Creating a Culture of Openness and Accessibility

Open Access (storefront)
Open Access (storefront) / Photographer: Gideon Burton

During my short time so far as the Digital Projects Fellow for WIC and the EC, I’ve been out and about meeting new people and attending events to learn how both Commons can better support teaching and learning across campus.  As I was signing up for some talks and events a few weeks ago, I didn’t anticipate how nicely all three I chose would tie together into a general theme of openness and accessibility on campus. I was struck by the significance of these themes at Penn and how we can create a culture of openness and accessibility in our Commons spaces.

SPARCThe first talk I attended was on open educational resources (OERs) and copyright given by Nicole Allen, the Director of Open Education for SPARC. Nicole discussed the rising cost of college textbooks and journal subscriptions, and how high costs impede college students’ access to these materials. One partial solution to this problem involves institutions adopting OERs, which are free, openly-licensed teaching, learning and research materials that follow Creative Commons principles. Places to find OERs include repositories such as the OER Commons and Open Textbook Library; an example of a successful OER model is the OpenStax College project out of Rice University.

Not all open content is free of licensing restrictions, however, and this is where the issue began to get murky and the debate, intense. The audience seemed to come to the consensus, though, that while many people are on-board with the social mission of OERs (free, accessible resources for students) and open access, there is much work to be done in developing sustainable models for online publishing and resources to bear more weight in academic circles.

dhf_boxThis topic provided a perfect segue into the next event I attended: the Digital Humanities Forum’s spring symposium, Research on a Global Scale: The Radical Potential of Linked Open Data. The event featured three amazing speakers who all discussed how we can better link the data we have at our own institutions to make it more accessible to other libraries, institutions, cultural heritage sites, and publishing platforms. The first speaker, Corey Harper of NYU Libraries, discussed his project (“Linked Open Communism”) and work on DBPedia, where he is linking and making connections among data from cultural institutions all over New York City. Described as a “Wikification” of information on the Web, Corey’s project allows scholars and anyone interested to follow a narrative thread on a particular topic across many cultural spaces around NYC.

Much of Corey’s project hinges on meaningful metadata that accurately describes digital resources, and this provided a nice introduction to Amy Rudersdorf’s talk about the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).  The DPLA just turned one year old and has involved a massive effort to provide digitized books, historic documents, images, audiovisual materials to anyone with Internet access. One of the challenges of Amy’s work involves aggregating all of these digital materials and giving them standardized metadata to link resources from all over the country to the DPLA’s audience (read: anyone with an Internet connection!). Considering that the DPLA now has over 7 million (yes, million) digital objects in its collection, having open data that forms meaningful relationships with other data out there is crucial for users to easily access exactly what they’re looking for through the DPLA portal.

The last talk at this DH Forum event was given by Eric Kansa who discussed direct applications of open data to publishing and scholarly research. Eric talked about his own project, Open Context, based at the Alexandria Archive Institute. He argued for “data sharing as publication,” or the process of scholars licensing their raw data/metadata under Creative Commons, so that other researchers can reuse and remix data to support their own research. Overall, Eric’s talk resonated heavily with other themes of the day and with Nicole Allen’s talk on OER earlier that week: that a huge issue in scholarly communication at the moment concerns the need for a long-term commitment to linked open data at the cultural and institutional levels.

Shifting gears, the last event I attended was a bit removed from the scholarly publishing realm, but nevertheless, a very significant one: supporting students with disabilities on campus. The symposium, Add Your Voice!, marked the 13th Annual Disabilities Symposium put on by the Office of Student Disabilities Services, part of Weingarten Learning Resources Center and the Vice Provost for University Life.AddYourVoiceOne session I attended, “From the Chalkboard to the Keyboard: Accessible Technology for Teaching and Learning,” was particularly relevant to how we at the Commons can better support teaching and learning. The session leader, Valerie Claire Haven, who is blind herself, provided much awareness of small changes to a learning environment that can make resources more accessible for students. Valerie noted that just as physical and social aspects play a role in a class environment, so does technology. For example, something as simple as creating a chat window in either a face-to-face or online class, as a place where students can anonymously ask questions without fear or embarrassment, is a great way to use technology to create an open atmosphere. In addition to some really cool devices out there to make technology more accessible, there are great programs and apps to help students in the classroom, including VoiceThread, RoboBraille, AudioNote, Sonocent, and Telegram. Valerie also gave some nice examples of websites that keep students engaged while learning (check out Visual News and Focus@Will).

So, you may ask, how can we create a culture of openness and accessibility in our Commons spaces? For starters, we can make sure that our eyes and ears are always open to technology that can assist learners at all levels. I was recently trained on VoiceThread, a very powerful tool for online commenting and communication within a course, whether through lecture slides, live video and audio comments, or traditional text comments. VoiceThread allows instructors to involve and accommodate all learners (and, as an added bonus, VoiceThread integrates very well with Canvas).

Secondly, we can continue to develop ways of making our resources, such as exemplary student projects and faculty teaching examples, accessible to students and faculty members to promote a community of open learning. We can also use our various new media contests as opportunities to educate students about topics like copyright and Creative Commons licenses. A challenge for us in both Commons spaces involves making sure our online resources are visible and accessible to everyone on campus who wants to use them, and getting the word out about our programs and services to students and faculty.

Do you have suggestions for how we can better develop a culture of openness and accessibility in the Commons? Please let us know at

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