In this interview, Apurva Ashok, Director of Open Education at The Rebus Foundation, talks with Colleen Cressman about the open education initiatives Apurva leads at The Rebus Foundation, including its open education and professional development arm, Rebus Community. Among its programs, the Rebus Community offers courses and webinars for faculty, librarians, university staff, and institutional leaders in order to, as Apurva says, “demystify open publishing and encourage OER creation, remix, and adoption.” Apurva details the Textbook Success Program at the Rebus Community and discusses future developments that will involve alumni from previous cohorts. She also identifies challenges, such as broadening individuals’ understanding of OER as more than just cost-saving mechanisms and the need for greater integration of OER in the educational ecosystem, especially at the secondary level and above.
Apurva Ashok: I’m the Director of Open Education at The Rebus Foundation, a global non-profit working to make knowledge freely available in the pursuit of equity, understanding, and the common good. I lead Open Education initiatives at Rebus, primarily via the Rebus Community. A simple way of describing what I do is that I empower educators. At Rebus Community, I support an innovative community that shares knowledge and networks geared toward publishing and adopting open educational resources (OER). In my professional life I explore the intersections of academia, publishing, design, storytelling, social justice, and volunteering. I value the sharing and translation of knowledge across communities and regions, and hope to continue supporting critical thinking for all. I’m grateful for the opportunity to tell you a bit more about the work I do at Rebus today, so thank you!
The Rebus Community is the open education and professional development arm of the Rebus Foundation. We think of ourselves as a movement that aims to transform higher education. More specifically, we envision an ecosystem that supports the creation and implementation of free, high-quality, inclusive, and student-centered course materials in classrooms, supplemented with equity-based pedagogical methods to ensure student success. We offer both in-depth courses and webinar series for faculty, librarians, university staff, and institutional leaders. Overall, our programs demystify open publishing and encourage OER creation, remix, and adoption. At a more granular level, we support faculty as they create OER and introduce their students to affordable, high-quality materials.
The Textbook Success Program (TSP) is one of two notable initiatives at Rebus Community. This is a year-long professional development course that works with institutional teams to equip OER leads as Program Managers and faculty as creators of open textbooks or other learning materials. Our cohorts consist of teams and projects from different regions, so there’s a lot of cross-institutional sharing at each session. Asynchronous support and community building through an online forum means that this conversation continues even outside the virtual classroom. The TSP is in many ways a capacity building opportunity: it grows the expertise on open education, publishing, and open licenses at an institution, and therefore helps sustain OER initiatives. Response has been very positive thus far, and we look forward to carrying this into the future!
That aside, we also lead customized webinar series for institutions looking to introduce faculty to OER and related topics. Rebus Community works with institutions to craft a selection of webinars that best meet their needs. We then develop a suite of online sessions that are attended by faculty, librarians, instructional designers, and even administrative staff! We do our best, where possible, to tailor our webinars to the institution’s particular local context, because we know that learning outcomes are improved with responsive content.
It’s been such a pleasure to have been working with Rebus to make the educational landscape more student-centered and our OER more equitable. I’ve been at Rebus for 5 years and, in fact, started out as a practicum student while working on my Master of Publishing degree. It’s been incredible to watch the community grow. In many ways, continuing to do this work is what excites me the most.
If I were pressed to answer more specifically, though, I would say I’m very keen to see where we can help emerging open education leaders find their footing and thrive. Rebus Community has been developing a model in which current TSP cohorts are taught by alumni from previous iterations. The pathway helps train OER creators to be facilitators and mentors for future cohort conversations. We’ve been fortunate to have had some very exceptional alumni work with us, and I look forward to seeing what future years will hold! In addition, we are also currently designing a short term course on creating OER Ancillary Materials, which is very promising.
There are several challenges that are part and parcel of participating in the OER space through a small, not-for-profit organization. The Rebus team typically negotiates many stresses that shape small teams with big ambitions: juggling a bevy of tasks on a daily basis is quite common. Something that we’ve seen both internally within the organization and across the OER landscape is the consistent challenge of funding. It is critical that we stabilize investment and financial commitment from a variety of stakeholders to support our mission to make education equitable and accessible.
I think another key challenge for us as a larger community is to find ways of making OER a non-niche part of the educational ecosystem. OER is yet to enter the mainstream of secondary and higher education systems, at least at the scale that I’d like. We have a lot of people on board already, but how do we get everyone to participate, and how do we fundamentally change our ideas of an open and equitable education? Relatedly, I think we will also have to change the idea that OERs are only about saving students money. The importance of free resources that are available to everyone cannot be understated, but OER also do so much more: they inspire innovative teaching practices, encourage a socially responsive education, and build investment in each student's success. We need to get everyone thinking on these lines.
A few things, actually! First I’d just like to note that the TSP runs three cohorts every year, and that we are always eager for more institutions and collaborators to join us.
Additionally, Rebus Community maintains an online forum that is free for everyone to use, be it to network, ask questions, share projects in progress, or find collaborators. I was introduced to Colleen Cressman via this very space, and had the privilege of working alongside her and nearly 80 other educators from around the world on the Introduction to Philosophy series!
If you attended the Open Education Conference this year, you will have heard first-hand from the talented educators we work with as well as the Rebus Community staff. If you didn’t get a chance at #OpenEd21, check out one of our sessions, “From OER Learner to Leader: Creating a Professional Development Pathway for Emerging OER Champions,” on our Youtube channel.
Finally, we’re working on the short term OER ancillary materials course, as mentioned above, and continue to produce openly licensed guides that consolidate all our approaches and insight on a regular basis. You can browse and download all our guides on the Rebus Community website.
Text: © 2021 the President and Fellows of Harvard College and Apurva Ashok, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) license