Jennifer Kepka has been working for years to make higher education accessible to more people, especially those with barriers to regular classroom attendance. But her work in online educational resources is just one of the reasons this year’s Outstanding Graduate Student Award recipient reaps praise from her advisers and nominators.
“Jennifer’s work is more than a tertiary encounter with technology; it is obvious that she is practicing a fully engaged and intentional approach to technology use in her own learning, teaching and education. She models what we seek to teach,” wrote Professor Mary Bucy and Assistant Professor Greg Zobel.
Kepka, who now has added a master’s in Education – Information Technology from WOU to a master’s in creative writing from the University of Oregon, has been a part-time faculty member at two community colleges while furthering her studies, so she understands the need for accessible courses that are available online. She’s also a big believer in open source software, which is free and available for anyone to use and modify.
“Some of the course design strategies I learned at WOU have helped me create better classes,” she said. “I’ve been using and creating open educational resources, free textbooks students can use and access online. Since I work with community college populations, (having free books) has increased the students’ ability to access the class. Lower-income students can’t afford the books.”
Kepka’s current project, creating universal textbooks for Writing 121 and 122 courses, was funded by a state grant she landed after successfully navigating a smaller job.
“The textbooks will be freely available nationwide, but they are meant to be Oregon-specific, first-level college composition resources,” she explained. “I had to either find or create a standard textbook. I had taught those classes before, and I’d already done some research on what that curriculum looks like. But it’s different from institution to institution.”
She’s all right with the fact that the book she created is just a guideline that professors can use — it’s not a requirement. “Since it’s Creative Commons, they can adapt or change it however they want. They can package it and sell it at their bookstore.”
Kepka won’t see any royalties as a result of the project, but money was never her motivation. She just wants to ease the path toward public education however she can.
“I’m just part-time faculty, so no one is knocking down my door to publish a textbook,” she said with a chuckle. “This way, I have a chance to present the materials that people can select.”
Kepka is already transitioning to her next project: a doctoral program through Boise State University that’s — you guessed it — all online. Zobel suggested the program to her, and she was able to land a coveted graduate assistantship, which covers her tuition. The Educational Technology program involves two years of coursework followed by time spent on the dissertation.
Kepka has a lot on her plate, but she’s working hard to keep all the balls in the air. “Let’s just say my organizational skills are constantly evolving.”
The Outstanding Graduate Student Award honors a student who has demonstrated superior achievements in scholarship and academics, character, leadership and initiative during graduate studies.