Beyond the COVID-19 online pivot: Why we need cheaper and more inclusive online resources
Written by Sarah Lambert, Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE) at Deakin University
It’s been a wild few months. University staff and students have been adjusting to doing everything online, and doing it at home. COVID-19 has been pushing us all to think about how we can use different technologies to reach out, get to know, and engage bigger and more diverse cohorts of students, including those who didn’t choose or plan for learning online. Experienced open and online learning organisations and educators are forming support networks and sharing their tips; for example, the one resource they’d recommend to help us make an inclusive and effective “online pivot”.
As our social media feeds show, many of us (staff and students!) are sharing work and study spaces with kids, family members and rogue pets. But what you won’t see on Twitter are the students not logging on, not sharing jovial memes, due to stressful personal situations or no internet access. This is often tied to precarious finances and housing situations. Sources of free internet, warmth and friendly chats for our most vulnerable students are currently limited — our wonderful community and university libraries are necessarily closed.
The government’s financial assistance package should help, and so too universities have generally provided extra financial support and assessment flexibility for students, including support for international students. But we are going to need to help students find ways to stretch their budgets further, as those who’ve lost jobs and places to live are not likely to have the financial and emotional reserves to bounce back right away anyway.
One thing we can do right now is check out the price of the textbook you are selecting and talk to your university librarian about ditching it in favour of a free textbook or set of resources. Whether you’re teaching educational foundations, the sciences, maths and stats, how to learn at uni, anatomy, or Australian politics and policy — some smart searching may be able to locate a high-quality, peer-reviewed free textbook for you and your students. Many of our libraries are keen to support you in selecting Open Education Resources (OER) — otherwise known as open-access, free learning materials. These are often also relatively cheap to print out from a PDF as well.
Because student finances have been dire for many years, even with some kind of casual employment or government assistance many students find “business as usual” learning a complete stretch, with the need to skip meals and sleep on friends’ couches. Food, bills and rent compete with assignments, textbook costs, internet bills and laptop purchases/upgrades or repairs. Now is a great time to get into the world of open textbooks and open access resources to help students succeed with their studies now — and into the future.
I’m leading a NCSEHE-funded project to investigate the opportunity open textbooks provide for social justice. While cost savings are important, we are also interested in the way they open textbooks can be edited so we can “diversify the content”. In other words, we can make a version local to the Australian context with examples, names/places, and case studies showing local knowledge and expertise. We can include indigenous-led businesses and health services. Indigenous ways of knowing the environment and fire management. Women as sportspeople, business leaders and scientific experts.
Editing open textbooks means we can make what counts as academic knowledge and expertise more socio-culturally and gender representative. We’re exploring how free and diversified open textbooks might help women, first in family, multicultural, indigenous and regional students feel that they belong at university, and that they belong within their chosen profession. I’m hoping that through this research we can find ways for Australian Higher Education institutions to improve on the costs and the quality of our online education resources. Contact us if you’d like to be part of the project.
Main feature image: Chief Investigator Sarah Lambert at the launch of the Open Textbooks as Social Justice project in February 2020.