By R. Pires
Opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of the SBVC community.
As the OER movement is quickly moving toward a tipping point, traditional textbook publishers and entrepreneurs are taking note. In February, it was reported that Pearson Publishers, had a £2.6 billion loss in 2016 after multiple profit warnings. According to The Guardian, “the profit warning was prompted by the collapse of its US higher education business, which is struggling with a decline in textbook sales and the transition to digital learning. The US business accounts for two-thirds of Pearson’s revenues and profits” (The Guardian, 2/24/17).
In 2016, McGraw Hill announced it was partnering with Knovation, a company which curates OER, to incorporate open educational resources into its Engrade learning platform for K-12 (Book Business, 2016).
Companies such as McGraw Hill, Knovation and many others are redefining themselves or entering the publishing space to take advantage of the various open educational resources opportunities. These include curation, supplemental and assessment instructional materials, print, and digital learning platforms, among others. Traditional publishers began to repackage their products during a mass student exodus from the college bookstore to emerging power players at the time such as Chegg. Open Stax also emerged as an OER textbook non-profit publisher funded by foundations and whose operations resemble most closely, the traditional publisher model. Today, Open Stax partners with a multitude of for-profit companies.
As immensely profitable publishing corporations struggle to hold on to their textbook oligarchy, and smaller companies create and seize on the opportunities in a newly constructed OER marketspace, these trends are fueling what some believe is a manufactured debate over the definition of open. As with any debate, fake or real, viewpoints reflect ideologies constructed by stakeholders. On one end, OER purists define OER by the following characteristics:
“For something to be an OER – it has to be both (a) freely available to the public and (b) either in the public domain or under an open license that provides 5Rs rights [retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute]” (Cable Green).
Intellectual content creators who give users rights to retain, reuse and redistribute but not revise and remix are considered by some as the most restrictive of the open licenses, while others do not define these as OER. Although this seemingly small difference in what constitutes OER, can subsequently be used to justify other modifications of the OER definition to fit emerging trends.
Companies which offer OER support services come with fees to students or institutions. An opinion piece by Stephen Laster, Chief Digital Officer at McGraw Hill Education, titled The Future of Education Isn’t Free. It’s Open., and published by EdSurge, wrote:
“Learning technology has advanced more in the last five years than the last fifty, but a lack of openness is one of the key factors keeping it from having the massive effect on results that it should. By committing to a more open, collaborative future, we can accomplish our goals by putting students and educators in a better position to achieve theirs. This is not just an imperative for companies—the entire ecosystem needs to adopt these standards too. School districts building their own content, well-meaning philanthropists who are funding developments, policymakers and the Department of Education all need to endorse and insist on these standards. It will create a better world for us all” (EdSurge, 2016).
These points make sense within the context that institutions and faculty often work in the proverbial, silos. But increasingly, the phrase, open is not free is used to refer to the resources most importantly time, that faculty have to devote to adopt OER for their classes. But isn’t this what faculty are supposed to be doing anyway? At first one is inclined to answer in the affirmative, but given the long term trend toward hiring adjunct faculty who are paid mostly for time spent in the classroom, the demands put on a smaller pool of full time faculty, and the unspoken trend of faculty moonlighting (does Teachers Pay Teachers ring a bell), consequently many modern faculty have become dependent on the polished out of the box instructional materials from traditional publishers. Some of these are so technologically advanced that logarithms can now grade subjective assessments, leading one to think that the days of instructional faculty or discipline experts might be numbered.
If companies assist faculty in the 5Rs of OER or OER curation and then pass on for profit fees to students through the adoption of digital learning platforms used to deliver the OER, or impose for profit fees to students in some other manner, the OER therefore might no longer be freely available to students. Furthermore, open licenses such as CC-BY-NC, CC-BY-SA-NC, and CC-ND-NC do not give users rights for commercialization. It therefore makes sense for companies to intentionally, or unintentionally debate the meaning of OER or to take the stand that open is not free. The digital learning platform or the delivery mode of the OER must most likely include some sort of a non-OER instructional component such as assessments, lectures, or multimedia, etc. in order for companies to pass on for profit fees to students.
As a response to Laster’s piece in EdSurge, David Wiley wrote (quote taken from a lengthy response article):
“As far as I can tell, the only people actively engaged in a debate about the meaning of the word “open” in the educational context are (1) those who genuinely misunderstand it because they haven’t become part of the community yet, and (2) those whose business models would collapse if the public had free access to and open licenses for their products. This article seems to fall into the first category” (David Wiley, 2016).
Fast forward to mid-2017 and Jim Luke writes in an article titled What’s Open? Are OER Necessary?
“If openness in resources is defined by permissions to use property, I argue that openness in pedagogy must be measured in terms of freedom, authority, and power of the learning process. To place the resources, the OER, as the prerequisite of openness of pedagogy is to commoditize and reify education itself, ultimately denying the possibility of critical pedagogy. Open pedagogy, and therefore open education and open learning, are more about freedom of action and authority than they are about property permissions” (ECONPROPH, 4/23/17).
Luke is commenting on the discussion whether a course which is not based on OER but is freely accessible, is an open course. This discussion has sparked a wide number of reactions, some of which can be accessed here: https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/25762957/posts/1428527310
Given that legislative turf wars over OER definitions and processes might emerge as profit margins continue to decrease for traditional publishers, one should keep in mind that the reason the OER movement is close to the tipping point is that faculty are tired of the high cost of textbooks as an impediment to student success and access. We should also keep in mind that students are less inclined to care about constructs and more inclined to access textbooks any which way they can such as using their smartphones to photocopy textbook pages freely and openly (terms are used tongue in cheek here) share these copies with others digitally. Some of us faculty overtly or covertly encourage this behavior as an act of social disobedience to a societal economic and political system which has a track record of co-opting social justice issues to serve its own needs.