3. SUNY OER Services

SUNY is a consortium of all 64 state universities New York. SUNY OER Services provides resources and offers their publishing services to any university in this collective. The following case study can be seen as representative of a large, currently well-funded OER program with state-wide reach and high community recognition.

Structure

SUNY OER Services supports all open textbook initiatives at all institutions within the State University of New York (SUNY) system, which includes “research universities, academic medical centers, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, colleges of technology, and an online learning network. [SUNY serves] nearly 1.3 million students.”[1] The SUNY consortium funds innovative projects being done in New York’s state universities through the SUNY Innovative Instruction Technology Grants program; this is how SUNY OER Services came to be.[2] SUNY Geneseo received a grant from the consortium, allowing them to begin creating OER and start building the capacity for a program. The SUNY OER Services team consists of four members: Alexis Clifton, Open Educational Resources Executive director; Allison Brown, Digital Publishing Services Manager; Laura Murray, OER Coordinator; and Leah Root, Publishing and Web Services Developer. Over the course of six years, the program has published 21 open textbooks.

Publishing is just one part of SUNY OER Services’ mission. The primary goal of the program is to orchestrate and facilitate OER programs for the individual institutions within the system. SUNY OER Services provides consultation, as well as access to tools like Pressbooks, and mechanisms for distribution. However, the program also produces and publishes new OER, and adaptations. In the beginning, their methodology in many ways emulated that of a traditional publisher: composition, editorial, peer review, layout, et cetera. Now, with a few years of experience under their belt, they offer a more tailored process for each project. According to Brown, “Half the projects we work with are people that already have material. We say, okay, do you want a peer review? Some of them don’t, some of them do.”[3]  Likewise, many authors may come in with a completed book, or even a book that was previously published that the authors want to get their rights back for. The program facilitates these processes as well.

Funding

Since the beginning of 2017, SUNY OER Services has been funded by a portion of the 4 million dollars given to the SUNY system for open educational resources. The funding is a part of the Excelsior Scholarship program, an initiative led by New York state governor Andrew Cuomo, which mandates that all state-funded colleges and universities in New York would be tuition-free for residents of New York.[4] In addition to funding for this particular program, support from the state has been helpful in getting faculty in New York to agree to author open textbooks. As Clifton states, “[The funding has] really shaped our interaction with the campuses. Every campus has a big financial incentive to work with us right now, because they need advice for how to spend their money, essentially.”[5] This funding was valid for the 2017-18 school year, and was renewed for the 2018-19 school year.

The program is currently looking into alternative revenue streams so that dependence on state funding isn’t necessary and the program can sustain itself in the long-term. In the past, they’ve considered a membership model, and also thought about implementing a course fee of between $10 and $20 to be added to each student’s tuition cost for classes that are taught with open textbooks. There are plans to make the office a shared service, perhaps by asking campuses to buy in to gain access to the consultation and resources that SUNY OER Services offers. This cost could come through each institution’s library budget or through other funding lines. As of the 2018-19 academic year, these plans are on hold as the program offers what they can with the state funding they’ve been alloted. The six people on staff for the program are, however, still being paid by SUNY Geneseo.

Administration

The central OER program is hosted through the library at SUNY Geneseo, but often the institutions within the SUNY consortium run their own local OER programs through their library as well. In order for SUNY OER Services to come to fruition, libraries within the state banded together. While the central office is run through the SUNY Geneseo library, the program works with other SUNY libraries to pool money together to effectively publish books through the initiative. Clifton and Brown estimate that around 75 percent of the OER programs in connection with SUNY are driven by libraries.[6] As Brown puts it, libraries are well respected and tend to work very closely with faculty. A key part of the mission of a library is also to make learning materials accessible to students. “We felt that coming from a public institution, that the material that we create should be publicly available because it’s publicly funded,” says Brown.[7]

The program quickly grew into a recognizable, respected brand. Brown explains that the process they established when the program first started in order to gain credibility with authors and instructors was fairly traditional: “We [did] a traditional peer review, this can be listed as a peer reviewed publication on a tenure packet.”[8] This was important for author-instructors who may otherwise have not been able to contribute to an open textbook if it didn’t count for their job. The end result was a high quality product that helped solidify SUNY OER as a legitimate and respectable publisher. As the program progressed, SUNY shifted to offering more flexible, nontraditional workflows for OER production. Overall, the program prefers to focus on enabling accessibility, and then tailor the services they offer in order to make that accessibility attainable.

Community Relations

SUNY OER Services has built a relationship with the SUNY Press; they don’t work closely, but can rely on one another for consultation and collaboration when the situation calls for it. A recent publication called for coordination on printing; SUNY OER Services worked with the SUNY Press to identify a printer, and has in the past sought guidance on other issues involving printing and distribution. SUNY Press has also helped train the SUNY OER Services in some aspects of the process.[9]

The program also builds relationships with faculty throughout the SUNY system, encouraging anyone interested in OER to ask questions. The team has maintained close relationships with some of their regularly active OER authors. As the question around funding resolves itself in the future, the program will be learning of the challenges of getting faculty to commit to writing OER without the major financial incentive currently offered. “[We want to] try and get faculty to work together and write things that need to be written rather than having the faculty member explicitly coming to us saying I want to write this or I have already written this,” Brown says. “We haven’t started that. But we have a good solid community who understands what OER is and what the impact could be.”[10] As Clifton puts it, faculty are great writers but terrible project managers; the infrastructure is a critical part of the OER process, and SUNY is better positioned because they can bring into the workflow a certain amount of experience that isn’t yet possible at individual institutions.

The Role of Pressbooks at SUNY

SUNY OER Services first began using their open source Pressbooks instance in 2016. In the first years of the program, they used Open Monograph Press. The transition to Pressbooks took time, says Brown.[11] Pressbooks came into the open education scene at an integral time in the life of the program, as SUNY OER Services was looking to expand their resources to offer the affordance of a web-based textbook. “I spent a lot of time in 2013 and 2014 when we were just getting started, researching and trying to figure this out – make sense of how we could do this efficiently and have all the formats that we needed. It’s like, ‘Oh, here’s this free thing that does all those things for us,’” says Brown.[12] For some projects, SUNY OER Services now works with Lumen Learning, a courseware company that has built extra infrastructure into their own open source Pressbooks network. The fact that other big names in the OER community were using the Pressbooks platform became another large motivator for SUNY to opt for Pressbooks. In addition, they are able to support adaptable, editable texts, helped along by the cloning tool. Pressbooks addresses SUNY OER Service’s barriers to success by offering a platform that has a heightened level of interactivity and low learning curve for faculty instruction, enabling the program to draw in faculty authors more easily.

Barriers to Success

SUNY OER Services faces various barriers to success, including funding, administrative buy-in, printing costs, and individual university culture.

One large barrier to success for SUNY OER Services is funding. As mentioned previously, SUNY OER Services currently has a well-funded program. However, they don’t have full autonomy over how that money can be used or distributed. It’s taken time to build up sufficient infrastructure to ease that process in the future. According to Brown, “[R]ight now we can’t just pay peer reviewers. We can walk our campuses through how they can do that, but we haven’t even tried again because of how hard it was the first time.”[13]

Another barrier is administrative buy-in within the SUNY system. Clifton and Brown have observed attitudes from administration that an OER project shouldn’t be invested in if an open textbook already exists in the field. Clifton states, “[It’s] frustrating, because there are many different ways to approach a single subject.’”[14] Some also believe that the textbook is dead, and that all future investments should be in interactive, personalized learning materials. The program’s perspective is that investing in creation is just as important as investing in adoption, because in three years the people who have adopted the older materials are going to be looking for newer ones or updated ones.

Clifton also says it has been a fight to get the print piece of the program up and running. Print can be an effective tool for enticing faculty authors into opting for open textbook creation over the traditional publication process.  Faculty will in some cases refuse to work on an open textbook until there’s a print version that they can see or review. In addition, it’s important that students who don’t have electronic access have access to print copies of textbooks. This is especially true for rural schools in the state. “Not everyone has a smartphone, or even internet access at home,” Brown says. “Moving to print-on-demand was really crucial.”[15]

SUNY OER Services has also found that local culture can affect how OER functions and how it is accepted on a campus. Brown states that community colleges tend to adopt textbooks more often because of their focus on student learning, access and affordability. Research campuses and four-year universities, alternatively, tend to focus on publishing.[16] In some cases, however, they’ve found that four-year campuses won’t see affordability as a part of their mission. Single individuals can also have a large effect on an institution’s stance on OER. As Clifton states, “While there are broad trends, a very small community college in our system basically had one person that managed to flip the whole school OER [program] in two years.”[17]

Association with a Consortium

Each of the 64 institutions in the SUNY system are eligible to work with SUNY OER Services. Though some programs do function as an independent unit, like Tompkins Cortland Community College, most tend to work with the central SUNY program. The independent model is, however, what the program seeks to encourage over time. “Our whole model is working with the campus mentors and faculty mentors so they can create a program on their own campus. We really try to support them in a way that makes sense for their campus.”[18] Some schools have installed their own Pressbooks instances to facilitate this work as well. They tend to see independent Pressbooks networks more often among universities than community colleges, who are more likely to benefit from a consortial effort. They propose that it’s more difficult to build and maintain a structure for OER production and publication at the community college level.


  1. SUNY. "The Nation's Largest Comprehensive System of Higher Education." Binghamton University - SUNY. Accessed October 01, 2018. https://www.suny.edu/about/
  2. "Open SUNY Textbooks." Open SUNY Textbooks OER Services. Accessed October 01, 2018. https://textbooks.opensuny.org/about/.
  3. Brown, Allison and Alexis Clifton. Interview with Taylor McGrath. Personal interview. Montreal, QC, September 20, 2018.
  4. Jesse McKinley, "Cuomo Proposes Free Tuition at New York State Colleges for Eligible Students," The New York Times, December 22, 2017, accessed October 01, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/03/nyregion/free-tuition-new-york-colleges-plan.html.
  5. Brown, Allison and Alexis Clifton. Interview with Taylor McGrath. Personal interview. Montreal, QC, September 20, 2018.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.

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LIBRARY is the new PUBLISHER by Taylor McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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