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OER at Work: Expanding access to learning on all fronts

One of the illustrations in the “Foundations of Epidemiology” open textbook authored by Marit Bovbjerg of Oregon State University.

As an epidemiology professor and beyond, Bovbjerg has championed OER efforts

By Tyler Hansen

For a number of years, Oregon State University assistant professor Marit Bovbjerg grew increasingly frustrated with the traditional textbook options for her introductory epidemiology courses.

Then, a solution.

“I wrote one myself,” she says.

Her open textbook, “Foundations of Epidemiology,” was published in September 2020, and with it, she joined the ranks of Oregon State faculty members who have authored, adopted or adapted freely available online course materials with the support of the OSU Open Educational Resources Unit.

The book has already provided significant value to users worldwide. As a result, Bovbjerg won a 2021 OER Champion Award from Open Oregon Educational Resources, a statewide organization that promotes the use of open source learning materials.

Expanding access to learning is a central part of Bovbjerg’s teaching philosophy. The public health professor and recent Fulbright Scholar is also a co-investigator for the Community Doula Program in Corvallis, Oregon. When the state of Oregon required new trainings to become a registered doula, she helped lead the program’s development of free workshops so aspiring health workers could gain certification.

Bovbjerg recently shared the ins and outs of the OER development process for her Oregon State courses, her advice for other faculty members and how the book is being used by those outside of Oregon State.

Tell us a little about the courses that use the OER you created.

A photo of Marit Bovbjerg, an assistant professor of epidemiology in Oregon State's College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

Marit Bovbjerg is an assistant professor of epidemiology in Oregon State’s College of Health.

“I use only freely available materials in all of my classes. The class that was impetus for writing the open textbook is H 425: Foundations of Epidemiology. It’s an upper-division undergraduate course required for public health majors and a few others.

“It’s offered every term as an Ecampus class and winter and spring as a hybrid class. I also am using it in H 535, which is an introductory epidemiology hybrid class for graduate students.”

Why did you decide to author an open textbook?

“I’ve been teaching this class since 2012, and I had tried a bunch of different textbooks. There are a million introduction epidemiology texts out there, and I didn’t like any of them. They’re all expensive, and if I didn’t really like any of the books, I might as well not make students buy one.

“Conveniently, in 2014 or 2015, the library was offering professional development money to switch a class to all open access materials. I applied for the grant and got it. I worked with faculty from OSU Libraries to find open access class materials. And, while there are numerous open access resources for basic epidemiology, none of them worked well for undergraduates. They were either for graduate students or clinicians. So I figured I’d write my own.”

What do students think about the book?

“In general, the students like it. We’ve gotten some positive feedback from students who are using the book. We haven’t gotten any negative feedback, and we used to always get negative feedback. To be fair, there isn’t any more disconnect between what the professor says and what the book says. It’s totally synced up now.”

“We, the epidemiology faculty, also put a link to the book in Canvas for all of our epidemiology content classes. Those folks who are, say, getting an M.S. in Kinesiology, they have been very positive about the book.

“My research all is on maternity care and I know a lot of clinicians, so I know some folks who are using it as U.S. MLE (Medical Licensing Examination) prep. A lot of folks are finding it useful, even if that’s only because it’s free.”

“[T]here’s also a bigger-picture benefit of not requiring people to pay for knowledge. I’m a big proponent of open access to information in general. … Open access materials help to democratize knowledge.”

What challenges did you face in bringing OER into your course?

“In summer 2018, I wrote the draft, and then the production of the book slowed down for a little while. Then (Open Educational Resources Unit director) Stefanie (Buck) started, and that helped move it along, but I went on leave for my Fulbright research and that slowed it down some more.

“It took longer than I thought, which I shouldn’t have been surprised about because publishing research papers always takes longer than you think it will. When I was writing the drafts, I was assuming there were technological capabilities in the publishing software that weren’t there. Otherwise, it was smooth.”

What do you think is the greatest strength of OER?

“There are two things there. One is the immediate benefit to students of not having to buy a textbook. They’re so expensive. I also don’t see as many students who just don’t have the book, so I’m not teaching to someone who hasn’t read it.

“But there’s also a bigger-picture benefit of not requiring people to pay for knowledge. I’m a big proponent of open access to information in general. Not everyone is in a privileged position. Open access materials help to democratize knowledge.”

What advice would you give faculty who want to use OER in their courses?

“There’s a lot of upfront work if you’re trying to curate other sources. And I learned the hard way that you shouldn’t skimp on the upfront work. It’s a fair bit of effort to curate all of the open access and OER materials, but they are out there probably for many topics.

“One other thing to do is check (OSU Libraries). The library has more and more e-books every time I look. Maybe the library has an e-book that you can use instead of what you’re currently using. For one of my graduate classes, the library had the book I wanted to use anyway, so I didn’t have to change books for that class.”

Learn more about the OSU Open Educational Resources Unit and the support resources available to faculty.

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