Sarah and Patsy: The story of how one Student’s Open Education project can make a difference

Some days working at Camosun is a joy, when I get to see firsthand the kind of amazing work students are doing with the support of my colleagues, sometimes in CETL and in this case in the library.  This is the story of Sarah, a student in the Child, Family, and Community Services (CFCS) program, and Patsy, the librarian who supports that program and its students, and their Open Education project.  Before I begin, however, I want to thank Sarah and Patsy for agreeing to talk to me.  They had final editing approval on this piece – the voices of our students in advocating for themselves is vital, but we need to ensure that sharing their voices does not exploit them or set them up for being penalized for speaking out.  Sarah had nothing but positive things to say about her program and the people working and learning in it, and she only seeks to improve the experience for all. 

I first heard about Sarah from Patsy, who contacted me because Sarah was working on a class project to find free alternatives to their textbook.  “One of our assignments was to address a social justice issue of our choice and to come up with two actions – they didn’t have to be huge, but some sort of small action to address the root of a social justice issue.  And I chose to address the cost of post-secondary education.”  Sarah comes from Germany where the postsecondary experience is quite different. “In Germany we don’t pay tuition or for textbooks because our courses are using open resources, or we can borrow the texts from the library. When I came here, I was shocked to see how much we had to spend on textbooks, so, I wanted to find a way to reduce the costs of education for students.” 

Sarah started with some general background on her project. “I reviewed Camosun’s website which lists estimates of how much students spend on textbooks per term, then I did the math, and given Camosun’s claim that students pay about $1000 for textbooks and supplies per term (although some programs are more expensive than others) it turns out that textbooks make up around 60 percent of the cost of tuition.  We often hear that tuition is the most expensive barrier to post-secondary education, but textbook costs are a huge barrier as well. I feel like we have created like a world, especially in the Western world, where education has become a privilege when it should be a right for everyone.” 

So, Sarah had an idea for a social justice project, she had completed some preliminary research, but now what next?  Luckily Patsy “came in to teach a library session for Sarah’s class, and after the session, Sarah said she wanted to talk about some projects.  As librarians, going into the classroom to teach research skills is so valuable for making that contact with students.  Students learn that there is an actual person to help them.”  Sarah and Patsy started working together on a couple of projects, including this one.  “Sarah asked about the possibility of textbooks being available for students through the library, but I explained that the reality is textbooks are not only very expensive for students, but for libraries as well, and we don’t have money in our budget to provide textbooks for all students.”  As Patsy and Sarah talked about what other options might be available, “we decided to look at the possibility of finding open resources that could replace, if not a whole textbook, maybe just some of the chapters,” which was one scenario Sarah was exploring – a class which required a textbook, but only used three chapters of it.   

One of the things Patsy says a librarian can contribute when working with students and faculty is networking with people across the college (and beyond).  “We are essentially a reference desk. People come to us and ask; how do I do this? Where do I find that? And if we don’t know, we find out. So, as Sarah and I talked about open resources, I thought, oh, I know someone, and I connected Sarah with you, Emily, as someone who could help her with Open Education and how to find Open Educational Resources (OER).” 

Sarah had heard of OER and open textbooks before. “In a way, we had used Open Educational Resources in Germany, but I never really questioned where all the free resources were coming from. Then last year I visited the Students Society’s booth [at CamFest] where they were talking about open textbooks, and while at the time I was not sure what that meant, I found it very intriguing because I’ve always been interested in trying to reduce costs for education.”  So, after talking to Patsy, Sarah did some more research and “decided that one of my actions would be to present to the CFCS faculty about what open educational resources are, where to find them, and how to use them, including the basic math of how much we could be saving if we were to use open educational resources.” 

Once I had talked to Sarah and Patsy about their project and understood what Sarah’s goals were, I sent them a link to the slides for the Introduction to Open Education and OER workshop I run for faculty every year. Sarah says the slides helped her “learn about copyright, fair dealing, and where to find open resources which was helpful for me because I think one reason instructors don’t use OER is because they don’t know where to start, or what their rights are. Now I feel like I know more about where you can find resources, how much you are allowed to take of a resource, and what you are allowed to do with it which was very helpful.”  And of course, Patsy notes “open textbooks are not only free to use, but usually allow adaptation meaning you can take the content that works, and then add content that represents the concerns or issues or experiences relevant to our students and community, for example integrating Indigenous or LGBTQ+ voices.” 

The first part of Sarah’s project was to examine her textbooks. “I started with the textbook from the social justice class because we were only using three chapters of it, and it was very expensive.  I thought we should be able to replace those three chapters with open resources, so I started looking into it.”  One challenge for Sarah was not having a clear understanding of what was important in those chapters for the instructor teaching the course.  “I asked if she could provide me with the main concepts, but at the time she was very busy and while I was confident that I understood the content enough to decide what was important, I am not the one teaching the course and didn’t feel comfortable making that decision.”  So, instead Sarah went in a different direction.  “Patsy in the meantime, had found an open textbook that was very similar to the textbook we were using in a different class. We were working very intensely with that book, and I had more confidence that I knew what was important in it.  So, I compared our textbook to the open textbook, looking at all the key concepts to see what was lacking in the open textbook, or what extras did it have that ours didn’t, and Patsy helped me with the research.  Then I wrote an assessment and sent it to the head of our program, because they are preparing courses for the next term, and she will see if the open text can replace some, or all, of the current text.”  

The second part of Sarah’s project was presenting to the CFCS faculty.  “Unfortunately, it was not possible for me to present at an in-person meeting with all the faculty members, but I created a PowerPoint presentation with voice-over for them to go through on their own. In the presentation, I began by explaining why this is a social justice issue, why it’s important, and showed how much students could be saving. Then I went into some basic rules about fair dealing and copyright, and where to find open resources. Finally, I showed them what I did with that one textbook, where I found it, and how I worked with it so they could see that it’s not a complicated a process and that there are many resources out there to support them.” 

I asked Sarah how it felt, presenting to faculty and potentially effecting change in her program.  “It felt awesome to be heard because I feel a lot of the time there is a hierarchy between instructors and students, where the instructors give us knowledge and we feel almost powerless in that process. While in the beginning I was intimidated, our program head trusted my competence and gave me the confidence to work on this project.  Knowing how this one small thing could potentially make a big change, is really cool, and even if they don’t replace the textbook with the one I suggested, I got the conversation about using open resources started. I’m really proud of that.” We also need to remember that students have insights that instructors may not.  Sarah recalled in one class, “our instructor remarked on the diversity in the classroom, around gender expression, sexuality, etc., and how students come to the course with a lot of knowledge related to this diversity.  I think students can also make decisions on what is important for the future of our field, because we are the future practitioners.” 

Patsy also feels that there is a lot of potential in students, faculty, and librarians working together to explore open textbooks.  “I think we can take small steps first, for example, examining what textbooks are used for core courses with multiple sections then finding some open resources to replace them, and making it a team effort: students, faculty, and librarians working together. Librarians can do some of that initial legwork (finding resources, determining how they can be used, etc.) for faculty because faculty already have so much on their plate. Then they can bring resources to faculty to see if they are relevant, hopefully making the process less overwhelming.  All the while including students who are standing up and voicing their concerns over textbook costs.”  Patsy, Sarah, and I all agree that this project shows the opportunities afforded by including students as equal contributors in reaching their educational goals. “I’m not suggesting students should work for free, but I think there is a place for students to be investigating the content of their course and exploring alternate resources, looking at other perspectives that could be captured by some of these resources. I think it would help students and help the institution.”   

Patsy echoes my own thoughts that “we need to be talking about Open Education as an institution and need to put more effort and even funding behind it because the rippling effect is profound. It can save students a lot of money, and can also save the institution, indirectly, a lot of money.” And as Patsy noted, we have provincially funded organizations like BCcampus already promoting and supporting open resource creation, so we don’t have to be alone in this work; we also already have a lot of expertise around Open Education at Camosun so there is no reason we couldn’t make this an institutional priority. 

Patsy enjoyed working with Sarah on her project.  “Sarah came to me with a passion and an interest which makes my job easy.  I shared her enthusiasm, and had fun using the tools, as well as the knowledge and connections I have, to support Sarah.  This project was not just about finding open resources, it was also about getting in touch with the curriculum and the faculty and working with Sarah to bring forward something to the administration which is such a great experience for a student.”  I want to emphasize the importance of the curriculum piece:  Librarians at Camosun have connections to programs and departments, serving as subject matter librarians for faculty and students (many faculty don’t know this, but you do have a subject matter librarian!)  But librarians, as Patsy noted, “face a similar challenge to what Sarah experienced where you don’t know exactly what specific content a faculty member values in their courses, meaning it can be very challenging to take a textbook that faculty use and trust and recommend a new resource to replace it, even just a chapter, without their input.” 

Sarah is excited to continue learning more about Open Education.  In fact, as she explored OER for her project, Sarah discovered another aspect of Open Education she hadn’t known about before.  “During my research, I came across this idea of non-disposable assignments. As students, we write so many assignments that are just graded and then disposed – they don’t have any further purpose. But what I found was that some instructors assign their students course readings asking them to find free resources to replace them.  What a great assignment for a professional practice because it would develop our field further, and at the same time, we could work with librarians to learn how to do research. Then we could produce an assignment with a purpose such as replacing textbooks and reducing financial burdens. It could have such an impact if we were to take advantage of all these resources that we already have and come together and work as a team. I would really like to see something like that with non-disposable assignments.”   

Sarah wrapped up our conversation by saying “because this has been such a passion of mine, let me know if you ever need me to be a part of presentations, or to give presentations. I want to share what it’s like to be a student and what our financial burdens are – and I want to point out how important it is to remember that, and how much we could save with open textbooks.” 

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