Leveraging Regional Partnerships for a State-wide OER Community

Happy Open Education Week! What can be accomplished when we all work together for educational equity?

This week’s blog post by Jenny Parks and Regina Gong answers that question (Hint: the answer is going to blow your mind and make you want to get involved). Working with Jenny and Regina to scale open educational resources in the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC) region has been challenging, exciting, and rewarding. And now the same model is being duplicated and shared across the US as we work with all of the regional compacts (MHEC, NEBHE, WICHE, and SREB) and their corresponding states. Read on to find out how they did it!

If you’re interested in the multi-compact collaboration, read more about National Consortium for OER (NCOER) today!

– Tanya Spilovoy, WCET


Launching an OER Initiative at MHEC

In spring 2018, I (Jenny) received a call from my friend and colleague Tanya Spilovoy, Director of Open Policy at WCET. We had worked together for years on other projects, and when she asked me to brainstorm with her about possible collaborations centered on Open Educational Resources (OER), I was thrilled. I had been working on ideas for a Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC) OER initiative for about a year at that time, but a structure and strategy for the initiative had not taken form. After a few weeks of discussion, we decided upon a strategy that was grounded in principles important to MHEC and the Open Education movement: volunteer-led state action teams who would work in each of the twelve MHEC states to create and increase the capacity to implement OER.

word cloud with different OER related words - educational, OER, OEWeek, Open, OpenEd, wcetOER, resources, MHEC, Education, Students, NCOER

With Tanya’s help, we secured a grant from the Hewlett Foundation which covered about half the cost of the November 2018 meeting in Chicago. The rest of the meeting was covered by funds MHEC’s Commission had designated a few years earlier to support an OER initiative. Tanya started reaching out to presenters, and I started to identify and recruit state team members. We invited five individuals from each state to attend the meeting, with some teams having one or two fewer or additional attendees. Importantly, all costs of attendance were covered by the MHEC and Hewlett funds, as we knew this was the only way to ensure that representatives from states and institutions with lower levels of funding would be able to attend.

The most pressing challenge at the time was to identify OER leaders in each of the states, especially since we wanted to recruit folks from all sectors of higher education and PK-12. There really were not many established “go to” networks in each of the MHEC states at that time, so I spent four weeks calling, emailing, and seeking ways to identify those I knew were doing the work, silently, invisibly, and often, in isolation. Eventually I was able to recruit folks and prepare for the meeting, knowing that it would be an important event that would change how we thought about and implemented OER work in the Midwest. If we could create a sense of community, mission, and identity as a region and as state action teams, we would have a way to communicate with each other, share ideas, and collaborate in the future.

The meeting was more successful than any of us could have imagined. Though it was longer than most meetings, it provided individuals with time to become acquainted with others in their states who were doing OER work. The extra time also provided folks the opportunity to connect with their counterparts in other MHEC states. Finally, the time allowed the state teams to take a long, hard look at the “OER infrastructure” in their states and to create plans to enhance it. 

Working with State Action Teams

For the first half of 2019, I scheduled and facilitated monthly calls with the State OER Action Teams. During this time, we reached out to others in the states whose input was needed to round out team membership as well as to provide a way to communicate across educational silos. Each state team immediately had its own style and character, with some focusing their efforts on gathering information and deploying surveys, some approaching their State Higher Education Executive Offices (SHEEO) to create state level OER committees and task forces, and some creating or building on their existing OER networks. The Michigan team fell into the third category. They worked across the state, in all sectors of higher education and K-12, orchestrating events, conferences, and trainings to an ever-expanding group. Led by Regina Gong, the Michigan group met on a regular basis outside the calls arranged by MHEC and continues to do so to this day.

During the second half of 2019, we changed to a quarterly call schedule for the state teams and refreshed their six-month plans. There have been a range of outcomes from the work of the State OER Action Teams, including the creation of multiple state level OER committees and task forces; the collection of institutional data; the collection of student data; the launching and expansion of state OER conferences and summits; the combining and aligning of repositories; and many other activities that have increased the capacity in each state to implement OER. My conversations with the twelve state teams over the course of a year also provided me with a unique understanding of how some of their needs overlapped and how MHEC as a regional actor might be able to provide additional support to their efforts.

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The strongest area of need was to increase awareness about OER. Organizations across the nation provide training for librarians, faculty, and instructional designers, but at the time, none offered training targeted at the individuals who made OER-related decisions such as resource allocations, adding OER to job titles, or authorizing course markings. The folks adopting, adapting, and creating OER depend upon the decisions and commitments of senior level administrators and leaders to support and sustain their work. Thus, in collaboration with the Open Education Network (OEN), MHEC sought a second grant from the Hewlett Foundation and hosted the Senior Leaders Open Education Seminary in December 2019. We recruited and covered the travel of approximately three senior leaders from each MHEC state to come and learn about OER and the types of organizational decisions and strategies that work well to incentivize and support OER implementation.

Consolidating OER Efforts Across Regional Compacts

In 2020, MHEC joined the other three regional higher education compacts in forming the National Consortium for OER (NCOER). We sought a way to coordinate, scale, and provide a nationwide structure to share research, best practices, and other OER successes. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed our work, but in November 2020 the four compacts were awarded grants from the Hewlett Foundation to continue and build upon their previous OER initiatives. Each compact will engage in its own processes of community building, research, and policy advocacy. For MHEC this work will involve research on best practices for calculating the costs savings attributable to OER implementation; technical and logistical support for virtual state OER conferences; state level senior leaders training; development of OER for areas of high need in CTE fields; and collaborations with the work of the other regional compacts. For example, Michigan had to cancel its state OER conference in 2020 due to the pandemic. To ensure that Michigan has its conference in 2021, MHEC will provide the technical support needed to plan, market, register, recruit, and host the virtual Michigan OER conference in August. In doing so we maintain the momentum of the Michigan OER State Action Team and the MI-OER Network. Supporting the OER communities of practice across the Midwest has always been the core goal for MHEC’s OER initiatives. The work with the Michigan OER community since 2018 is a great example of how we are meeting that goal and accomplishing much, much more.

Mobilizing a State Leaders Group

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Sometime in August 2018, I got an email from Jenny Parks, Vice President of MHEC, informing me (Regina) that I was recommended as one of the statewide OER leaders representing Michigan during the multi-state MHEC OER summit held in late November. At that time, I was still working for Lansing Community College (LCC) and had been a founding member of the Michigan Colleges Online (MCO) OER Initiative steering committee. This group had representation from all 28 community colleges in the state and has already gained considerable success in OER adoptions and usage across many institutions. The group had organized statewide OER summits featuring prominent national speakers that were well-attended by educators, administrators, librarians, and students from all types of higher education institutions, including K-12. In addition, I was leading a very successful OER program at LCC that has served as a model and an inspiration for other community colleges to emulate within the state and nationally as well. I readily accepted Jenny’s invitation because I knew that we could move the needle towards more awareness, buy-in, and support of open education across the state with my leadership in OER.

It was with so much excitement and hope that six of us came together to represent Michigan in the first MHEC OER state leaders’ summit held in Chicago. All of us were from different institutions (MCO, community college, public university, private college, and MI Department of Education) and different roles and responsibilities (librarians, instructional designer, faculty, state employee, executive director). We were an all-women delegation, and we came to the summit buoyed by our initial success and the possibility of even more impact if we can scale it statewide.

MI-OER Network Project Begins

The two-day summit was an excellent opportunity to learn about what the other MHEC member states have been doing concerning OER and other affordable learning options. All twelve states were at different stages in their OER efforts. It was an eye-opening experience to hear each state’s unique challenges, success, and plans for implementing their strategies. The summit’s primary goal was to provide a space and an opportunity for members to develop strategies and processes that can help us achieve our goal of scaling OER awareness and usage across the state. And I think that gathering helped a great deal for us to visualize and even dream of what might be possible.

For our state action team, our overarching goal was to remove the silos that have been in place in Michigan. We wanted to integrate the efforts done by our colleagues from the K-12 sector with their involvement in the #GoOpen initiative and the MCO OER Initiative involving community colleges. We felt we needed to provide a connection between the disparate efforts we all are doing. More importantly, we envisioned further collaboration and partnership with the four-year colleges and universities (public, private, research-intensive) since OER efforts in these institutions were still at the nascent stage or even non-existent. Having our statewide efforts integrate and work together to serve our diverse learners in all stages of their education was something we aspired to achieve.

For our state action item, we came up with the idea of putting together a coalition that spans institutions from K-20 that will consolidate and support each other’s OER efforts. We named this organization the MI-OER Network, which we formally launched in October 2020. The MI-OER Network serves as a collective voice for the community to encourage the development and use of OER for educational, instructional, and public information purposes. It is also a community of practice among higher education institutions and the K-12 sector to promote, advocate, and support OER use and facilitate collaboration among its members. Our mission is to support institutions and organizations in the fair and equitable use of OER for all learners in the state. With the addition of a few more members, most of the original conveners now serve as members of the Steering Committee. I’m currently serving as the steering committee’s de-facto chair until we can formulate a sustainable organizational structure.

Our Next Steps

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We have built a website and created a listserv to highlight our work and communicate with our members. We are still meeting every month and are planning to invite more volunteers to serve in leadership roles and committees. The statewide OER summits that have been held for the past four years will transition to MI-OER Network’s responsibility. On August 11-12, 2021, we are holding another OER summit, which will be held as a two-day virtual event for the first time. We have asked Angela DeBarger, Program Officer in Education, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Lisa Petrides, founder and CEO of ISKME, to be our keynote speakers during the summit. 

Another important next step is to provide continued professional development and support to our members through workshops, webinars, dialogues, and discussions. Of course, partnering with MHEC to leverage the power of OER to effect the needed change in higher education that ensures access, equity, affordability, and student success. We plan on doing many things, and I hope that we can come together as a community to effectively realize the goals we have set for ourselves so that we can serve all learners equitably. 


photo of regina

Regina Gong
Open Educational Resources (OER) & Student Success Librarian
Michigan State University Libraries

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Jenny Parks
Vice President
MHEC – Midwestern Higher Education Compact

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My name is Lindsey Rae Downs. I am the Assistant Director of Communications and Community for WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. I work remotely from beautiful Helena, MT.

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