Of OER and Free Riders

This began as a comment on Heather’s post, but grew unwieldy and so ended up here. Heather’s post is reacting to this quote from an article she read recently: “There is one additional requirement for widespread OER adoption. Incentives need to discourage ‘free-riders’.”

This statement is demonstrably false. Of the 50 colleges in the US today with widespread OER adoption initiatives underway (by “widespread” here I mean that so many faculty across the institutions are adopting OER that it is – or will soon be – possible for students to earn complete degrees using only OER), literally none of them have discouraging incentives like those Annand describes. I could have ended this post here, but there’s more to say.

If you believe that open educational resources are public goods, which they appear to be since they are both non-excludable and non-rivalrous, then it can be hard to avoid bringing the rest of that conceptual framework (including the idea of the free rider problem) to your thinking about OER. If you don’t want to start from scratch as you think about ensuring the long-term sustainability of OER, the empirical and theoretical work already done on the problem of underprovision of public goods can be quite helpful.

Rajiv is right that the term “free rider” can, unfortunately, sound offensive and off-putting – especially if it is used in ways that sound like a criticism of a specific individual rather than a description of macro-level, society-wide behaviors. As we are thoughtful and careful, I think we can reap the benefits of the research already done on this problem without making people feel like we are singling them out. The open education family, as I think of us, has a deep moral and ethical responsibility to be accepting and welcoming of everyone regardless of their specific relationship to OER (e.g., whether they are contributors to OER or users of OER).

I spend quite a bit of time thinking / worrying about these problems. As I vocally and energetically advocate for universally replacing traditional materials with OER, I am acutely aware that there are essentially no OER available for 300 and 400 level courses or graduate courses. Importantly, the free rider problem does not describe a situation in which an individual uses open educational resources without contributing to their creation. It describes a situation in which so few people contribute to their creation that the OER needed by students and faculty never get created – and that accurately describes the current state of upper-level and graduate-level courses today.

If our only model for creating the OER necessary to replace traditional textbooks is to spend $250k of government or philanthropic funding for each and every course offered at each and every university, there is literally no path from here to there. We need to enable and facilitate alternative development models if our vision of universal OER adoption is to become a reality. (It’s no secret that I believe that these future models must be significantly more distributed and stigmergic than current models.)

We don’t need all users of OER to be contributors to OER for there to be a vibrant, healthy ecosystem of open content, assessments, simulations, and other resources for all courses at all levels. But no such ecosystem can ever emerge if no one (or as it stands today, an insufficient number of someones) contributes to the creation and continuous improvement of OER. Regardless of how we label this problem, we have to solve it to create the kind of educational future we want.

If only 2% – 5% of all faculty and their students (who are doing renewable assignments) were active creators and improvers of OER, that would likely be sufficient. If we could then persuade the other 95% – 98% of faculty to universally adopt OER in place of traditional resources, even without contributing any original or improved OER, I would be ecstatic. And I certainly wouldn’t be inclined to call them names.


In case you didn’t see it elsewhere, I’m republishing the press release from Achieving the Dream about the incredibly exciting OER Degrees work that launched today. It’s really happening!

Achieving the Dream Launches Major National Initiative to Help 38 Community Colleges in 13 States Develop New Degree Programs Using Open Educational Resources

OER Degree Initiative will accelerate use of openly licensed learning materials in higher education and cut costs to students while improving degree and certificate completion

SAN FRANCISCO—June 14, 2016—The national community college reform network Achieving the Dream (ATD) today announced the largest initiative of its kind to develop degree programs using high quality open educational resources (OER). The initiative—which involves 38 community colleges in 13 states (see attached list of participating colleges)—is designed to help remove financial roadblocks that can derail students’ progress and to spur other changes in teaching and learning and course design that will increase the likelihood of degree and certificate completion.

The annual costs of textbooks are about $1,300 per year for a full-time community college student and amount to about a third of the cost of an Associate’s degree. This cost, research shows, is a significant barrier to college completion. Students who don’t complete college are over 50 percent more likely than those who graduated to cite textbook costs as a major financial barrier, according to a study by the research firm Public Agenda.

Equally important, using digital and interactive open educational resources such as open courseware will encourage faculty to teach students in more engaging and dynamic ways and invite students to become more actively involved in their own learning. The initiative’s requirement to create entire degree programs using OER also will trigger a careful re-examination of course content and sequencing to build up-to-date, cohesive degree programs. These degrees will be available to a minimum of 76,000 students over a three-year period.

The effort is intended to spark more rapid adoption of OER within higher education, beginning with community colleges. Today, there are enough open educational materials to replace textbooks in required courses in four two-year programs: business administration, general education, natural or general science, and social science. But only a few colleges are using those resources. There is also a significant body of OER in computer science.

The OER Degree Initiative will create a library of high-quality, digital, open courses available to other institutions and the public at large. Making resources easily available to all is expected to encourage OER adoption even at non-participating institutions. 

A Culture Change

“This initiative will help further transform teaching and learning in the nation’s community colleges,” said Dr. Karen A. Stout, President and CEO of Achieving the Dream. “ Extensive use of OER will enable students to have access to more dynamic learning tools and a richer academic experience at a cost that will help more students complete their studies.”

Achieving the Dream recently unveiled a new approach to improving student success and completion that helps colleges develop institutional capacities essential to implementing sweeping initiatives like OER degrees. Leading the OER Degree initiative will allow ATD and the participating colleges to expand their understanding of impactful teaching and learning across entire degree programs.

“Through the OER Degree Initiative, these community colleges are simultaneously addressing two important challenges faced by educators and students: Not only will they provide their faculty the flexibility and academic freedom to align their open educational resources to curriculum objectives, but also, by lowering textbook costs, they will make it far more likely that their students will achieve the goal of attaining a degree,” said Barbara Chow, education program director at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

“Colleges involved in the effort will need to integrate OER into their course redesign processes and update professional development to prepare instructors to use open, digital content most effectively,” said David Wiley, an international expert on OER and Chief Academic Officer of Lumen Learning, a key partner in the initiative. “Over the next three years, colleges will create systems and structures that better connect curriculum and pedagogy to what students need to learn to be successful in academic disciplines and the workplace.”

The $9.8 million in funding for the initiative comes from a consortium of investors that includes the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation, the Shelter Hill Foundation, and the Speedwell Foundation.

Results of Previous Efforts

Colleges and states that have introduced OER initiatives have already seen significant results.

“Some of Virginia’s community colleges have led the way in using OER content exclusively,” says Glenn DuBois, chancellor of Virginia’s community college system. “Studies of our institutions have shown that OER reduces costs and contributes to better grades, higher course completion rates, and faster degree completion.”

Tidewater Community college, for example, was the first community college to adopt an open educational resources degree which enables students to complete a two-year degree in business administration with no textbook costs. Tidewater’s “Z-Degree” program has experienced high student satisfaction levels, improved student retention, and an estimated 25 percent reduction in college costs for students (tuition and books).

Northern Virginia Community College’s pilot OER courses have increased pass rates by nine percent compared to non-OER courses.

A recent multi-school study found that students using OER took an average fall semester credit load of 13.3, compared to 11.1 credits for students using traditional books. If this holds, students using OER would complete their degrees a full year earlier for a 60 credit-hour degree.

How the Initiative Will Work

ATD will help colleges make OER degrees critical elements of their student success efforts. Lumen Learning will provide technical assistance; SRI International will evaluate the initiative and conduct research on how OER degrees impact student success and the institutions providing them; and the Community College Consortium of Open Educational Resources (CCCOER) will facilitate a community of practice.

At the completion of the Initiative, all approved OER courses will be available through a comprehensive, easily accessible online platform.

Achieving the Dream will serve as initiative intermediary, managing grants to all the institutions, overseeing implementation, and ensuring programmatic fidelity. ATD will monitor college progress, provide guidance on change management and institutional transformation, and assure effective integration of OER Degree partner support and guidance.

Colleges Participating in the OER Degree Initiative

Colleges and systems were selected through a competitive grant process based on their ability and capacity to implement OER degree programs, offer the full complement of degree courses quickly, or quickly scale the number of sections offered.

State Institutions
AZ (1) Pima Community College
CA (2) Santa Ana College
West Hills College Lemoore
CT (1) Housatonic Community College
FL (2) Broward College
Florida State College at Jacksonville 
MA (1) Bunker Hill Community College
MD (1) Montgomery College Foundation
MI (1) Bay College
MN (3) Distance Minnesota Consortium (Alexandria Technical and Community College, Northland Community and Technical College, Northwest Tech
NY (9) CUNY Consortium (Borough of Manhattan Community College, Bronx Community College, Hostos Community College)
SUNY Consortium (Clinton Community College, Herkimer Community College, Mohawk Valley Community College, Monroe Community College, Tompkins Cortland Community College
NC (1) Forsyth Technical Community College
TX (8) Odessa College
Texas Consortium: Alamo Colleges (Northeast Lakeview College, Northwest Vista College, Palo Alto College, San Antonio College, St. Philip’s College), Austin Community College, San Jacinto Community College, El Paso Community College
VA (6) Virginia Community College Consortium (Central Virginia Community College, Germanna Community College, Lord Fairfax Community College, Mountain Empire Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, Tidewater Community College)
WA (2) Lake Washington Institute of Technology
Pierce College


Achieving the Dream, Inc. is a national nonprofit that is dedicated to helping more community college students, particularly low-income students and students of color, stay in school and earn a college certificate or degree.


The tl;dr:

  • Supporting effective OER adoption at scale has its problems.
  • Many of these problems have openly licensed solutions.
  • Sometimes it makes sense to deploy these solutions yourself; sometimes it makes more sense to work with a partner.

Background and Some Problems

To put it in a depressingly small nutshell, I spent the first decade or so of my career creating open licenses to make the sharing of OER legally possible, traveling the world talking to people about why they might want to place an open license on their educational materials and other creative works, experimenting with different open pedagogies in my own teaching, and conducting empirical research about the impacts of OER adoption on outcomes for students, faculty, and institutions.

Upon reflection several years ago, I came to see that despite all my efforts I was making the classic Field of Dreams mistake (“if we build it, they will come”) by assuming that “if OER exist in a faculty’s discipline and research shows them to be effective in supporting learning, faculty will adopt.” This turned out to be true only for a very narrow range of faculty – generally those who were previously innovation-minded (those same seven or so faculty on each campus that eagerly try every new thing). If OER adoption were to become widespread among the majority of faculty, it became clear that someone would need to do something more than create OER, post it on a website, and give conference talks about it. This is why we started writing grants focused exclusively on supporting OER adoption rather than on funding new OER creation. After all, there are over a billion CC-licensed works now – not everything we need, certainly – but enough that it felt like someone ought to be focused on helping faculty use what is there.

Over the last several years my fellow travelers at Lumen and I have learned a lot of painful lessons about supporting OER adoption among faculty. (In fact, I think it’s safe to say that we know more about ineffective OER adoption techniques than anyone!) However, working through and responding to these early challenges together with amazing collaborators at a wide range of 2-year and 4-year institutions around the country, we’ve learned something about how to support effective OER adoptions, too.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some our earliest and most painful experiences with supporting effective OER adoption involved the campus learning management system (LMS). From the very beginning, we have felt strongly that learners should work with OER directly inside their LMS. Sending learners outside the LMS to a secondary system is bad for a range of reasons, including the fact that it creates extraneous cognitive load by forcing students to dedicate some degree of attention and learning to the second system’s novel interface, meaning this attention and effort is unavailable for the purpose of learning biology or history.

As we worked on our first OER adoption support grant (a Wave I Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) grant) we began by helping faculty cut and paste OER directly inside their LMSs. This, of course, turned out to be a complete nightmare. We manually rebuilt each course half a dozen times or more, in Blackboard, Sakai, Canvas, and other systems. Given the differences in Common Cartridge implementations across systems, a clean build was often faster and always less error-prone than a CC import and cleanup, especially when you never knew what was going to break where.

It also became clear rather quickly that this approach essentially threw OER to the wind, making it “difficult” to make timely, critical improvements. Say, as a purely hypothetical example, that a member of a faculty team accidentally included a copyrighted resource in a collection of OER. Once those (supposed) OER were copied and pasted in half a dozen LMSs at a dozen institutions, and they began the local course cloning process for faculty, how do you put that genie back in the bottle? (I’m asking for a friend.) The flip side of this problem is that there’s also no way for positive changes that faculty make to OER – revisions and remixes that might benefit everyone – to propagate back up to the community. Everything is trapped inside the LMS.

And because you’ve trapped your OER inside the LMS, the day after class ends all your students lose access to their OER. Think about that for a minute. Philosophically, the idea that the LMS deny students access to OER was the most annoying of all the problems.

And then there were the attribution problems. The most enlightened LMSs provided an option for you to CC license your course materials. Unfortunately, this was a course level setting that resulted in a single CC license icon / attribution statement being shown in the footer of every page. Of course, this approach to attribution only works if every OER in the course comes from the same source and was published under the same license. Having the wrong attribution – or license – listed for a resource is highly problematic. Licensing is critically important and needs to be handled correctly.

To solve this problem we turned off course level CC licensing tools, created our own attribution generator that spit out HTML, and started appending the correct attributions to the bottom of every page throughout each course. It turns out that while faculty hate plagiarism, they don’t always immediately “get” the attribution requirement of open licenses. For whatever reason, sometimes they just deleted the attribution statements from the pages in their courses – so that the resources weren’t attributed at all. Now combine this problem (missing attribution) with the previous one (throwing OER to the wind), where a resource that is missing attribution is propagated across course shells for all the faculty who teach a course on a campus…

Feel like hitting your head against a brick wall yet? We did.

Working Towards Answers

With project funding from the Shuttleworth Foundation, and in consultation with our institutional partners, we began working on an alternative approach that would allow us to have our cake and eat it, too. The idea was to extend the open source WordPress software in ways that would make it an extremely lightweight and easy to use OER management and integration platform – that would still embed OER directly within the LMS for learners.

WordPress was a great choice for many reasons. Its editing tools are so easy to use that your grandmother probably has a blog (by some estimates over 20% of all sites on the web run on WordPress). This would keep faculty training requirements as low as they can be kept. WordPress automatically versions updates to each page, so that you can easily (and programatically) see which resources have been revised / remixed and which have not, making it easy to flag improvements for review and possible upstream adoption. And of course WordPress pages have stable URLs that will persist after a course ends, so that students can have ongoing access to resources. The open source Pressbooks plugin makes some revise / remix tasks simpler (e.g., drag and drop changing of chapter order) and makes it significantly easier to export resources in formats that humans can use, like PDF and ePub. And since it’s also open source, the Lumen dev team have been able to make several contributions to the Pressbooks codebase.

Starting from here, we built a new, open source CC licensing plugin for WordPress with a focus on creating and managing multiple attributions per page (because we wanted to have strong, native support for revise and remix). In addition to capturing and managing licensing information as page metadata (instead of directly within the content of the page as we had done previously), this tool also lets you roll up, view, and manage all the attributions in a course from a single page in the WordPress admin.

Then we created a new, open source LTI plugin and a new, open source Thin Common Cartridge plugin for WordPress. The Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) plugin allows you to embed content directly within the LMS so learners see content where they expect it to be and there’s no interruption in the learning experience. The overwhelming majority of learners can’t tell the content hasn’t been copied and pasted directly into their LMS (except that when you can control the styling, your LTI-ed content often looks quite a bit nicer than the surrounding LMS). The Thin CC plugin allows you to create a Common Cartridge comprised exclusively of LTI links to all the resources you’re managing back in WordPress. This way, with one export / import, you automatically create individual LTI links to all your WordPress-based OER within the LMS (one link in the LMS for every WordPress page). Then faculty can use LMS tools to rearrange, remove, or organize links in modules or folders, depending on their system’s UI paradigm, and they can jump to the Lumen platform to do more significant revising and remixing (adding or changing photos, removing, adding, or rewriting examples, etc.).

(We’re still working on a new, open source outcomes alignment plugin for WordPress. This plugin currently works, allowing you to align resources in WordPress with learning outcomes, but the authoring experience still leaves something to be desired. The same is true of the Open Assessments tool which we use a lot and are active contributors to.)

By creating, extending, and integrating these open source tools, we’ve been able to overcome these and many other problems we had faced over and over again. The answer was to move the managing, attributing, revising, and remixing work outside the LMS, while still allowing learners to use OER within the LMS. For us, this has been classic open source work as characterized by Eric Raymond in The Cathedral and the Bazaar – “Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.” And this approach has been very well received by students and faculty alike.

If you’ve been tracking carefully, you may be a little confused at this point. OER are freely available and come with 5R permissions. Lumen has spent a lot of time, effort, and money creating an OER management and integration platform that solves many of the most common OER adoption problems, which is also free and open source. This may lead you to ask – how does Lumen continue to exist? Why on earth would anyone ever pay to work with Lumen? There are many answers to these questions; let me briefly discuss the ones most germane to the lessons learned I discussed above.

Of Red Hat and Reclaim

First things first – some people will never pay to work with Lumen – and that’s fine. They’ll install and configure our open source software and load it up with open content from all over the world (probably some of the same OER we’ve worked with faculty to curate and aggregate). They’ll double check that the licensing and attribution are correct on the OER they’re using. They’ll provide training and support to their faculty, they’ll host and provide technical support for the platform, and (hopefully) they’ll do their own analytics work and effectiveness research. Power to these people! That independent, self-supporting spirit is a big part of what open is all about! Hopefully, many of them will contribute improvements to the components of the Lumen platform, just as we contribute to other open source projects.

Institutions that aren’t in a position to provide all these services themselves, and institutions for whom it costs less to partner with Lumen than it would to provide these services themselves, will likely choose to partner with Lumen. In this regard, we’re a bit like Red Hat. Or, if you prefer an example closer to home, Reclaim Hosting. They curate and extend open source software with their Domain of One’s Own approach to owning and managing your digital presence. Any institution could go grab the same open source software, do the integration work, and run their own, similar project without partnering with Reclaim. But it’s generally easier and less expensive (not to mention more fun) to just work with Reclaim than it is to recreate their efforts. Institutions partner with Lumen because we provide faculty training and support, checks of OER licensing and attribution, hosting and technical support for our platform, and analytics and effectiveness research – as well as other services like strategic and change management consulting for academic leadership. And because that kind of work – the work specific to supporting effective OER adoption – is all we do, we can often do it both more affordably and more effectively than a single institution can.

Institutions also choose to partner with Lumen simply because we have more experience with OER adoption than they do. We’ve provided direct support for programmatic OER adoptions at 80-ish campuses around the country and have seen a wide range of more and less effective models. We’ve also created a highly effective model for developing, running, and supporting fully OER-based degree programs (we currently support over a dozen of these, but that number is going to change dramatically next week – stay tuned). And perhaps most importantly, from that very first NGLC grant down until today, we’ve connected faculty and institutions into a broad network of other faculty and institutions that are going through the same OER adoption process they are, creating opportunities for collaboration and networking across institutional boundaries.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but I think it hits the high points relative to the problems and solutions I described above.