Public German Studies? Open Access? Open Educational Resources? What’s this all about?

An introduction to this site by James M. Skidmore

In early 2018, I became an Open Education Fellow with eCampusOntario, one of six Ontario educators appointed to this position. The goals of the OE Fellows program are pretty straightforward: be an advocate for open educational practices and a creator of open educational resources; promote awareness into benefits of open education at conferences, meetings, and elsewhere; and work on an open educational project that could be shared with others.

But what is open education? What are open educational resources? At its most basic, open education is about removing barriers to education. Just as open access research wishes to make research a public good, open education is about ensuring that public access to education. For many, this means creating and using teaching and learning resources that are freely available to anyone to be used and reused in whatever way they see fit.

As an OE Fellow I had the opportunity to dig deeper into these open educational resources (OER). For many disciplines, most prominently in the STEM fields and to a lesser extent in the social sciences, there is a fair amount of consensus as to what should be taught in for example Chemistry 101. As the cost of textbooks and ancillary materials in these fields continues to grow, there is a real incentive to provide high-quality, free materials, and that’s just what a number of professors, through organizations like OpenStax, BCCampus, and eCampusOntario, are doing.

But open educational practices encompass a lot more than just these open educational resources.  Open education, to quote from the Cape Town Open Education Declaration, facilitates “collaborative, flexible learning and the open sharing of teaching practices that empower educators to benefit from the best ideas of their colleagues.”

This notion resonated with me and informed my work as an OE Fellow. As a German Studies prof at the University of Waterloo, and someone who has a strong affinity to the humanities and liberal arts education, I wanted to explore how well the OER concept might work in a field like mine. I teach a lot of courses in cultural studies – cultural history, literature, film – that are open to all students, and which are tailored to the particular context of our university, our department, and the interests and aspirations of our institution’s students.

Many humanities courses at many institutions are similar in nature. There’s no widely accepted notion as to what should be taught in these courses, especially in our current cultural climate, so the idea that there should be a “German Studies 101” textbook (or its equivalent in another discipline) is largely out of the question. Moreover, in the humanities, we do a lot of work with original texts – novels, films, essays and the like – that very often can’t be openly licensed and shared for remixing or repackaging. For that reason, humanities instructors are often curators of knowledge: they package together readings and other materials for their students.

Open education facilitates “collaborative, flexible learning and the open sharing of teaching practices that empower educators to benefit from the best ideas of their colleagues.”

Cape Town Open Education Declaration

Curation, then, became the guidepost for my OE Fellows project. My plan was to develop a site called Open German Studies, but at the same time I was working with eCampusOntario, I was still working at my day job as Director of the Waterloo Centre for German Studies, a research institute at the University of Waterloo. We began developing plans for a German studies open access research webspace, and it seemed like a natural fit to bring open access and open education together. Hence, the name Public German Studies, to underscore the fundamental point that what we produce in our academic careers is a public good.

This is a work in progress. In March 2019 we’re publishing a working site and populating the open education side with material from my courses that was previously hidden behind the wall of the university’s learning management system. Over the summer of 2019 we’ll be building out the open access research side as well as laying the groundwork for an open access journal to appear in 2020.

Once we feel the site is stable enough, we’ll begin to solicit and encourage open collaboration of all sorts. I’m excited to see where this will take us over the next few years. 

Initial funding for this project came from the OE Fellows program. Sincere thanks to eCampusOntario for making this possible.