As students, I think we all had moments when we questioned the point of certain assignments. They might’ve been simple ones—posters, diagrams, or short stories meant to be completed quickly, graded, and never discussed again. You may have even told yourself that you didn’t have to try as hard because they were just busywork that only your instructor would read.
As a full-time general education lecturer, these are the types of assignments I have tried to move away from. I want to design my courses around assignments that excite my students and help them grow. When I began experimenting with open educational resources (OER), I was able to design assignments that promoted a higher level of intrinsic motivation in my students. While the ability to engage students is one of my favorite qualities of OER, they present a host of advantages for both students and educators.
OER are educational materials—everything from single lessons to entire textbooks—that are free for educators and students to use, customize, and share. Because OER are openly licensed, educators can easily tailor these resources to the structure of a course and their students’ needs and interests.
One of the biggest advantages of OER is the flexibility to give students more autonomy. For example, I teach general education science, so my students create Google Sites with science lessons for other nonscience majors. They get to choose the topics they are interested in and the content they will feature on their sites; this means the content is usually timely and relevant to them in some way. Then the students’ sites become the de facto textbook for the following semester’s cohort. Students find the sites more engaging than any textbook I’ve ever used—and they appreciate not having to pay $250 for a book.
We call this type of project a renewable assignment because it’s nondisposable: the student’s product lives on after the course ends, and if the student has openly licensed it, anyone can freely use, edit, and expand on it. This project was attractive to me because I used to ask students to create posters to present their work to the class. We would have a great discussion, then all the posters would end up in the trash. Renewable assignments like websites can benefit students and the public long after the class ends. Because these sites are public facing and on topics students find interesting, students are motivated to make them the best they can possibly be.
It's tremendously satisfying to see my students enjoy what they’re learning and engage with the subject material. I truly look forward to seeing what my students come up with and getting to know them as I review their assignments. I’m proud of the sites they develop and love showing off the high-quality science research a class of nonscience majors can produce. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, renewable assignments have been a powerful tool to get students excited about learning again.
Another benefit of OER and renewable assignments is that they allow students and educators to include diverse viewpoints and make interdisciplinary connections. On her climate change site, for example, one of my students included information about how some Latin Americans have been displaced due to environmental extremes and how that translates to a social justice issue. This past spring, I assigned a new series of case studies that all focused on issues of equity in science, and OER will allow students to pull from a variety of sources to paint a more complete picture.
On a personal note, this OER project saved me from burnout after 10 years as an adjunct. It gave me direction and allowed me to find my place in academia. It enabled me to join a vibrant community of educators and network with instructors across the country. Change can be daunting, but shifting to OER or renewable assignments doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Educators can start with making a single assignment openly sharable and build from there. Many websites—most notably MERLOT, OER Commons, and OpenStax—offer OER and examples of renewable assignments, so educators should explore what’s out there and determine what could benefit their students. OER changed my career trajectory for the better, so I would challenge every educator to try them and see the difference these resources can make in their lives and in their classrooms.
Heather Miceli, PhD, is a postdoctoral research fellow with the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U). She spent 15 years teaching general education science courses in the Northeast. She earned her doctorate in education from the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College.