Even spy agencies are using shareable, open sources... We can, too!

Vee Herrington

There has been lots of hype and increased awareness in higher education over the past few years about openness, sharing, and equity in education. Colleges and universities across the US and even the world are trying to make education more affordable and accessible with open educational resources (OER). OERs are any material used for education where the restrictions of traditional copyright have been waived or do not exist; therefore, these materials are free for the students to use.

College textbook costs have increased faster than medical services and new home prices, at three times the rate of inflation.

At over an 800% increase in the past 10 years, college textbook costs have increased faster than medical services, new home prices and three times the rate of inflation (US Public Interest Research Group, 2014). Eighty-five percent of students have delayed or avoided purchasing textbooks, with 91 percent citing cost as the reason. To make matters worse, half of the students reported that their grades have been negatively impacted by their decision (Wakefield Research, 2017). If a course centers around a textbook, inequity exists if some students cannot purchase the textbook.

What is CUNY and specifically, John Jay College, doing about lowering textbook costs, since almost 40% of CUNY students come from households with annual incomes of less than $20,000 per year? New York State awarded CUNY $4,000,000 for OER initiatives to be spent in FY 2018 to help faculty convert courses to using free educational materials, instead of expensive proprietary textbooks. Using a share of the state funding, John Jay is promoting OER with the Course Conversion Project. The grant is administered out of the Teaching and Learning Center and the office of Educational Partnerships and General Education. With 16 participants, the objective is to convert five courses (each with five sections) using textbooks and other materials with a “zero cost to students.” Most of the courses are general education, high enrollment classes.  

In addition to a stipend for the participating faculty, the funding provides for eight OER conversion seminars focusing on course design, pedagogy, the selection and evaluation of OER materials, and the technology needed to host the materials. Even though library resources, such as ebooks and journal articles, are copyrighted and not considered OER, these rich resources are zero cost to the students and were also addressed in the seminars. Since it may be difficult to find one perfect OER textbook, the participants were trained in using the Library’s discovery tool OneSearch to locate materials (chapters in various books, journal articles, etc.) that support the various learning outcomes. Unique to John Jay, the grant also supports the publication of the John Jay College OER Justice eReader, which, under the guidance of a faculty Editorial Board, will bring together a collection of key texts that will function as an intellectual hub for conversations focusing on justice. 

I was hired for 15 hours per week to support this college-wide OER initiative at John Jay. This is not my first experience of promoting OER adoption; I wrote one of the first successful OER grants in CUNY when I was Chief Librarian and Director of Academic Technology at Guttman Community College. Previously, I had been involved in the “open-source” (not classified) research movement for over 10 years while working for the Department of Defense. Even though that was a different kind of open movement, there are many similarities. I gave research classes on using open source materials (publicly available sources) and taught the military how to search for and find open source materials to use in Open-source Intelligence (OSINT). OSINT includes information available that is not classified, clandestine or covert and is used for intelligence gathering and analysis. Since these resources are open, they are easy to share without needing a security clearance. I introduced my students at the Intel School to various CIA and FBI databases of open source materials and other tools.

As the OER Librarian at John Jay, I am  assisting in the planning and leading of the OER seminars, and I work one-on-one with the faculty participants. I help them find OER resources and talk to them about understanding and applying Creative Commons licensing.  I’m focused on keeping the participants on track and progressing towards the grant goals.  I maintain the Course Conversion participants Blackboard site and assist with the Justice eReader Group site.

Poster board with title, How much did you spend on textbooks this semester? Students put dots in cost slots. 4 dots in $600 or more, most dots in $100-199 and $200-299

Outreach and promotion of OER to the entire John Jay faculty is key to growing this movement. In March, the Library held a Pop-Up Library event during Community Hour. Students were asked to indicate how much they spent on books this semester by placing a sticker on a board (see image at left). We handed out bookmarks with directions on how students can search for “zero cost textbook” classes in CUNYfirst. Other OER events have been organized on campus, including an OER workshop for faculty held during Faculty Development Day in January. 

Another important aspect of the OER project focuses on technology. Once the class is designed, the syllabus completed and the OER materials gathered, the participants need a virtual place for hosting the course, so the students have easy access. LibGuides, CUNY Academic Works, Moodle, ePortfolio, WordPress, Blackboard, and Lumen Learning are all possible as platforms for OER classes. Many of the participants in the project chose LibGuides as the hosting platform for their OER converted classes. These course guides are like a mini-website and include all the materials (including the OER textbook or readings) needed for the course, and are viewable by anyone, thus sharable with the world, one of the important premises of the OER movement. Besides being visually appealing and easy to use, LibGuides are already licensed by John Jay. This platform has many robust features, such as reusability and the ability to move and copy content easily.

In summary, John Jay College is working hard to develop and enhance new and ongoing OER initiatives. CUNY’s goal is to establish the University as a national leader in OER (The City University of New York, 2018). The project initiative at John Jay is a big success, with new inquiries weekly from faculty wanting to participate. We hope the grant will be renewed for next year so more classes can be converted. The OER movement will save students money, but also enhance their learning experience. OER is about sharing and promoting educational and social equity.


2017 Wakefield Research. (2017). Retrieved from VitalSource.

The City University of New York. (2018). Open Educational Resources. Retrieved from CUNY Libraries.

U.S. Public Interest Research Group. (2014, January 27). Fixing the Broken Textbook Market. Retrieved from U.S. PIRG.


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