Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Real Goal of Open Educational Resources

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, Nov 15, 2017

1. The Goal of Open Access

David Wiley says, "The question we must each ask ourselves is – what is the real goal of our OER advocacy?" In this he's right. It's time for us to be clear about what we're working for.

The goal of OER is access for all.

This is my goal, though I don't think it's just my goal. I think it's the goal of the vast majority of those working for open educational resources (OER).

  • UNESCO - "UNESCO believes that universal access to high quality education is key to the building of peace, sustainable social and economic development, and intercultural dialogue."
  • The Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER) - "We believe that students should have equal access to high quality instructional materials in order to achieve their academic goals."
  • Creative Commons - "With the internet, universal access to education is possible, but its potential is hindered by increasingly restrictive copyright laws and incompatible technologies..."
  • OER Commons - "The worldwide OER movement is rooted in the human right to access high-quality education."
  • NOLWAZI - "It was always intended as an easily accessible resource for use by schools, educators and the South African community."
  • SPARC - "The foundation of Open Education is Open Educational Resources (OER), which are teaching, learning, and research resources that are free of cost and access barriers."
  • OER Lebanon - "Our mission is to ensure that the benefits of open educational resources reach every school and university in Lebanon and to foster equal access to quality education through the adoption of OER."
  • Hewlett Foundation - "Open Educational Resources are teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions."
  • Alberta Education - "By supporting the assessment, development, and use of open educational resources at post-secondary institutions, this initiative will encourage flexibility and access for all Alberta learners."
  • UNESCO (again) - "For students, OERs offer free access to some of the world's best courses and even degree programs... For teachers, ministries of education and governments, OERs provide free and legal access to some of the world's best courses."
  • University of Kansas - "OER is an approach to overcoming cost and reuse barriers to the benefit of students and instructors."
  • Ohio University - "The aim of Open Access (OA) is to disseminate scholarly research free of charge."OER ensures that students have access to all course material from the first day of class."
  • African Digital Library - "The objective of the ADL is to develop a digital library that is available free-of-charge, to residents and institutions of Africa, for academic and business use."
  • University of Cape Town - "an OER is a teaching and learning resource created and licensed in such a way that promotes some or all of the following: free and easy retention, redistribution, reuse, revision, and remixing."
  • eCampus Ontario - "OER (Open Educational Resources) are free, making them accessible for learners of all socioeconomic backgrounds"
  • - "Proponents of open education believe everyone in the world should have access to high-quality educational experiences and resources, and they work to eliminate barriers to this goal."
  • Niagara College - "Open educational resources, or OER, are items free of licence or royalty fees for reuse in an educational context."
  • USC - "Education for all, no matter income level, remains an important tenet at USC. OER enables all learners to get involved in cultivating new skills, and further their career."
  • SAIDE - OER Africa - "Open Educational Resources (OER) refers to educational resources that are freely available for use by educators and learners, without the need to pay royalties or licence fees."
  • University of Queensland - "OERs allow for: free and legal access to high quality content"

I could continue this list indefinitely but I think the point is clear that, in addition to just me, a great many, and probably a majority, of OER advocates do so for the purpose of ensuring access for all.

This is not Wiley's objective:

Personally, my goal is not to provide less expensive access to the same teaching and learning experience to more people – access and affordability have never been my end game. 

This is probably something he could have said more clearly a bit earlier to the governments and foundations that funded his work. A lot of people who are working for access to all could have used the money.


2. The Influence of Publishers

David Wiley is concerned because of the publishers. He writes:

"In the new context of inclusive access models, arguments about 'reducing the cost of college' and providing students with 'day one access' are increasingly ineffective at persuading faculty to adopt OER because publishers have completely co-opted these messages."

I would suggest that faculty weren't interested in offering or using open access long before publishers changed their prices. This follows decades of work with academics in an effort to persuade them to support open access, work that led to the conclusion that academics would have to be mandated to use open access, or they wouldn't use it at all. And in the context of the current discussion, academics are least likely to support some model of commercial open access or access requiring the use of CC-by.

So the argument based on the need for "persuading faculty" is a red herring. A majority of faculty have always been indifferent to the benefits of open access, including open educational resources, and this has been true for decades. 

And while discussing "inclusive access" policies (the program whereby students are charged for textbooks as part of their course registration and tuition costs) Wiley suggests that the work for OER advocates has been done for them by publishers:

"If improving access and affordability are your end goal, you may be starting to feel like your work is just about finished – inclusive access models are delivering day one access and drastically lowered costs to students."

First of all, as I noted in my previous post on this subject, any cost savings here are probably illusory. But even more to the point, these policies represent no cost savings at all to a person who cannot afford to pay university tuition in the first place. When OER advocates talk about "access for all" they are rarely, if ever, taking only about tuition-paying students.

Access for all means access for all.

And that, again, is why the 'faculty persuasion' argument is a red herring. For those people who cannot afford access to faculty - which by my count is somewhere around 97 percent of the population (225 million out of 7 billion) the decision of a faculty member one way or another is for the most part irrelevant. 

Wiley says "Cost is no longer the most effective argument for adopting OER." But he has utterly no evidence to prove that. If anything, the evidence says the opposite, as I have shown.


3. Cost and Price

Wiley says,

Because Pearson has the exclusive rights to distribute this title (Campbell's Biology), there is no competition and you'll pay over $200 for a new copy. On the other hand, the public domain title Pride and Prejudice is about $8 per new paperback copy

In fact, I can buy Campbell's Biology right now for about $CAD 97 (about $US 70) on Amazon. It will be used, of course. 10th edition. I can buy the 3rd edition for about $CAD 18. This brings us close to Pride and Prejudice territory.  Campbell's Biology is still fully copyrighted (and will be until 2099). Pride and Prejudice, as noted, is a public domain work. These numbers strongly suggest that there is a lot more to textbook prices than licensing.

Price is based on willingness to pay. Exclusive rights over something nobody wants is worth nothing. The publisher (in cooperation with the universities) creates demand for the work by making it a required text (and then releasing edition after edition after edition of the work to discourage used book sales). 

But none of this matters a whole lot, except to university students.

The real barrier here is the $8 cost per copy of Pride and Prejudice. Even at $8 per book, most people in the would cannot afford even a small fraction of the world's literature. That's why we (still) need libraries, and cost-free digital copies, and the rest of it. That's why access, over and above mere licensing, remains an issue.

The price matters, and for most people in the world the price matters more than the license. A free fully-copyrighted book in the hand is worth much more than an unaffordable open-licensed book any day. Unless, of course, the real benefit of open licenses is that the resources are free.


4. The Community Model

Wiley gives two reasons for eschewing the community-based model of sustaining open educational resources.

First, citing Linus Torvalds, he says, "Don't EVER make the mistake that you can design something better than what you get from ruthless massively parallel trial-and-error with a feedback cycle." Of course, Torvalds is talking about software, not business models.

But in this context I will repeat something I've said many times to David Wiley around the issues of business models and licensing: you can do whatever you want with your work and your content. I don't care. But don't tell us what to do with ours

This was the case for open licenses - I've been happy for people to choose whatever they want, whether it's CC-0, CC-by or CC-by-NC-SA. I choose the last, but whatever other people choose will work for me. Wiley, on the other hand, as consistently argues against CC-by-NC-SA. 

He's doing the same thing with OER business models. Here's an excerpt from his earlier post on OER:

I've been shouting this from the rooftops for months now (most recently in July). And yet here we are again, with OER characterized as nothing more than a free textbook and, consequently, inclusive access held up as a reasonable alternative to OER. When we allow the false notion that OER are free textbooks to prevail, this is what we get. 

Does that read like a pro-diversity sentiment? Or does that read like somebody who is convinced that he has designed something better than everybody else?

Second, Wiley is clear that he wants to focus on the three percent. "I continue to be interested in the formal learning that happens in accredited institutions that award recognized credentials," he writes.

He has some good reasons for this: 

  • "Those credentials continue to be one of the best paths to achieving economic security for oneself and family," and
  • "These students are not roaming autodidacts who, left to their own (digital) devices, will thrive and succeed as 'free range learners'." 

Fair enough. But my support for community-based learning is not the reason why I advocated community-based sustainability of open educational resources. I made clear in my OECD paper that I felt that none of the other models would sustainably provide access for all.


5. Open Pedagogy

Wiley writes,

"Stephen is also upset that I accuse people of "'not talking about open pedagogy' when they take a perspective that is not based in the precious 5 Rs." Because no one knows what 'open pedagogy' means, I am very careful not to use that term and I made no such accusation in my post."

Sure, now. But it was a pretty constant refrain in the past.

  • From 2013, we have his post What is Open Pedagogywhere he says "the ultimate test of whether or not a particular approach or technique can rightly be called "open pedagogy" – is it possible without the free access and 4R permissions characteristic of open educational resources?"
  • From last April, when he asks, How is Open Pedagogy Different? he writes "open pedagogy is the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical in the context of the 5R permissions."

After discussion with proponents of open pedagogy, he said, "I need a completely empty phrase that I can fill with my specific meaning so that there can be no confusion about definitions when the term is used."

He came up with OER-Enabled Pedagogy

But, first, he still argues that this definition is still in play as part of open pedagogy. "For some definitions of 'open pedagogy,' OER-enabled pedagogy can be categorized as a form of open pedagogy (but not for other definitions)."

But more to the point, the term OER isn't completely empty. People have been using it for 15 years to mean something pretty specific, and which has during all that time been associated with a particular set of benefits.

He writes, "Exploring and leveraging the new ways of learning enabled by open licenses is the core of what OER-enabled pedagogy is all about." Most people would read that as meaning "exploring and leveraging the new ways of learning generated though access to all." I think it's pretty clear that Wiley means something different.


6. The Business Model

I won't linger on this too long.

Wiley argues that the books are available in the Lumen OER repository and the software is available in the Lumen Github site. And he adds,

if you want Lumen staff to be responsible and accountable for running, managing, and supporting your OER-related infrastructure, yes, we charge for that 

and I have no problem with that. 

But that isn't the whole story. This is from last April:

Through the partnership, Follett will make Lumen Learning's OER courseware available to institutions through Follett's IncludED™ program and Follett Discover™ infrastructure. The seamless integration makes it easy for faculty members to find and evaluate Lumen's OER course materials, and through the IncludED™ program, students pay low-cost Lumen course support fees ranging from $10 to $25, far less than the average cost of a commercial textbook.

This read to me as though while it is being made to look like Lumen is charging only for running and managing an OER infrastructure, students are actually paying for the textbooks.

Wiley explained, at the time, 

The Follett partnership is focused on two of Lumen's offerings – Waymaker and OHM (Online Homework Manager). Both of these products wrap significant additional functionality around OER.

OK, then. So I should just be able to use the Waymaker software to download and use the OER materials in the same way the students paying the $10-$25 fee are using it. Right? So, OK, over to the previously mentioned GitHub repository. Hm. Not there. Perhaps on the Waymaker site? Nope, no download there either. Actually, if I want to see it at all, I have to request a demo

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Lumen isn't wrapping OERs around commercial software and then getting institutions to require that students pay a fee in order to access them. 

But if you can imagine that I'm right, you can probably also imagine what my thoughts would be about the proprietor of such a model saying that we shouldn't talk cost and free access when we talk about the benefit of OER.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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Last Updated: Jul 19, 2024 9:02 p.m.

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