Jennifer Pate, Open Education Resources (OER) and Scholarly Communications Librarian at the University of North Alabama (UNA), recently sat down with the Open Education Network (OEN) to talk about her open journey – what spurred her initial interest in open education, how it has evolved to become her professional priority, and the impact of key relationships.

Jennifer Pate, OER and Scholarly Communications Librarian, University of North Alabama

An avid traveler, Jennifer lived in the Middle East and former Soviet Republic of Georgia for several years before returning to the U.S. in 2009. Small artifacts now line her home bookshelves, reflecting the nature of this adventurous, destination-focused librarian who’s made it her goal to serve UNA students and faculty with OER. Her effort and enthusiasm have been instrumental in the university’s collaborative effort to build, expand, and promote a dynamic OER program.

What can we learn from her latest trek? Listen in.

OER is part of UNA’s strategic plan. What’s the 2024 goal, and how are you working toward it?

Our strategic plan, “Roaring with Excellence,” lists an aspirational goal to adopt, implement and utilize open educational resources in half of all our academic programs on campus.

With that in mind, we recently mapped out all the majors and minors on campus. Then we got all the book orders from each department on campus. We mapped those book orders for the individual instructors of courses required for completion of a major or minor. And now we’re going through that data, reaching out to anybody who didn’t have a book listed.

The data scrape will also help us mark courses in our catalog so students will know. We’ll be able to see programs that are heavily using OER, and those will be the ones we’ll try to target for potential Z-degree programs. It’s a lot of work on the front end, but I think it’s going to yield huge rewards for our university once we get through all the data.

How did OER buy-in happen at UNA?

We’re here to support our students; that’s a big thing for us. UNA offers banded tuition, which is a cost benefit for students. We have a huge comprehensive scholarship, financial aid, and support programs for students as well. To me, this was just a no-brainer. I asked, “Why aren’t we helping our students with textbook costs?” So, as part of my scholarly communications, I began advocating for OER.

Early on, I helped one of our education faculty apply for a research grant from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE). The program essentially enabled faculty to measure and compare learning outcomes associated with OER versus traditional materials used in a single course.

Results from that experimental use of OER showed that GPAs were better and drop/fail/withdraw rates were lower in that course. It wasn’t a huge empirical study, but just that one small concentrated study in that one class showed OER made a difference. That’s what kind of kicked it all off.

We’re also very fortunate that we have a president and provost who are 100 percent behind OER. They not only fund our efforts, they teach classes with OER themselves. When our president writes his annual letter to faculty, he always talks about using OER. The provost funds UNA’s OER stipend program, and to date, we’ve funded 23 projects. Not a single proposal has been rejected – not one.

Has your work been influenced by the OEN community?

The Certificate in OER Librarianship program offered through OEN really helped me solidify what we needed to do. As part of the 2020 cohort, I built my campus action plan – a clear, comprehensive document that defines smart goals for implementing OER. And those goals make it hard for people to say no because they show the amount of thought and energy you’ve put into this.

I initially learned about the program from Will Cross of North Carolina State who’s one of my OER champions. Will’s been a huge influence, speaking about OER at several UNA workshops and ultimately introducing me to the certification program and OEN community. Talking and working with Will motivated me to get involved.

The program also introduced me to Elaine Thornton of the University of Arkansas. As my mentor, Elaine walked me through the development of my smart goals. I had seven of them, five of which are now complete. Elaine and I are still in contact. We recently conducted a new study of OER publishing trends, and we’ll be sharing our findings at Open Publishing Fest in November.

Jennifer and Elaine's presentation, "OER Publishing Survey Results," is part of Open Publishing Fest's 2021 lineup. Monday, November 8, 11:00 am CST.

Finally, this certification gave me the tools I needed to advocate for change in my job responsibilities. I presented my completed action plan to the provost, and said, “If I’m going to be able to focus on achieving these goals, we need to make it clear that OER is my job priority.” After key discussions, we were able to take instruction off my plate, position open education as the primary focus of my work, and revise my title to reflect that change.

I can’t say enough good things about the positives that have come out of my participation in the Open Education Network and their initiatives. Everyone I’ve met through the OEN has been amazing.

Can you tell us a little more about the OER publishing research you and Elaine are conducting?

Elaine and I are working to get an idea of what’s happening out in the landscape for people doing OER publishing programs or people working to build them.

With OER publishing, there’s no best practices written. There’s nothing out there because OER is still a relatively new field. What do you do, other than reaching out to people you know who have publishing programs, and saying, “How are you doing this?” Our survey is a great first step toward developing that set of best practices.

Elaine and I were strategic about how we disseminated the survey. We divided up the work and used librarian-dominated listservs to focus on OER publishing primarily at North American university libraries. We got pretty robust participation which leaves us better prepared to address questions like, “Why should we do this?” “How is it possible for me to do this?” “What is my role in this?” and more. Speaking for myself, as somebody who’s just moving into the publishing phase, the data makes me feel not so alone because there are a lot of people who are not real sure what they’re supposed to be doing.

Now that we have the quantitative data, we’d really like a little more qualitative information. That’s something we’ll probably talk about at the Fest, but we may follow up with individual interviews with people at different stages of the publishing process.

What's on the horizon for UNA's OER program?

As one of the next big pushes for our program, we’re looking at moving all our dual credit and early enrollment programs to OER. In the state of Alabama, we have this huge push for early college and dual enrollment credit, but the financial burden for all those textbooks falls solely on the parents and guardians, or the students themselves.

We’d also like to do a full student survey, similar to the one that’s done in Florida every couple years, to raise awareness of OER, get more student involvement, and see where our students are financially.

Student responses to UNA's informal survey of textbook expenses.

We recently did an ad hoc whiteboard survey of students in the library, very informal. Results showed an average of over $300 a semester in textbook costs per student. Some noted that they could have used that money to buy medications or gas, so we know we have students who are struggling.

Another goal I really want is to push for a Z-degree, either a major or minor at the university. I’d like that to be part of the strategic plan. Oh, and we’ve got an award coming out now for our faculty OER adopters. The faculty award is another one of our next big things.

And the next big thing for you?

So, I’m almost halfway through the process of completing a second master’s degree. I have a Master of Library and Information Studies from the University of Alabama. Still, I felt it was important that I understand the principles of designing a positive pedagogy for students, so I’m now working toward a Master of Instructional Design. It’s a new program here at UNA, and I hope to graduate next December if I can keep up the pace.

I’m really excited that this degree plays into helping people develop courses around open education products. So, when I tell faculty, “Hey, let’s move your courses from traditional high-cost textbooks to OER,” I can actually help them do that.

Open is my guiding principle, and I love this work.

Our sincere thanks, Jennifer, for today’s conversation. We share your excitement for more good things to come.