#OER & A Letter of Recommendation

One of the mistakes that leaders and champions make over and over again—myself included—is that we assume we know how to move adoption forward based on our own experience. Our own lofty ideas about the future. Our mistakes from the past. Our own research. Our own egos. Our confidence that we have all the right definitions and answers. Don’t get me wrong, expertise is important but the moment you think you’re an “expert,” you are missing an opportunity to learn from faculty.

My complete and utter lack of time to invest in my own professional development is forcing me to rethink my own involvement in the workshop work I do. I’m trying to give myself time to learn by shutting my mouth and listening to faculty. This is the longest I’ve gone without taking a class of some sort in 20 years. I love to learn, and I’m struggling to find time for my own thinking and space for reflection—work is just too busy and I’m spending more time on the bike. All good things but my brain feels like it’s atrophying. I’ve been to 55 schools in 11 months, and I meet a lot of people. I’ve started to think of these conversations with strangers as my professional development—I can learn something from everyone everywhere. The fact that they trust me as a teacher/speaker/trainer still blows my mind.

During workshops, I’ve started to break people into small groups based on platform or discipline interest. I usually take the motley crew of the undecided, the skeptical, or the discipline-with-no-OER. If you think you’ve got the whole OER-as-professional-development down pat, I’d like to invite you to attend a workshop full of nurses and criminal justice teachers. Be like Blondie, and call me. I’d love for you to observe why this work is so hard.

It’s my job to help my other facilitators be successful, so I give myself the challenges. I spend a lot of time outside of my comfort zones both as a facilitator and a teacher/trainer. At my most recent workshop, teachers expressed the need for a letter of recommendation or letter of intent for a textbook review committee.

This is the brilliant idea that I’d like to share with today–mainly because I’m deeply embarrassed I have not thought of this before. Something so simple. Yet.

I’ll admit my experience with this type of textbook selection committee is limited as a teacher. As an adjunct, I usually worked for departments who either gave me complete freedom to choose my own materials or I worked (briefly) for schools who had pre-selected texts that I had to use in order to get hired. I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was an adjunct to have such a supportive network of colleagues. When I see some of the working conditions of my workshop attendees, I see my adjunct career in a whole new light. I was really lucky in an unlucky era.

My work as an administrator was purely centered around eLearning where we had no influence or power over any materials that faculty used in their courses. The real revolution in higher education is in the hands of the LMS Admins, by the way, yet they are typically overlooked, ignored, and under-appreciated by faculty and administrators alike. Edtech companies don’t see that. Policy leaders don’t see that. Visionaries don’t see that. Okay. Breath. Don’t get angry. That’s a whole other post and soapbox, yo. Focus, Indrunas.

That all being said, I’m trying to enter my workshops with an open-mind to learn from strangers. I had a very productive conversation with faculty members who expressed the need for an executive summary about the courseware they are choosing for OER adoption. I asked them specifically what would help them, and I listened and wrote notes like a madwoman.

If you know me well, you can attest that I will talk your ear off when I’m excited about something. Lately I’ve been really trying to be a good listener. I’ve been asking my workshop faculty, “What’s something that you don’t have right now that could make OER adoption easier for you?”

And then I shut my mouth and listen.

I take notes by hand in a paper journal—my magic machine for work blows up with too many notifications. If I use my laptop/magic machine, they think I’m not listening to them. Using a pen and paper invites those teachers to talk. A really good teacher loves to lecture and share what she knows. I love a good story. Good students take notes. Even if they tell me something I’ve heard a million times, I still write it down to respect their ideas.

Before I get into the best idea I’ve heard in months with this question, here’s a top ten list of things they usually say that they need.

  1. Time
  2. Funding
  3. Help identifying material that will replace a textbook
  4. More information from their administration about how they will sustain OER
  5. Details about what others have done in their discipline
  6. Examples of complete courses
  7. Peer review information about the course content
  8. Ways they can use the 5Rs
  9. Instruction on how to license their own work
  10. Guidance with repositories (Here I do interrupt them because I share with them how much I hate repositories and why they frustrated my faculty when I was an admin. Why I thought they were pure crap when I was a teacher. I flat out tell them it’s a bad idea to curate courses from a repository. Sorry if you’re a believer, but that idea is a failure at scale. When I hear “What we need is a repository filled with discoverable learning objects that faculty can search to build their courses” I instantly crave whiskey, gin, vodka, IPA, and/or a nap. I start to sweat a little and a small vein pops on my forehead. I stop listening and try not to put on my ranty-pants, but FFS, enough with the repository-as-solution. Just stahp.)

Here’s the thing.

Two teachers at Nassau Community College who are part of the brilliant SUNY system gave me one of the best ideas to date.

I watched them get super-excited about SOS’s Biology I and II and their Anatomy & Physiology course. I showed them the attributions. How to search. How they can use their LMS to customize for the upcoming year and then we can work on a two-year plan to create their ideal course. I struggled in all of my science classes as a student and I sometimes weep for my younger self that I didn’t have teachers like the ones that I got to meet this week.

After they shared what they think will work, they said, we still have to take this to our textbook committee. Faces fell. Arms crossed. Eyebrows scrunched. A cold wind blew through the computer lab. They stared at me. Blinked. Silence.

That’s when I asked my question.

“What’s something that you don’t have right now that could make OER adoption easier for you?”

They said they needed a letter of recommendation about the course materials they are planning to use. An executive summary about who wrote the course, what other schools have used this course, data on whether it improved student learning, discipline-specific endorsements from colleagues within their system. One endorsement with somebody important from SUNY could go a long way since these are course materials not from a traditional publisher.

We need a short letter that the committee can read that will substantiate our choice, they said. Data on how this course helps retention. A blurb about student engagement. How it works with their LMS. How this is not just random information curated from the internet.

Accreditation standards and documentation of course materials quality is a concern with their committee. How can we explain to them why this is a good option for our students? I felt deep pangs of empathy. Oh, I get it, I thought.

Put yourself in their shoes going to a committee that has no idea what OER means, how Creative Commons licensing works, and no paper text to pass around the room. Those ladies helped me identify a barrier that I hadn’t even considered.

They need documentation that this isn’t just their idea—they need a community of voices to support them with a committee who understands little to nothing about how all this works. All  of the information exists for them–somebody just has to curate it and put it in a medium that has some gravitas.

A letter of recommendation goes a long way. Even in 2017.

I’m getting bloggy here with this idea so that I don’t lose my thoughts as I put together something more useful and hopefully more professional for my busy-as-hell SUNY heroes. This type of letter is not hard to write and it could make the difference between students saving a lot of money and not. Between having money for food and not. Between staying in college and not. Between using OER in the fall and having to wait another year. Or three.

Okay, this is a really half-baked post, but I wanted to share my best workshop question and the sweetest little idea I’ve gotten from teachers. If you have something I can use, then please share. Maybe this is something you already know that’s needed, but it’s a nice reminder to me that all of my best ideas about open education have come from the teachers themselves. Sometimes we just need to shut the hell up and listen them.

For now, I’ll just conclude with a quote I used to read to myself as an undergrad when I felt like an idiot in my classes. When everyone else seemed to get it but me. When I thought everyone was smarter than me because they had so much to say.

Mary Wollstonecraft, tell it, sister:

The beginning is always today.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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