Virtually Connecting the OER Conspiracy Dots

Still working on blogging all the good stuff I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of the last two months. At the same time, I’m also hoping it’s one small way to counteract the feelings of hopelessness in the aftermath of the horrific events of this past weekend. Avanti.


I was part of a few other sessions during my time at OER16, and none of them were “officially” part of the conference. I was part of a quick discussion with John Johnston and Ammie Scott for Edutalk, an interview for the Transferstelle für OER podcast with Jöran Muuß-Merholz (whom I first met at the MIT Hackathon in 2013 that was crucial in the formation of Reclaim Hosting), and a session with Catherine Cronin for Virtually Connecting hosted by Alan Levine. It was an intense two days, but the life of a Reclaimer is always intense.

Anyway, in this post I wanted blog a bit about the Virtually Connecting session at OER16, and I’ll try to follow-up in separate posts on the Edutalk and Transferstelle für OER discussions.  The Virtually Connecting hangout was attended by a wide-range of great folks from all over the world, namely Dimitris Tzouris, Susan Adams, Jamison Miller, Laura Gibbs, Lisa Hammershaimb, Nadinne Aboulgmad, Maha Abdelmoneim, and Helen DeWaard, and while cut a bit short on-site due to conference demands, it was a great  discussion—as Virtually Connecting sessions usually are (this was my second, my first was at dLRN15 and I would soon after OER16 be part of a third session in Rome just three weeks later).

During this discussion I think I actually communicated my unease with the OER movement in the US better than I was able to in my talk the following day. I’m still working through my general discomfort, but one of the anecdotes I relate in this session still haunts me. While talking about OER as political policy in the US with Nicole Allen, one of the players in the field, she noted that OERs as cost savings for students (namely in the form of free textbooks) is increasingly appealing to politicians. But rather than a

Specifically, this argument for OER is appealing to conservatives—in fact the more fringe politicians like Cruz and Trump are more interested than having this discussion than moderate conservatives, and far more interested than Democrats. This is interesting, right? Is it that the idea of OER is bi-partisan? This is an issue that crosses political parties? Well, yes and no. Yes that I imagine both parties want to been perceived as supportive of saving students and families money, but its interesting to me that the more extreme conservative parties would would be more receptive to this push. I had my own brief encounter with a conservative Virginia state senator Bryce E. Reeves while working at DTLT. We had the opportunity to sit down with Senator Reeves and discuss the work we were doing at UMW. He listened attentively, he even proclaimed at one point in his Texas drawl, “You’re like the GODADDY of EDU!” Kinda, sorta. But at the end of the conversation it was apparent he was interested in saving students money, and textbooks were what folks in Richmond were talking about. This is 2014 or so, and for at least some politicians it seemed the line connecting cheap or free textbooks and educational innovation had already been drawn. But it wasn’t about innovation at all, it was about telling voters you were saving them money. Which isn’t terrible, right?

I guess, but what concerns me is at the same time as these money saving proclamations are being made we’re seeing state funding of public higher education at an all time low across the board in the U.S. I can’t help but feel that politically OER are being used as leverage to make the case that politicians are funding higher ed by making it more affordable for struggling students while at the same time cutting funding for public institutions. A political slight of hand, and the fact it’s far more attractive to conservatives than liberals makes me even more nervous, although liberal as a viable term in American party politics seems dubious these days.

So, does the push for OER in the form of a cost saving argument for textbooks feed this bait and switch? I understand the response from those pushing hard on the OER textbook revolution will point out I’m conflating two separate issues, the defunding of public higher ed and textbook costs. And the idea of making a difference where and how you can is crucial, I understand this. But, if statewide OER movements are being used by politicians to say they’re funding higher ed in the form of cheaper textbooks, then how do we account for the concomitant cuts? Is it saving anyone anything in the long run?

What’s more, if the OER movement in its current incarnation of open textbooks is short-lived, that is arguably money redirected from funding institutional, state-funded higher ed to state-wide textbook initiatives. Redirecting funds to such temporary initiatives may be attractive to some, but when the OER initiatives are done that money may not find its way back to Higher Ed. Admittedly I’m a bit out of my depth here because state funding is complex and particular all at once. But it just struck me that senator Reeves would see OER as a good option. Why? Because if you can say you saved folks money while at the same time reducing funding to education, that’s a “win win.” That may seem a leap, but there is really no conspiracy here, funding for HE is not making a comeback anytime soon, so statewide OER funding seems to be a way to counter those arguments for a fraction of the cost of actually funding education. Am I wrong? Or am I just an asshole, Walter?

But I think what gets me most is that I’m not sure textbooks are all that good for the future of higher ed. The gateway drug argument for open doesn’t convince me at all. They not only seem horribly retrograde and unimaginative, but they reinforce a content/coverage mentality of education that continually makes me wonder why we can’t help but remediate the web for the book. I’m not entirely sure how open textbooks are anything like a step forward beyond simply having one (which is no guarantee it will be used). OER still has a use, re-use, and re-mix problem given the amount invested there are real questions around whether OER is being widely used—is it? So, in that regard, tying OER to courses and making sure everyone gets free resources certainly helps solve part of this, but it also ties courses to a specific text(s) that in many ways can become the standardization of the course experience, and a model for the casualization of the higher ed workforce, but that is a whole different conspiracy:)

Anyway, that is my path to the great OER Conspiracy undergirding the conservative dismantling of higher ed. Like EDUPUNK and MOOCs, I would hate to see OER be the latest installment in a long line of useful idiots for cutting, gutting, and redirecting higher ed funding. That said, I could also be wrong, and that’s why God created comments.


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3 Responses to Virtually Connecting the OER Conspiracy Dots

  1. (((Pat))) says:

    I ponder if there is a word for when a word’s meaning is all stretched out of shape and colloquialised over some apogee of redefinition and then moves onto pastures new (gay being one example)

    Thing is, I think open never did this, as for the economists of texas and textbooks, open just fell back onto meaning free, and the moment it means free, then it means savings, and the conversation about it is going to be economical. For those for whom open means access, then it just about worked, but there is no innate reason OER solve access, and so the conversation was basically OER has failed. Whether OER ever intended to improve access is up to whoever decided it did or does to work out.

    It feels a bit over to me

  2. Reverend says:

    Yeah, it seems to me the shift from open as an ethos and means to open as an end and solution suggests a tipping point towards mainstreaming, which may certainly have it advantages, but it it does become a purely economical/practical concern. and maybe with 7 billion people on the planet we need to focus out idea there, but I can see how reproducing the textbook solves our educational problems, just seems to exponentially multiply them—not to mention the idea of “vetted and true” open texts. For me OERs and MOOCs seem more and more these days like the social media/edtech silos we supposedly were trying to escape. I don;t know, I wanna believe, but remediating the web for textbooks just seems such an odd way to move the field of edtech forward.

    • (((Pat))) says:

      But that’s the deal right – after OER12 in Vancouver I just didn’t get textbooks or why so many people cared about them – it is a truly North American issue.

      And then take textbooks back – the textbook fetish outsources some of your teaching to someone else, and so OER is even better as you outsource it to someone else and don’t even have to pay for it.

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