In 2021, CUNY Office of Library Services launched a fellowship competition in two of its vital areas: Open Educational Resources and Scholarly Communications. The inaugural cohort, comprising four fellows from the CUNY Graduate School of Library and Information Studies (GSLIS), began their fellowship in September of last year. The focus of the OER Fellowship was to support open education at CUNY. The Scholarly Communications Fellowship was aimed at individuals looking for an opportunity to support open research at CUNY. As the nine-month fellowship nears its end, the participants discussed their work and how the experience kick started their careers.
The two figures behind the OER fellowship programs are Ann Fiddler, University Open Education Librarian, and Andrew McKinney, OER Coordinator at the Office of Library Services. They work to propel CUNY-wide expansion of Open Education Resources (OER), free and low-cost openly licensed alternatives to costly textbooks. Since the initiative’s founding in 2017, OER have been implemented in 80,000 course sections across CUNY, resulting in $154 million in savings to students.
Talking about the idea behind the fellowship, OER Fellow Rachael Nevins said the primary goal was to launch a new Web-based, open-source publishing platform at CUNY called Pressbooks, which makes digital textbooks and course content accessible. A publishing tool to create OER, Pressbooks can be used to create books from scratch or clone books found in the Pressbooks directory, where they can be edited, embedded with interactive content, and adapted to reflect the experience of students. “The great thing about Pressbooks is that faculty can build books that are grounded in their knowledge of their students,” said Nevins.
The innovative aspect of Pressbooks isn’t necessarily the obvious one. Like other platforms, Pressbooks content can be integrated with a learning management system, like Blackboard. Like other platforms, Pressbooks provides online formatting and design tools for professional publishing. But unlike other open publishing platforms, Pressbooks has the unique capability of authoring and editing, which lets instructors create a portion of a course or an entire textbook online without using code. Pressbooks works for different kinds of learners, and instructors can pull open multimedia materials from different sources, substitute or blend them with their own content, add supplements like audio and video, including automatically graded quizzes, simulations, and modules that let students proceed at their own pace.
“What’s lovely about Pressbooks is that it’s a platform with a global reach,” said Nevins. “If you make something with your students, you can make it available via the Pressbook directory, and the students’ writing will be discoverable around the world.”
OER Fellow Elizabeth Arestyl believes that Pressbooks are forcing us to rethink how we engage CUNY students as knowledge creators. “Giving students the agency and the information that they need is the most important thing you can do,” she said. “If we can build materials that reflect our students, we would create a better learning experience for them.”
Reflecting on how representation affects the way students see themselves, Arestyl told the story of the Bangladeshi woman in a pre-college writing class she teaches at Queens College. When Arestyl asked the woman what she wanted to learn that summer, the woman said, “I’m ready to not read about white people.” One of the articles Arestyl assigned to the class was on the post-birth process in Bangladesh and how it compares with practices in the West. The woman wrote Arestyl a letter to thank her. She said she never read about someone who was just like her.
Pressbooks has been called a “living document” because it allows for continuous revisions. In the guidebook to Pressbooks the fellows are writing, titled the CUNY Pressbooks Guide, they distill everything they have learned from immersing themselves in the world of open pedagogy, open source, open content, and the intersection of books and the web. “The guide reflects our own learning curve,” Nevins said, of the manual that is available on the Pressbooks directory or from a simple Google search. The first part covers the building blocks of open publishing. The second part explains the benefits of publishing your work with Pressbooks.
In May the fellowship ends. Sharing her thoughts on what the fellowship has accomplished, Arestyl said, “The great thing about OER is making learning free again. The same way we’re trying to fund education with the New Deal for CUNY, OER is part of that, and we must walk in step to achieve these goals.”
As for their own goals, the fellows said their experience confirmed the trajectory they were already on. “I laugh at myself because I turned to library school after being exhausted with educational publishing,” said Nevins, “and here I am working in publishing. But it’s totally different because it’s driven by what teachers and students need, not what some salesperson says that a superintendent needs. I would love to stay with it, working in OER at CUNY.” Adds Arestyl, “Where I see myself in the future has not changed at all. I see myself as an instructional design librarian. So, building with Pressbooks is essential to what I want to be. And this experience has been amazing!”