Members of the Civic Switchboard team have been working on a project exploring the adoptability and reusability of data and digital literacy materials.

About the Project

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization characterizes open educational resources as “learning, teaching and research materials in any format and medium that reside in the public domain or are under copyright that have been released under an open license, that permit no-cost access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution by others” (UNESCO, “Open Educational Resources”).

Open educational resources (or OER) can take a number of forms, including:

  • A lesson plan that an educator shares online for others to reuse in their classrooms
  • An information literacy activity that a librarian develops and shares with other libraries to use in training
  • Resources that are shared with attendees in a train-the-trainer workshop and are available for the attendees to then use when facilitating a professional development programs

But what resource characteristics support reuse and adaptation? A cross-disciplinary team at University of Pittsburgh is currently examining this question. The team brings an interest in data and digital literacy OER, but as OER grow in number, the question of resource characteristics that encourage reuse is relevant across domains.

In addition to investigating characteristics of reusable OER, our team is also exploring the following questions in this work:

  • Is the train-the-trainer model effective for data and digital literacy educational materials?
  • What strategies have been helpful when using OERs in library instruction?

This project received funding from Pitt Cyber during Academic Year 2022-2023. Pitt Cyber is an interdisciplinary institute focused on research, teaching, and programming on cyber-related challenges that impact our communities. The team includes Chelsea Gunn (School of Computing and Information), Jessica Ghilani (University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg), Eleanor Mattern (School of Computing and Information), Liz Monk (University Center for Social and Urban Research), and Veena Vasudevan (School of Education).

This post overviews two focus group sessions that we held with library staff that explored the question of OER characteristics. This data collection followed a literature review to develop a checklist of characteristics proposed across existing writing.

About our Focus Group Methodology

In summer 2023, the project team organized two focus groups with library workers that investigated the question: What are the characteristics of open educational materials that encourage adoption and support reuse?

We shared a call for focus group participation with local library workers who are part of the Allegheny County Library Association (a system of 46 public libraries), the University of Pittsburgh Library System, and library workers who subscribe to the Civic Switchboard email list (which focuses on civic data work in libraries). The call for participation asked library workers to describe whether and how they’ve engaged with OER. We invited respondents who were able to demonstrate a connection between their work and OER.

In total, we had 17 participants at the focus group sessions, who represented a variety of roles in public and academic libraries from specifically scoped OER librarian roles to instructional librarians. We asked participants to bring one example of an OER that they have used or are familiar with.

During the focus group session, we asked participants to spend time with the OER that they brought to the session and share:

  • What type(s) of instructional materials are included within the resource?
  • How have you engaged this resource?
  • Who are the intended learners?
  • What do you like about this resource?
  • What would you add or change to improve it?

Themes from focus groups

Using the examples that they brought to the focus group, the participants introduced a number of themes that support reuse and adoption of OER:

Modularity: In both focus group sessions, participants emphasized the value of modular materials that allow for segments to be integrated into curriculum or a program. One participant observed that marking materials to indicate how much time is needed to use the segment in a lesson is valuable (e.g “if you have 10 minutes in a lesson, use this activity”)

Trust: The concept of trust was woven throughout the discussions. Participants noted that familiarity with the creators or the organization managing the resources gave them confidence in their quality. The use of a peer review process as part of the instruction design work also contributed to trust.

Stories of Use: Finally, having case studies of individuals using the materials helps other users to understand how the resources can be leveraged for instruction and applicable scenarios for use. For example, users valued learning whether a library adopted a resource for a particular type of workshop that may be offered in their own library. Stories of use also supported trust in the materials by acting as a form of vetting.

Simple and adaptable design: Participants emphasized that resources that are as easy to adapt as possible are the most usable. Simplicity is associated with clear metadata and documentation, but also in design decisions. For example, known formats and tools (e.g. PowerPoint slides) encourage reuse as it reduces a learning barrier for editing and adoption. Formats that allow for easy local updates were valued (e.g. PowerPoint versus pdf format).

Documentation: Facilitator guides that provide recommendations for local adoption and metadata that clearly captures the “aboutness” of the resource were seen as critical components for reusability.

Next Steps in our Project

We will invite participants from our focus groups to participate in a second focus group session designed to learn more about the efficacy of train-the-trainer models as mechanisms for supporting reuse of OER.

Interested in learning more about the project? Contact us at