Using OER to promote cultural competency, student engagement

By Janelle Poe and Lissette Acosta Corniel

As Ethnic Studies professors in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, we believe in the importance of teaching Black history in an authentic way. Naturally, we were thrilled to help build and facilitate the Black Studies Across the Americas (BSAA) undergraduate research program at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC).

BSAA is an inter-institutional program designed to confront anti-Blackness in pedagogy and online, connecting student researchers with faculty mentors, community activists and graduate fellows. Each semester, the cohorts of program participants work together to create educational materials based on student research about different Afro-descendent populations.

The materials the program participants produce are all open educational resources (OER), meaning they are openly licensed and thus free for everyone to use, customize and distribute. Students share these materials through the OpenLab site where anyone can review and share the infographics, presentations, zines, podcasts, cookbooks and other resources with corresponding lesson plans on countries and communities like Brazil, Haiti, Peru, the Dominican Republic and the Garifuna of Central America.

Inexpensive and shareable

We were already supporters of OER before the BSAA program was created because we wanted our students to be able to afford and have full access to the materials they need for their courses. We know what it’s like to be students and have several required texts for a course that cost hundreds of dollars and how financially taxing that can be. Many of our students are first-generation college students who are juggling multiple priorities, so OER help reduce the financial burden that educational materials can present.

It made sense to use OER for the BSAA program, not only because they are free and openly shareable, but also because OER can be customized, making it easier to incorporate diverse perspectives into the materials. Students consult with community activists, as experts from the selected countries or communities, so their perspectives and stories are reflected in the learning resources. By building their own materials, students can make sure that Black voices are being heard and centered in the texts about their culture and history.

Collaborating with other programs

Because the materials are openly sharable, we can extend our learnings beyond the Ethnic and Race Studies Department and promote cultural competency in a variety of disciplines. Each semester, faculty who are not traditionally in Ethnic and Race Studies disciplines work with others in the program to integrate Black studies into their courses. For example, our students have collaborated with a math professor on how to add context to graphs showing data on the policing of Afro-descendants in Brazil.

The way OER facilitate collaboration also encourages equity within our program. BSAA is student-led, so the students determine what they want to research, how they want to organize the information, and what form the materials should take. This means that the students work alongside their faculty mentors and community activists and that everyone collaborates to produce the materials. This differs from the usual hierarchy that often accompanies commercial textbooks where the publishing company chooses the information that the professor passes down to the student, and the knowledge is limited to those who paid for it. With BSAA program participants creating OER, everyone involved is learning together and sharing their findings with anyone else who is interested.

Fostering participation, learning

In addition, we have found that the program’s use of OER has boosted student learning and engagement. The students are responsible for moving their projects forward, and they must work with the community activists and other external collaborators directly. They can’t rely on professors to be an intermediary or tell them what to do. As a result, they often express how knowledgeable and capable they feel as contributing members of a research cohort. Having ownership over the research process and the creation of materials promotes a deeper understanding of the subject matter and provides students opportunities to strengthen their abilities.

According to a survey of students who participated in the program, 89% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the program made them more interested in Ethnic and Race Studies. In addition, 88% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their writing skills improved while participating in the program.

We are so proud to have built a program that helps combat persistent systemic inequities, bridge digital divides and support inclusive learning communities that continue to expand. For those who may want to replicate a program that leverages OER in meaningful ways, we recommend meeting with your department leads and school librarians to discuss your interest and determine what type of funding may be available for potential OER projects. There may be grants that could go toward a class on OER creation for faculty or a program for students to support OER creation.

It has been incredible to watch our students expand the idea of who can be an educator, and we think there is an incredible opportunity for schools around the country to do the same.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Janelle Poe

is a Humanities Alliance Fellow and doctoral student in the Department of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center with a focus on African Diaspora and Media Studies. She is also an OER Fellow with the Center For Teaching and Learning and a former assistant professor of Black Studies and English at the City College of New York.

Lissette Acosta Corniel

is an assistant professor in the Department of Ethnic and Race Studies at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY, in New York City where she teaches Dominican History and the History of Latinos in the U.S.