Friday, June 17, 2022

Scholarly communications librarian, Mahrya Burnett, has been at the university library for the past 5 years. In her role, Burnett oversees open educational resource (OER) initiatives and the administration of the OpenHawks OER grant program. She noticed early on in her career that there was a pattern of students coming to her regularly and asking why the library didn’t carry a copy of their course textbooks. She would be left to explain that the combination of high costs and regular updates made course textbooks a less than ideal investment for a library collection. Knowing that this left students to cover the costs of expensive materials, she has focused on helping students and faculty identify or create free and openly licensed course resources 

The OpenHawks program helps lower the costs of textbooks by subsidizing the development of OER curricular materials. The program started as a pilot project, funded by the Provost’s Innovation Fund. Annual funding was made available for an initial three-year period. During those first three years, the grant successfully funded over 40 projects and saved students an estimated $500,000 dollars on textbooks and course materials. 

Incorporating open-source materials into a course is not as simple as picking a book and using it. It takes time to research materials and incorporate them into the course contents. Sometimes there is not enough openly licensed source material available, and instructors must develop the content themselves, often in collaboration with colleagues and students. The time factor is a barrier that often restricts the use of OER, especially for instructors who are teaching full course loads and conducting research. To overcome this barrier, recipients of the OpenHawks grant are provided compensation for their time and efforts. In addition to compensation, grant participation is structured using a cohort model. Each cycle the recipients go through an onboarding process that provides training, mentoring and professional development opportunities. There is a strong focus on connecting recipients with potential collaborators, both inside and outside of the university, who might help develop various aspects of the project. Recipients often work with the Office of Teaching and Learning technology (OTLT), subject specialist liaison librarians, the Digital Scholarship & Publication Studio, and other groups on campus, all who help create a path towards getting projects completed and the projects publicly disseminated. A team-based approach reduces the workload on individuals and improves accountability, which ultimately leads to an increased likelihood of completion.  

The pilot was determined to be a success and recently secured funding to continue for an additional three years. Faculty, staff, and graduate students who teach for-credit courses at the University of Iowa are eligible to apply. Applications are accepted each spring semester, and awards are decided in May. Recipients of the spring 2022 grant were announced in May. A full list of funded projects can be reviewed here.  

Burnett is quick to share that she couldn’t have done this work without the groundwork that was first laid by her colleagues, especially and former associate university librarian, Carmelita Pickett. “She had made sure that all of the administrative decision makers were aware that this was a problem, and that, we really needed to address textbook costs. When I came on, I was able to take a lot of that initial work that they had done and craft a proposal that that was successful,” said Burnett. Additionally, she was able to model the program on successful efforts at Iowa State University, University of Kansas and others. 

Feedback from faculty has been positive and they are happy to have the support. “I’m most proud of just the quality of projects that have come out of this. We have a received lot of interest and the projects that have come out have been so well received by students and faculty members. We're slowly building this really quality body of knowledge.”  

Anyone interested, should check out the OpenHawks program and OER in general. Even if someone isn’t the recipient of a grant, there are still small steps the library can help people take to integrate open education resources into their course.