It was pretty hard for me not to do a double-take while reading David Wiley’s recent post about the “cost trap” of OERs. While I agree with the fact that defining educational resources around cost savings is uninspired, I found this a bit strange coming from Wiley. It seems to me, and I could be wrong here, that much of the push around OERs for the last several years has been just that: how much money free textbooks have saved students. In fact, I was one of the panelists at the Virginia Community College conference wherein David spoke about a free degree using OERs that led to Tidewater Community College’s Zero Degree program —or Z-Degree. A degree centered on providing free textbooks for all classes in a major with the explicit goal of saving students money.
That was probably around 2012 or 2013, and I was impressed (like many others I’m sure) with how Wiley was able to frame the cost-savings argument around open textbooks to build broader interest for OERs. And while I continue to find the discussion around OER textbooks uninspired, I did realize that it was the argument administrators and politicians were responding most warmly to. I got firsthand experience of just that when I served on the state sanctioned committee OpenVA that was working to explore visions of open pedagogy, open infrastructure, and open educational resources for higher ed institutions in Virginia. Of those three flavors of open, if you will, it seemed easiest for politicians and administrators alike to double down on investing in textbooks rather than pedagogy and infrastructure.
Why? Well, quite simply, the promise of saving people money was too powerful. It is a compelling argument in an age of academic austerity. As we heard from Virginia state senator Bryce E. Reeves first hand at UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies in 2014, OERs provide a handy way for politicians to promise savings despite rising tuition due to lack of state funding. It seemed more a political distraction that uses the rhetoric of cost savings to distract from the the long con of gutting higher ed.
But regardless of how I felt about it, it was working for OER adoption in Virginia and beyond. The cost-savings argument quickly morphed into a question of access, and taking issue with this could quickly put one in the uncomfortable position of ostensibly arguing against saving students money. Try to do that cleanly on Twitter 🙂 I chalked up my discontent with the continued funneling of attention and resources at OERs to both argument envy and a political game I have no interest in playing (OpenVA was hard for me in that regard).
I continued my work with domains, web hosting infrastructure, and supporting faculty and students in that pursuit. I have also occasionally talked about the issues I have with OERs (namely they’re textbooks, they’re fairly boring, and they eat up most of the edtech conversation/resources), but I try to refrain from being unpleasant. But to read a post in 2017 claiming OERs are not about cost savings but rather open licenses and pedagogy is just too good a clickbait not to bite (I am bad at that). Stephen Downes did most of the heavy lifting breaking down Wiley’s argument in this post on Half an Hour, so I would recommend you read that for a far better job then I can ever dream of doing. But unlike Stephen I don’t really mind if Lumen makes money off providing seamless access to open textbooks for institutions. At Reclaim Hosting we make money off hosting open source applications every day. I think you can run a business premised on open source applications and still provide something folks are more than willing to pay for (which in our case is by and large support).
But what does bother me a bit is the suggestion that OERs have not been primarily (and very intentionally) marketed as a cost saving strategy for years now. And the idea of pivoting away from that at the exact moment Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill are adopting that approach seems a bit too convenient. I fear it is OER wanting it both ways. What do you offer when cheaper is no longer enough? Well, you can return to the authenticity of the pedagogical experience of open and reassert the primacy of the open license. But when you do this, the Creative Commons license (as well as the 5 Rs) seem to be just as much a brand as anything those corporate publishers are doing to corner the market. The whole OER licensing discussion just seems like a jockeying for political capital, resources, and moral high ground when we all know it is little more than Learning Objects 2.0. And like Learning Objects, some simple questions still remain unclear: What are the OER adoption rates over time? Are OERs being re-used? How much grant funding has been spent on OERs versus savings for students? Etc. But at the end of the day, at least for me, OERs are about as far from fun, experimental educational technology as you can get—and the crisis of faith in open education right now is rooted in the fact that OERs (as in textbooks) have become the monolithic representation of that movement despite their utter lack of inspiration—framing them around cost savings (or not) won’t change this.