Promoting open access resources in programme (re)validations

By | January 8, 2021

Towards the end of last term, I was involved in the revalidation of programmes in our childhood, youth and education courses. This was the first suite to go through the process for me since lockdown began in March 2020, and it brought to a head a number of issues which had been building for some time. These all centred on the need to provide online access to all essential, and, if possible, further recommended, resources. This is both in terms of access during lockdown, preventing unnecessary handling of print sources and the associated health risks with that for library workers and users, and also because these courses involve placements or distance learning where the students will not have easy access to campus anyway. This blog post outlines the first steps we have taken in this revalidation process and I will document more as we continue the preparation for teaching the courses, and start their delivery in September 2021.

There were three key areas that needed addressing.

  1. The lack of availability of ebooks from traditional academic publishers, due to them either not being offered at all, only being offered on restrictive, unfair models, or because of prohibitively high costs. You can see more on this in a previous post here and also on the campaign for fairer ebook access.
  2. The inaccessibility of ebooks supplied to libraries, with DRM often stopping users relying on screen-readers decent access to texts. This is particularly with the use of third-party software stopping the download of books, or sections of books, to the formats needed. It’s also the case that many ebooks supplied to libraries prevent download to devices generally, needing further internet connection for the duration of the reading session. This excludes many who do not have reliable broadband. You can read more on this in this report from Vicky Dobson at Leeds Beckett University.
  3. The lack of representation of sections of society, and inherent marginalisation, in the content of many traditionally-published texts, and the wish to find alternative sources to try and counteract this. You can read more on this in this article on inqualities in scholarly publishing by Elizabeth le Roux, and in this report on diversity in publishing by Dr Anamik Saha and Dr Sandra van Lente. It’s also something we’ve discussed previously here.

The academics involved in the revalidation asked me to participate at the stage where all of the modules to be designed had been outlined, but the content of them was still to be decided, before taking the courses to a university panel for feedback and sign-off. I had the aims and outcomes to work with, and some suggested readings that could help as a starting point, and the remit to build up potential resource lists for each module which helped address these three core issues.

I decided that open access sources provided one way of addressing all three of them, to some extent. By their nature, they are designed to be accessible without payment. They are usually readable online, or downloadable to PDF, and testing of a sample showed that they were screen-reader compatible. In addition, I could check the contents more easily to identify works from a number of different viewpoints, and particularly found works from writers in countries which were not represented in the texts we had in stock, purchased in the traditional way by academic publishers. This is one step in trying to address representation, acknowledging that this should not stop here or be a token gesture.

We started by looking for open access books, with a view to having core lists in place for each module. From here, once module leaders have been appointed for the actual teaching, I can work with them on locating a wider range of sources. I used Oapen, DOAB and LibreTexts as my main search tools.

I took the approach of putting all of the modules into a stand-alone reading list, so that all involved could see the whole programme developing. This has the advantage of also allowing academics to pick up book details and transfer them to other, existing, modules if they so wish. For each module, I took the indicative titles from traditional publishers supplied by the academics, and gave notes as to their current availability (or otherwise) in ebook format, and potential costs in their further use. After this, I introduced other texts from existing traditional publishers that may be useful, again with notes as to availability and trying to surface the ones which provide DRM-free access. Finally, I also ensured that open access resources were added where ones appropriate to the content of the module could be located.

Generally I found there to be a good range of titles available in open access format, and this is only going to develop as more academic authors find their work restricted by traditional publishing set-ups. They are much easier for students to use, with no passwords needed for future access if they bookmark them, full download is available so they can save them wherever they like, and they work with assistive technology in the format available to all. It’s incredibly unfair that users who rely on screen-readers need to do further work in obtaining accessible formats with a lot of library print sources and ebooks supplied by publishers and aggregators (this is not true in all cases – some are accessible in this way, but it’s a very mixed picture), so if we can design in accessibility at this stage, it means a much fairer experience for all once delivery starts.

I have a very good collaborative working relationship with my academic colleagues in this subject area, which means I am able to work with them from this early stage in the process of validating a programme. I realise this isn’t true for all academic librarians. However, if you are able to take the existing reading for any module, and use open access book search tools to locate others in that topic area, and have a method for adding these as options for students to read, I’d hope that would also provide them with a way of carrying on their research where those academic publishers who have chosen to increase their ebook prices to unaffordable levels, or to restrict access via unfair models, have put a barrier to studies in their path.

I plan to make more posts about this, with more specific examples of where open access texts have been used in module design and/or delivery in order to enhance learning. It’s my hope that we can find alternative ways of providing access to information when the cost of obtaining or providing access to resources has proven to be too high in either monetary or accessibility terms, and find a sustainable way forward. Because one thing is for sure: the current models are unsustainable, full stop. 

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