Using Open Educational Resources to Promote Social Justice

ACRL announces the publication of Using Open Educational Resources to Promote Social Justice, edited by CJ Ivory and Angela Pashia, which explores the opportunities and challenges of moving the discussion about open educational resources (OER) beyond affordability to address structural inequities found throughout academia and scholarly publishing.

Learn more about Using Open Educational Resources to Promote Social Justice in this Introduction from the editors, licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

Structures of Whiteness in Academia

Academic libraries reflect, record, and help to sustain the structures of inequality found throughout academia. This can be seen in many ways, including the lack of diversity among librarians,[1] the ways library spaces are physically designed,[2] how library materials are organized,[3] and our library instruction practices.[4]

Gusa’s framework of white institutional presence (WIP) provides a useful way to discuss these structures throughout academia. WIP is a set of

customary ideologies and practices rooted in the institution’s design and the organization of its environment and activities. WIP, as a construct, names the racialized influences on discourses between and among students, between student and teacher, and between students and academic resources.[5]

This framework draws on research in critical race theory, focusing specifically on the ways whiteness shapes the norms and policies of academia and scholarly communications. Within this framework, “Whiteness is not based on complexion; rather it is a socially informed ontological and epistemological orientation.”[6] This point distinguishing between physiological characteristics and socially constructed racial categories is important to highlight because it enables us to “approach race as a formation produced in and through the exercise of power rather than as a natural, pre-existent, and unchanging demographic attribute around which ‘race relations’ are organized.”[7] WIP in academia means that efforts to diversify the demographic characteristics of our students, faculty, and even administrators will be insufficient alone, as whiteness still retains “the ability to set the terms by which other groups and classes must operate,”[8] making a willingness to conform to WIP a prerequisite for entry into those positions. As with many of the behavior patterns examined in the CRT literature, WIP is upheld in countless little interactions in which those reinforcing the norms and expectations of whiteness do not necessarily recognize the racialized structure underlying their assumptions about appropriate communication and behaviors.

Systems of Scholarly Communication

Open educational resources (OER) exist within the larger context of our systems of scholarly communications, which have been shaped by WIP. This includes everything from textbook and scholarly journal publishing practices to biases in funding and in which items librarians choose to buy, both of which then influence what students have available to use in their research.

Among librarians, there is an increasing awareness of the need to go beyond established methods of collection development to seek out diverse perspectives. However, library collections have and often still reinforce whiteness, as well as maleness and heterosexuality, as the standard “default” category, with others clearly marked as “other.” This can be seen in the subject terms applied to materials, which determine the ways materials are organized on the bookshelves. For example, the Library of Congress Subject Headings, used by most academic libraries, effectively segregate books on educating Black/African Americans from books on the same topic that do not specify demographics. Of course, there is no category listed for white or Caucasian, reinforcing whiteness as the default category.[9] Thomas Weeks expands on this “hidden curriculum of heteronormativity” in the context of OERs in chapter three.

In addition to the role of librarians in purchasing and organizing materials, WIP is reinforced through privileging the scholarly sources—books and journal articles written by researchers for researchers. This is reasonable, as students are learning to participate in scholarly conversations, so they need to learn the norms of scholarly discourse—how to evaluate research studies, incorporate (and properly cite) previously published research, determine appropriate levels of detail to provide, and so on. However, it is important to recognize the ways this can reinforce WIP when not combined with discussions about ways to incorporate a wider range of perspectives into original research projects. Open pedagogy, and especially practices that encourage students to participate in building or localizing OER, as discussed in several chapters in this volume, can provide an avenue through which to build these discussions into the curriculum.

This emphasis on scholarly sources raises the question of which voices are represented in those materials, which are largely written by faculty and graduate students in academia and largely privilege authors from the Global North. According to 2018 data from the US National Center for Education Statistics, 75 percent of full-time faculty in “degree-granting postsecondary institutions” were white. [10] Working and publishing in the United States, we have primarily focused on these figures, but taking a global perspective requires further attention to publishing divides between the Global North and Global South. In addition to the need for more publications from marginalized populations in the Global North, several chapters in this volume examine the need for more locally created and relevant materials in and about the Global South.

The whiteness of faculty in higher education has ramifications beyond the biases (whether implicit or explicit) inherent in their own writing. Those who wish to perform and publish research “on marginalized populations often [receive] negative reactions, accusations of ‘me-search’ and questions about resonance or importance to the broader (read: dominant) world.”[11] “Me-search” is a term used to dismiss research that is aligned with a scholar’s marginalized identity, though it is rarely applied to white scholars doing research on white populations. The suggestion inherent in this term is that this alignment between marginalized identity and research focus makes the researcher less objective and therefore inferior within the epistemology of whiteness. The effects of this bias can be seen in levels of departmental support for a graduate student or junior faculty member,[12] tenure and promotion structures,[13] each step of the peer review process,[14] and funding apparatuses. For example, in one study, researchers found that Black scholars are around 10 percent less likely to receive a grant from the US National Institutes of Health than their white peers, even after controlling for a range of potentially confounding variables.[15] However, this othering of research on marginalized groups by marginalized scholars omits the fact that many respected research publications follow the same pattern of scholars studying populations that resemble their own identities—except that the identities in those instances are not marginalized.

Each instance of a decision that upholds WIP in scholarly research and publications may feel relatively minor, but they add up to a skewed scholarly record. This means we need to look beyond “traditional” scholarly and academic publications in order to challenge WIP in the curriculum. Open educational resources have the potential to move us beyond these “traditional” structures, to celebrate research done by marginalized populations in the context of their own communities, to amplify the voices of those who have the knowledge but have been excluded from formal prestige networks, and to engage students as co-creators of learning content that is relevant and respectful of their cultural contexts.

Open Educational Resources

Open educational resources are commonly described as any instructional material (usually in digital format) that is adaptable, reusable, and most importantly free to share without restrictions. These possibilities are only available with content in the public domain or that has been published under an open licensing agreement. The growing popularity of OER in higher education can be attributed to the potential cost savings for students and increased access to education. No- or low-cost textbook alternatives are a good solution when rising textbook costs from traditional publishers have become a barrier to student success. Increasing student access and affordability are noteworthy goals, but that is just the beginning of what is possible with OER-enabled pedagogy.

Wiley outlines five criteria that have become the standard for identifying open learning materials. These five permissions, facilitated by open licensing, allow educators to freely incorporate content created by others for their own instructional purposes.[16] The 5Rs described by Wiley include:

  1. retain: the right to make, own, and control copies of the resources;
  2. reuse: the right to use the content in a wide range of ways;
  3. revise: the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself;
  4. remix: the right to combine the original or revised content with other material to create something new; and
  5. redistribute: the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others.

Adhering to the 5Rs does not inherently ensure diversity or inclusion in the development of open educational content. While this volume is filled with examples of the ways OER and open pedagogy can be used to support social justice in education, it is important to acknowledge that open learning is not equivalent to equitable or inclusive learning. Any application of the 5R framework must also be accompanied by a discussion about its challenges in achieving diversity and inclusion in academic knowledge production. OER implementation focused on increasing access without careful consideration of social justice implications will only perpetuate systemic inequities. Therefore, we begin this text with a section on theory and problematizing that take a critical look at the 5R framework and suggest alternative approaches to gauge openness that will increase access as well as achieve social justice goals.

  1. Chris Bourg, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Librarianship,” Feral Librarian (blog), March 3, 2014,
  2. Freeda Brook, Dave Ellenwood, and Althea Eannace Lazzaro, “In Pursuit of Antiracist Social Justice: Denaturalizing Whiteness in the Academic Library,” Library Trends 64, no. 2 (February 18, 2016): 246–84, doi:10.1353/lib.2015.0048,
  3. Emily Drabinski, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 83, no. 2 (April 1, 2013): 94–111, doi:10.1086/669547,
  4. Angela Pashia, “Examining Structural Oppression as a Component of Information Literacy: A Call for Librarians to Support #BlackLivesMatter through Our Teaching,” Journal of Information Literacy 11, no. 2 (December 2017): 86–104,
  5. Gusa, “White Institutional Presence,” 467.
  6. Ibid., 468.
  7. David James Hudson, “On ‘Diversity’ as Anti-racism in Library and Information Studies: A Critique,” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1 (2017): 20.
  8. Gusa, “White Institutional Presence,” 469.
  9. Pashia, “Examining Structural Oppression.”
  10. “Characteristics of Postsecondary Faculty,” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), last modified May 2020,
  11. J. E. Sumerau, “Research on the Margins,” Inside Higher Ed (October 14, 2016),
  12. Eric Anthony Grollman, “‘Playing the Game’ for Black Grad Students,” Inside Higher Ed (February 24, 2017),
  13. Heather Castleden, Paul Sylvestre, Debbie Martin, and Mary McNally, “‘I Don’t Think That Any Peer Review Committee . . . Would Ever “Get” What I Currently Do’: How Institutional Metrics for Success and Merit Risk Perpetuating the (Re)Production of Colonial Relationships in Community-Based Participatory Research Involving Indigenous Peoples in Canada,” International Indigenous Policy Journal 6, no. 4 (September 1, 2015),
  14. Stephanie A. Fryberg and Ernesto Javier Martínez, “Constructed Strugglers: The Impact of Diversity Narratives on Junior Faculty of Color,” in The Truly Diverse Faculty: New Dialogues in American Higher Education, ed. Stephanie A. Fryberg and Ernesto Javier Martínez (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 3–24.
  15. Donna K. Ginther, Beth Masimore, Faye Liu, Joshua Schnell, Laurel L. Haak, Raynard Kington, and Walter T. Schaffer, “Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards,” Science 333, no. 6045 (January 1, 2011): 1015–19,
  16. David Wiley, “Defining the ‘Open’ in Open Content and Open Educational Resources,” OpenContent, accessed September 27, 2021,