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Fostering Innovation with a Hands-Off Approach

Curriculum Planning and Development Spotlight on OER

Fostering Innovation with a Hands-Off Approach

This article is part of our August 2020 spotlight on open educational resources. Click here to read the introduction and view the other articles in the series.

Millersville’s Open Education Working Group was initially formed by like-minded faculty, librarians, and staff who wanted to promote the use of OER across campus. The self-assembled group planned events for Open Education Week and organized a virtual conference to help broaden the understanding and use of OER. The group created an Open Textbook Initiative (OTI), which provided mentorship and financial and logistical support to faculty who desired to implement OER textbooks in upcoming classes. The working group hoped that the financially incentivized OTI would catalyze OER adoption across campus. No member of the working group received any of the financial benefits as the goal was to inspire others. To get a program off the ground, however, the group needed support from administration, including the provost and vice president of academic affairs, Dr. Vilas Prabhu.

Early in our discussions with the provost, it was clear that Dr. Prabhu wanted the Open Education Working Group to maintain its independence from management oversight. The members created the vision for the group and informed management of the progress. Dr. Prabhu supported the OTI program but communicated that he wanted to take a hands-off approach with the group and the incentivization program was critical in fostering its success. While this leadership style may not be appropriate for all leaders or in all situations, it encouraged the group’s work in the following ways:

  • By respecting our autonomy and agency. From its creation, the Open Education Working Group existed as an autonomous and egalitarian group working outside of the institution’s traditional committee structure. The group did not have a designated chair or formal governance process. Membership was established through a self-selecting process, in contrast to most other campus committees whose members are nominated or elected to serve. While this unique organization may not work with all groups, the Open Education Working Group embraced a leadership arrangement that reflected the open movement it was trying to engender. The open movement is characterized by a spirit of transparency and collaboration, the open sharing of knowledge and resources, and distributed power structures. Dr. Prabhu recognized the history of the group and respected how its autonomy allowed for faculty and staff with expertise and passion in OER to initiate change on campus through a grassroots approach versus a management directive. By adopting a hands-off approach, Dr. Prabhu allowed the group to maintain its agency to develop and shepherd the OTI  flexibly and independently.
  • By giving the group the needed funding and then standing back. To get the open textbook program started, Dr. Prabhu asked the group to present its ideas to the university’s deans and submit a formal funding proposal for the initiative. In a way, these processes resembled those that start-up companies follow when seeking venture capital financing. In the proposal, the working group outlined how it would use funding to support the overall incentivization program and how it would measure success, including its data collection and analysis goals. While the provost asked that the group consider ways that student success resulting from the program could be examined, he provided no other pressure or influence on the group’s work. Dr. Prabhu provided enough start-up funds to get the open textbook program off the ground and respected the group’s expertise to successfully implement the program. Though the group experienced some challenges in the program’s first implementation, Dr. Prabhu maintained his laissez-faire approach and trusted the group to solve the problems and manage the challenges on its own.
  • By celebrating the group’s achievements. Throughout the first phase of implementing the open textbook program, Dr. Prabhu checked in with the group to monitor the initiative’s progress. The group shared adoption statistics and calculations on student textbook savings. Dr. Prabhu  shared this data with other members of senior leadership to celebrate the group’s work. At the end of the first implementation phase, the provost offered to host a more formal celebration and asked that the Open Education Working Group plan a luncheon where faculty who had received incentives through the open textbook program could be formally recognized. Each of the faculty members received certificates signed by the provost and university president, Dr. Daniel Wubah, as a recognition for their work.
  • By fostering reflection and revision. As the first implementation of the open textbook program concluded, the working group was asked to present to the university’s deans again and to reflect on its work. During this presentation, the provost asked the group to submit a proposal for continued funding to support a second implementation phase. While the first phase was successful based on student textbook saving data, the group felt that a smaller implementation phase would be more manageable. In the program’s first phase, the working group supported sixteen faculty members as they revised their syllabi to incorporate open textbooks and OER into their classes. In hindsight, however, the group felt that while a smaller faculty group would not yield the same level of textbook savings for students, it would be more manageable for and allow the working group to continue supporting the faculty in the first implementation phase. Respecting the expertise of the group, Dr. Prabhu supported these decisions and funded the smaller second implementation phase. This phase began in spring 2020 before being interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The group plans to restart the implementation when campus reopens in the fall.

While many administrators may not be comfortable with a hands-off approach, Provost Prabhu recognized that such a strategy would create an ideal leadership structure to support the working group and the OTI program. This allowed the group to maintain its unique structure and the flexibility to innovate independently for the benefit of the university and its students. In addition, this approach allowed the members to create, sustain, and revise the vision as desired. The members worked harder, and motivation significantly increased on account of this approach. Had the administration chosen a more hands-on approach, however, it could have stifled progress and discouraged the energy of movement. The movement continues to thrive, and a new cycle is planned for the coming academic year.

Oliver Dreon, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Educational Foundations at Millersville University and served as the director of the university’s Center for Academic Excellence from 2013 to 2020.

Alex Redcay, PhD, is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Millersville University.

James Delle, PhD, is the associate provost for academic administration and dean of the College of Graduate Studies and Adult Learning at Millersville University.


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