Message of Caution from an OER Advocate

 In 2011, when MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) captured the collective consciousness of educators; the ever rising tuition fees, runaway textbooks costs, and out of control college debt were already topics of discussion in all facets of the American society, a society still in recovery from the financial devastation of the Great Recession.

The social conditions were therefore ripe for legislators to embrace open educational resources as a way to disrupt the tight hold of the traditional textbook publisher oligopoly. Slowly but consistently, the passage of seemingly inconsequential bills authored by different legislators set into motion a movement which is surely to conclude with a total transformation of the college textbook market in California.

But can OER impact academic freedom? For example, once zero-cost-textbook-degrees begin to be implemented, could discipline faculty be required to use standardized OER materials across the CCC system? When sections in which faculty use OER exclusively begin to be publically documented in the schedule of classes, will this create pressure for other faculty to adopt OER? OER offers the promise of student equity. This is what makes the OER movement so irresistible and why it is quite easy to become a passionate OER crusader. However, can these well meaningful intentions have unintended consequences?

Recently, various federal agencies including the Department of Education have instituted mandates which require grant awardees who develop intellectual property to openly license such content (U.S. Department of Education). In 2013, the CCC BOG also voted to require the creation of content under contracts or grant funding awarded by the CCC State Chancellor’s Office to have a Creative Common attribution license while in the past such copyrights were retained by the chancellor’s office (CCC Chancellor’s Office). There is some indication that content creators do not necessarily support these open license policies since these regulations allow anyone to reproduce and repackage, possibly even for commercial purposes intellectual property in ways that were not originally intended (Inside HigherEd).

With new government mandates on grant-funding and the #GoOpen federal initiative, a warning bell sounds. Michael McShane, Director of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute in Missouri fears that a strong push for OER over a short period of time might actually put textbook publishers out of business before viable OER can be implemented (Education Dive).

Similar concerns can be echoed at local college bookstores. College bookstores which operate on small profit margins might not be able to sustain their already fragile existence as the number of faculty adopting OER increase. Planning is critical since the college bookstore is an integral component to student success especially among traditionally underserved students.

There is no doubt educators will support and adopt open source instructional materials. But while we become enticed by the benefits of OER, we should guard academic freedom and participate in local and state collegial processes carefully weighing short term gains with possible long term detriment.

For More Information

Open Access and Academic Freedom

Can a professor be forced to assign a $180 textbook?

Contours of Academic Freedom

Who Holds the Rights?

Academic Freedom vs. Mandated Course Content

Bookstore or College Store: Building a Relationship

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