In this Open Education Network (OEN) Member Profile, we share a Q&A with Elaine Thornton, Open Education and Distance Learning Librarian at the University of Arkansas. In addition to leading open education initiatives on campus, she is also involved in open education communities in her state and the nation, through her commitment to listening, encouragement and connection.

Headshot of Elaine Thornton

Elaine Thornton, Open Education and Distance Learning Librarian, University of Arkansas

Elaine’s contributions to the OEN community include being an instructor and mentor for the Certificate in OER Librarianship program, which will begin with a new cohort in early 2021, and being a featured guest speaker at the OEN annual Summit. She is also a SPARC Open Education Leadership Fellow (2017-2018 cohort).

In addition to open education, Elaine’s research and professional interests include adult and lifelong learning, professional development and continuing education, and mentoring academic librarians. Elaine is a doctoral candidate in education at the University of Arkansas, where her research focuses on OER leadership development. She earned an MS in library science from the University of North Texas and an MA in history from the University of Michigan.

Read on to learn more about how Elaine became involved in open education communities, and how just because there may not be statewide-initiatives in place to support OER, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an active community working to provide students with equitable, affordable, and timely access to learning materials.

How did you first become involved in Open Educational Resources (OER)?

I became involved with OER in 2016 when I accepted a position at the University of Arkansas Libraries with job responsibilities that included distance learning services and OER. I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to arrive at Arkansas just as the library administration was beginning to advocate for OER on campus.

In the summer of 2016, I attended the SEC Student government conference at the University of Florida to engage with student leaders around the issue of textbook costs and introduce them to OER. I would say that was when my OER work officially began. From then on, we started working to build a relationship with the University of Arkansas Associated Student Government (ASG) focused on expanding interest and support for OER. This relationship has grown despite student turnover from year to year, to the point that the ASG now has a permanent OER Director position in its leadership structure.

I was also able to help launch our current initiatives in early 2017. Later that year, I was selected to participate in the SPARC Open Education Leadership program. That experience was instrumental in my professional development. In 2018 as our program expanded, I became the coordinator of our OER initiatives at Arkansas. Luckily I work with an excellent team of librarians and instructional designers who support these efforts.

Can you talk about how you got started with your involvement in the OEN?

We launched our funded OER initiative at Arkansas in 2017. But, I had become aware of the Open Textbook Library and, subsequently, the OEN in 2016. I felt that we needed to continue to build our networks and OER connections. I knew that membership in the OEN would be an excellent avenue for doing this. 
I met with and corresponded with the OEN throughout the spring regarding our possible membership. By the fall, I was finally able to persuade the administration that joining the network was a positive step in the right direction and would help us expand our campus initiatives. I attended the OEN Summit in 2019, which was a great experience. That fall, we hosted OEN workshops on campus with presenters Michele Reed and Joe Nowakowski. Being a part of the network has definitely boosted our campus efforts. 

You’re an instructor in the OEN’s Certificate in OER Librarianship program. Can you talk more about that?

I had previously served as a mentor in the SPARC program and have mentored in other capacities. I also focused on adult learning, mentoring, and professional development in my doctoral program. So, it seemed like a perfect fit and a great way to serve the OER community.

It has been a fantastic experience. The program director and faculty are excellent colleagues. I appreciate their knowledge, thoughtfulness, and commitment to this work. I also feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from a strong, motivated, and dedicated cohort of librarians. I am looking forward to the next group of certificate participants!

Working in Arkansas, what have you found are the open education challenges and opportunities in a place where it’s less established?  

Just because Arkansas does not have a statewide initiative, I wouldn’t say OER is “less established.” There are advocates working all across the state to move OER forward on their campuses. I’ve met them, I’ve talked to them. And those of us who work in this area know we can reach out to colleagues across the state to connect for advice and resource recommendations. Other than not having established financial resources for statewide OER initiatives, our challenges are no different than those faced in other states.

What is the most important advice you have to offer someone new to working in OER?

As a new OER advocate, educate yourself first. But realize that you don’t need to know everything immediately or have all the answers. Learning is a process. Don’t hesitate to reach out to other OER advocates if you need advice or have questions. You don’t need to know everything to move OER forward on your campus. You can start now. Stick with it and be patient! 

Even though we are often working with highly educated faculty colleagues, the idea of “open” is often new to them. It is often challenging to get them to move beyond the idea that free on the internet does not automatically mean openly licensed. 

Finally, build as many campus connections as you can! You may eventually be able to turn these into strong partnerships that advance OER efforts.  

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Thank you, Elaine, for participating in this Q&A, and for your contributions to the open education community.