross-Institutional OER Teams in Open Practices and Learning Outcomes Alignment

By | April 1, 2022

This post was contributed by Michaela Willi Hooper, Freelance OER Consultant and Web Designer. Michaela can be reached at michaela@taowebsites.com.

Introduction

Project Background

In September 2021, I joined two grant-funded projects sponsored by Open Oregon Educational Resources as a research consultant. Both projects focus on creating equitable open materials, including peer-reviewed, open textbooks and multimodal ancillaries for each course (listed in the table below).

 

Criminal Justice (CJ) Human Development & Family Studies (HDFS) Sociology (SOC)
CJA 220: Mental Health & the Law HDFS 201: Contemporary Families in the U.S. SOC 204: Sociology in Everyday Life
CCJ 230: American Criminal Justice System HDFS 225: Infant and Child Development SOC 205: Social Change in Societies
CCJ 231: Introduction to Criminology HDFS 229: School-Age & Adolescent Development SOC 206: Social Problems
CCJ 388: Race and Crime HDFS 262: Introduction to Human Services SOC 218: Soc of Gender
HDFS 272: Human Services Practicum

The purpose of this post is twofold:

Funding for the Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) and Sociology (SOC) courses comes from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, and the Criminal Justice (CJ) course development is supported by a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education.

Research Consultant Role

I became involved with Open Oregon Educational Resources when I was the OER & Textbook Affordability Librarian at Linn-Benton Community College (LBCC). In this capacity, I served on many Open Oregon Educational Resources working groups, including the Statewide Steering Committee, and liaised with LBCC faculty working on OER projects. I also provided feedback on drafts of the project grant proposals.

When I left LBCC to join Tao Web & Graphic Design, Amy Hofer, Statewide Open Education Program Director, approached me about supporting these grant projects as a research consultant. I eagerly agreed.

Research consultant is a somewhat ambiguous term, so Amy, our collaborators at Chemeketa Press, and I discussed the project needs. We also received input about the usefulness of research support from Elizabeth Pearce, author of Contemporary Families and the HDFS Disciplinary Lead for the project. The job description that we wrote includes supporting faculty in finding open materials and data/research, understanding licenses and attributions, and analyzing course learning outcomes from different Oregon institutions. These responsibilities are similar to ones I had previously fulfilled as an OER librarian. I created a document communicating these services to faculty, and reiterated my availability at project meetings.

The project team Amy put together has a wide array of skills, backgrounds, and approaches. Faculty from across the state participate in a variety of roles, including disciplinary leads, contributing authors, peer reviewers, and pilot instructors. Authors are supported by an instructional editor (Stephanie Lenox from Chemeketa Press), equity consultants Heather Blicher and Valencia Scott, a grant project manager (Phoebe Daurio), and an instructional designer (Veronica Vold). Each of these people brings valuable tools and perspectives to the projects.

Many academic institutions also provide OER support to faculty. OER support may come from academic librarians (see previous Open Oregon Educational Resources posts on OER librarians from 2019 and 2020), instructional designers, centers for accessibility, and/or the campus store. A key takeaway from my academic career is that sustainable OER work requires institutional support. OER has the potential to streamline course content in the future, but faculty, staff, students, and academic systems are still adapting to this paradigm shift. OER work can feel like additional, uncompensated labor for faculty and staff. Our author teams were from both large and small institutions and worked as part-time or full-time instructors. Some institutions do not have the funding to provide robust OER support, and it speaks to Amy’s experience working with faculty that she prepared by putting together a statewide grant support team.

Finding Open Materials

As part of Chemeketa Press’s textbook development process, authors are asked to analyze existing materials. I provided bibliographic information about major commercial textbooks and open textbooks that covered substantially the same materials as the course. For the criminal justice courses, I recorded my search process.

Here are lists of potentially relevant open textbooks (tab 1) for the targeted courses. These spreadsheets are not intended to be a comprehensive listing of all open materials related to the subject areas. Large subject collections are better organized in a widely shared repository like OER Commons. When I came across relevant resources that did not fit within the scope of the spreadsheet but seemed like they might be relevant later on (as an ancillary, for example), I submitted them to OER Commons. The spreadsheets list open textbooks relevant to the specific courses and, in some cases, relevant course shells or collections. The version of the spreadsheets I’m sharing is static, but they are used as working documents for faculty, who annotate and expand upon them. Columns L-Q of the Open Materials tabs contain a rating system suggested by Stephanie Lenox, for faculty to evaluate existing materials.

Supporting Open Practices

The project teams collaborate through Google Drive, synchronous meetings, and a Canvas Course. The Canvas Course includes faculty training on open practices that Amy developed for the OER course redesign sprints she regularly offers (access the course materials from the 2022 sprint). I created some additional training materials, such as this presentation on Creative Commons licenses and attributions, and I collaborated closely with Stephanie on this attribution tracking spreadsheet. The lead authors helped me better understand needs and questions around copyright education, leading to the development of instructional handouts on Strategies When You Want to Use All Rights Reserved Materials and Sharing Your Personal Creative Works under a Creative Commons License.

Equally important to education on open practices is ongoing support for authors. They appreciate being able to send me detailed research requests as they write new chapters and update data in remixed resources. The sociology author team shares their research requests as collaborative, topical documents in a Google Drive folder. This enables them to draw from the same data sources and discuss interesting findings. Government data, scholarly articles, newspaper articles, videos, and open images are often useful. Open Oregon Educational Resources’s Open Images FAQ draws on work done by equity consultant Heather Blicher to encourage diverse and inclusive representation.

One way uneven institutional support continues to affect the faculty team is access to research materials they need to reference. Authors have varying access to library collections, and there is not a budget within these projects set aside to procure “all rights reserved” copyrighted materials for research and reference. Resources like Google Scholar and the Internet Archive’s Open Library (which is not a repository of open materials, but instead operates through controlled digital lending) fill some of these gaps, but not as seamlessly or as fully as well-funded academic libraries.

Developing Learning Outcomes

Strong learning outcomes ensure the transparency and alignment of assessments, activities, and content across programs, courses, and textbooks. While course descriptions explain the scope and topics covered, course learning outcomes describe what students will know or do by the end of a course or program. Among other benefits, clear learning outcomes can help faculty choose relevant content and help students be intentional about learning (read more from the University of Toronto). The authors in this project are empowered to write the learning outcomes for their books and chapters, but they saw the benefit of designing books that would be widely adopted and modified. The question then became, who on the team has the ability to gather and analyze state learning outcomes? And, how much of this work already existed?

What I discovered, with Amy’s help, is that there are many individual articulation agreements between different institutions. The Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer, Associate of Science Oregon Transfer-Business, and Associate of Science Oregon Transfer-Computer Science are degrees intended to prepare community college students for upper level baccalaureate work. Also in development are Major Transfer Maps with cross-institutional agreements about courses students need to take for specific bachelor’s majors across the state. Currently agreements aren’t available for HDFS or SOC, and the CJ agreement is in draft form.

These agreements only detail what courses are recommended for each major; they do not list the course-level learning outcomes or address how courses that have different names and numbers are aligned across institutions. California does provide such a system: The Transfer and Articulation System for California’s Colleges and Universities. Oregon SB 233, passed in 2021, establishes a new Transfer Council and directs the Higher Education Coordinating Commission to establish a common course numbering system for lower-division courses with similar learning outcomes. Since the Transfer Council’s work has just begun, our analysis of learning outcomes is ahead of the statewide process.

Alignment of Similar Courses across the State

One resource we did have was the course crosswalk spreadsheet that Amy created to estimate statewide need and potential buy-in as she worked on the grant proposals for these projects. The first tab, compiled by Program Assistant Stephanie Hubbard, shows which Oregon public colleges and universities offered undergraduate degrees and certificates in the three majors of focus. The other three tabs list courses across the state that might be similar enough to use the same curricula. Some courses (such as those similar to CCJ 388: Race and Crime) had widely divergent names and numbers across the state, while others (such as SOC 204: Sociology in Everyday Life) were more, though not completely, standardized.

I certainly do not advocate for complete curriculum standardization across the state. Local needs and culture are important. Still, it is helpful to transfer students, alumni, employers, and curriculum creators when higher education institutions coordinate to determine, broadly, how courses align. Greater statewide alignment enables educators to build on one another’s work and increases transferability and transparency.

The course crosswalk spreadsheet was created because there is no official key to course numbering in Oregon (an issue that SB 233, noted above, aims to solve). Courses with similar outcomes are often assigned different numbers (and, sometimes, different prefixes) at different institutions. Subject matter experts reviewed the list and noted that some were too dissimilar to include in design considerations.

Alignment of Learning Outcomes within Similar Courses

In addition to identifying which courses aligned across public statewide institutions of higher education, the project needed to collect the course learning outcomes from these institutions for the authors to consider. Authors were asked to gather course learning outcomes, when available, from their institutions. Since I had experience navigating educational websites, Amy asked me to gather any other outcomes available on the public web. Some institutions, including Linn-Benton Community College, Lane Community College, and Central Oregon Community College, do include their learning outcomes in their catalogs. Portland Community College goes one step further and provides Course Content and Outcomes Guides (CCOG) with even more details about activities and assessment strategies. This level of transparency helps project teams like ours consider these institutions’ curricula in the development of course materials. Our instructional designer, Veronica Vold, sees this level of transparency as an issue of equity. She notes:

Educators, students, and future employers all benefit when course-level learning outcomes guide our shared work. When course-level learning outcomes are public, institutions demonstrate a commitment to equitable student success through the potential for increased collaboration and inclusive course design.

Other institutions provided some access through department pages or syllabi. Yet most did not, as a standard practice, make their learning outcomes publicly available (course descriptions are much more commonly shared). This meant our team needed to request them. In some cases, faculty authors reached out to colleagues at other institutions and asked for learning outcomes as part of a broader communication effort. In other cases, I reached out to departments in order to allow authors to focus on their primary task of writing. In the course crosswalk spreadsheet, shaded cells indicate courses that we do not yet have learning outcomes for.

I put the learning outcomes we acquired in a tab of the same spreadsheets I’d begun for scans of open textbooks (available in this folder organized by course, see tab 2). Some faculty were able to easily make sense of this data (as previously mentioned, there was far more similarity across the state for some courses than others). Others asked for further support.

In order to assist faculty in identifying similarities in outcomes across the state, I organized the outcomes in thematic clusters (I have previous experience using the constant comparative method to sort qualitative data in research). The thematic clusters aim to describe commonalities in learning outcomes across the state, enabling faculty to see which outcomes are taught at multiple institutions. For example, there were eight broadly similar outcomes to Chemeketa’s CJ 142A outcome, “Define mental disorders and common causes for the disorders.” Authors could scan this cluster of outcomes and, if they agreed with my analysis, they could synthesize the cluster into a course or chapter-level outcome. The disparities in the cluster might generate greater inclusivity and more thoughtful wording choice. For example, in this cluster about recognizing symptoms and needs of people in a mental health crisis, authors could choose to cover topics explicitly mentioned in institutional learning outcomes, like schizophrenia, mental illness, antisocial personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They might also decide some of these outcomes fit better elsewhere.

The learning outcome analysis (tab 3) is available for all CJ courses but only some HDFS and SOC courses, based on instructor need. Here are some details about the learning outcome analysis tab:

  • Column A shows the number of outcomes in the thematic cluster. Bigger clusters (more similar outcomes across institutions) are at the top of the sheet.
  • Shaded rows begin each cluster, and have a main outcome in Column B. This outcome seemed to encompass the general idea of the cluster, or in some cases I knew it was particularly salient for that authoring team.
  • Underneath each shaded row are the similar outcomes (Column C).
  • Elizabeth Pearce shared her method of analyzing outcomes, and I incorporated her idea of pulling out shared main topics (Column D).

These spreadsheets were iterative. I would bring a draft to a meeting and explain my process, and then incorporate team feedback.

Subject matter experts (faculty who teach these courses) must be the final decision makers regarding learning outcomes and alignment. A major barrier is faculty time and workload: curricular alignment (a shared responsibility) can feel like extra, unexpected work to faculty, and the last two years have been particularly demanding for them. Grant-funded teams like this can work to make this process less labor-intensive for faculty participants. This work could also be accomplished through more long-term funding at the institutional level.

Conclusion

While this project is still only beginning, I have already learned a lot from my colleagues and the process. It has been valuable to have the perspective of a professional instructional editor, which is not available to many OER creation teams. While the whole team is concerned about accessibility and multiple means of representation, our instructional designer, Veronica Vold, has been an especially strong advocate for these concerns. Veronica particularly recommends that educators engage with user personas and best practices advocated in the Accessibility Toolkit from BC Campus. I hope the materials shared here are helpful as other teams refine the process of developing OER with the goal of cross-institutional alignment. If you have further questions about the project, you can reach out to Amy Hofer or contact me at michaela@taowebsites.com.

The contents of this post were partially developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.

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