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Teaching & Learning

Using open educational resources to create a culturally relevant classroom

| Dr. Ruanda Garth-McCullough and Dr. Richard Sebastian

Thinking & Advocacy
November 18, 2020

Course instruction in higher education often omits the valuable knowledge and experiences of historically underserved and nontraditional college students. This exclusion widens opportunity gaps for students facing persistent barriers such as racial, cultural, gender, and class disparities.

Faculty can play a vital role in promoting educational equity by acknowledging and embracing the assets of their diverse student body with culturally relevant teaching. Open educational resources (OER) can significantly contribute to equity-minded teaching and learning for all.

Last week, we presented at the 2020 Open Education Conference. Our session, Using Open Content to Create a Culturally Relevant Classroom, explored the role OER can play in the culturally relevant teaching framework.

What is culturally relevant teaching?

Supporting the success of all students means developing intentional teaching and learning practices that include traditionally underserved learners. Culturally responsive teaching views difference and diversity among students as an asset rather than an obstacle (or deficit). An asset-based model enables instructors to acknowledge, respect, and integrate the knowledge that students already come equipped with when they enter the classroom.

Eradicating a deficit-based ideology of culturally diverse students disrupts the idea that Eurocentric, or “traditional” middle-class forms of learning are the default or norm. A shift to culturally responsive teaching requires a critical awareness of systemic inequities and injustices that shape our knowledge systems, and a commitment to challenging and dismantling those systems. This approach to teaching involves an authentic notion of care for students, where their academic, social, emotional, and cultural well-being is validated and supported.

Culturally responsive teaching should:

  • Build on students’ prior knowledge
  • Understand that there is more than one way of knowing
  • Encourage students to embrace their culture to fuel their learning
  • Highlight students’ strengths to support their success

Where does OER come in?

Open educational resources (OER) are  texts and digital media — any material, whether print or digital, that can be used to support learning — that are free and have an open license that grants users permission to own, revise, reuse, and share these resources. The resources provide an opportunity for college educators to optimize the learning experiences of the diverse range of students in their classes: Professors can design courses that meet standard benchmarks while reflecting students’ prior knowledge and experience, thus building from students’ existing neurological schemata. Research shows such connections increase the brain’s capacity for engagement, comprehension, and proficiency.

OER also provides flexibility. With an ever-expanding library of digital content at their disposal — including online publications, instruction materials, and institutional peer-reviewed assets — instructors have  countless pathways to embrace the entire community of learners by designing culturally relevant classrooms that invite and incorporate every student into the process.

With OER, culturally responsive instructors can:

  • Localize content to the specific community context of the class
  • Translate open content into another language
  • Incorporate learner content into the shared class materials
  • Adapt content in response to learners’ interests, backgrounds, and cultures
  • Update content to eliminate bias, “normative” perspectives, stereotypes, etc.
  • Share open learner content with a wider audience

Promising examples

As online education begins to grow — especially during a pandemic which has catalyzed a mass transition to digital learning — it will be even more important to develop the conversation around understanding and supporting students from diverse cultures. OER can be a valuable tool that enables faculty to design and facilitate courses that are culturally relevant and contribute to student success.

Here are just a few examples of openly licensed materials that instructors around the world have already used to support culturally responsive teaching in their classrooms:

Black Lives in Astronomy, compiled by Andrew Franknois, Chair of the Department of Astronomy at Foothill College, includes resources and materials to examine the history and issues facing Black members of the astronomical community.

Equality Archive is a reliable source for the history of gender equality in the United States. It contains unique assets — accessible archival entries on a range of topics written by over 25 professors, artists, and authors — and many more resources to drive action and social change.

Exploring Economic Inequality with Data is a set of assignments that exposes students to data pertaining to economic inequality in international and historical contexts. The assignments build on each other, with students eventually presenting a thesis-driven argument supported by the data they have explored throughout the course.

The History Engine (2008–19) aimed to enhance historical education and research for teachers, students, and scholars alike. At the core of the project were student-written episodes, covering historical topics from the broadest international and national events to the simplest local occurrences.

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