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ARLINGTON, Va. -- Academic libraries can help promote the adoption of open educational resources, but ultimately the push for open content has to be about more than textbooks, advocates said this week during the Open Ed Conference.

The conference, which concludes today, comes on the heels of two reports suggesting that adoption of OER has the potential to grow dramatically in the next three years -- if faculty members are able to discover the resources they need.

One survey, conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group, found that nearly three-quarters of faculty member respondents in the U.S., or 73.4 percent, said open resources offer the same or better quality as traditional textbooks. Also of importance to the OER movement: 77.5 percent anticipated they either will or might use open resources in the next three years. Only 6.2 percent said they were not interested.

Another report, released as OER advocates gathered for the conference's first day on Wednesday, contained good news about student attitudes toward open resources. Research out of the OER Research Hub, housed at the Open University in the United Kingdom, found 55.7 percent of surveyed students in 180 countries said open resources improve student satisfaction. Another 60.1 percent said they were more interested in the topics taught in courses using open resources than those in courses using traditional textbooks.

Those results are promising, advocates for open resources say, but they still face an institution-by-institution grind to make faculty aware of their options, and ensure that the future predicted in those reports becomes reality.

One idea explored in a series of sessions on Wednesday: let academic libraries help.

“When you look at the challenges the OER movement is facing -- how to find content, how to get it to students, how to get it to faculty ... -- it’s something libraries are uniquely suited to be able to help with,” said Nicole Allen, director of open education for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (or SPARC), an organization that promotes open forms of scholarly communication.

Anchoring an OER initiative in the library could counteract the issues some faculty members report experiencing when they try to discover open resources; doing so could also help make them aware of the resources in the first place. In the Babson survey, for example, 65.9 percent of respondents said they knew little or nothing about open resources. Libraries have already helped support the growth of open access research, speakers said, and they can do the same for the discoverability of educational resources.

“It seems like there is a critical mass happening in academic librarianship or school librarianship that this is an idea that’s catching on, that people want to be a part of,” said Steven J. Bell, associate university librarian at Temple University. “Is there something we can do to bring people together to share ideas?”

The conference is one such venue. Now in its 11th year, the conference attracted about 400 attendees, many of them representing colleges and universities that have recently launched OER initiatives or plan to do so in the next six months. Community colleges were particularly well-represented, while only a handful of attendees represented liberal arts colleges.

Sessions such as “Adopt, Remix, Create: Meeting University Goals With an Open Textbook Initiative” and the less ambiguously titled, “How Not to Promote Open Sharing of Educational Materials at a University” encouraged listeners to learn from other universities’ experiments with OER.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison has run open textbook pilots since early 2012, and offers instructors $1,500 stipends to participate. Speaking as a slideshow presentation showed a picture of a hedge maze, James M. Jonas, academic librarian at the university, stressed the importance of building faculty support for open resources.

“Going into this program, I really thought that with a basic explanation, people would understand it,” Jonas said. “But as we went through it, there were a lot of misgivings about the work required to transform [the courses].”

One faculty member, Jonas said, expressed concern that “some white supremacist” could download an ebook produced by faculty, make a handful of changes and distribute it. Others said they were confused about the complexity of OER tools.

“Faculty members and instructional staff are busy,” Jonas said. “Support staff are busy. We are all busy. For most of us, this is not our day job. That gave people a different set of priorities.”

During a different session, Ann Agee and Christina Mune, librarians at San Jose State University, graded their efforts to promote open resources on campus. They awarded themselves an A for an open access textbook list that directs students to free versions of the textbooks their instructors assign -- an initiative they said has saved students hundreds of thousands of dollars since launching in 2012.

A grant program for faculty members interested in replacing textbooks with free or inexpensive alternatives, however, started strong but has since slowed down. The number of applicants has fallen steadily each year, and with this year’s deadline coming up on Tuesday, Agee and Mune said they have only received one application so far.

Other speakers recommended faculty members and staffers focus on issues such as completion rates and retention in order for their OER initiatives to be successful -- instead of simply replacing textbooks. The Babson report contained some support for that idea. On the list of most commonly used open resources, images and videos ranked first and second, while ebooks and open textbooks ranked fifth and sixth.

“There are textbooks for a reason, and there’s nothing written like a textbook out there that covers a topic in a page or two pages or five pages,” Jonas said in the conclusion of his talk. “You can’t replace a textbook with a chapter that covers the concepts with journal articles.... In terms of text, there’s nothing like an actual textbook.”

Jonas then pivoted to quote a common refrain heard during the conference: “We’re not just replacing textbooks; we’re replacing pedagogy.”

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