Andrew Rickard has written a thoughtful essay on OER, open pedagogy, and commercial interests. In it, he reflects on several topics, including his honest misgivings about the recent OpenStax / Knewton partnership announcement. His doubts are not unique; I think there is a broad sense of uneasiness regarding the participation of commercial players in the open education space. And I think it’s a topic we should be talking about more.

In the interest of transparency let me remind the reader that I co-founded and currently work at Lumen Learning, a for-profit entity that works in the open education space. And let me preface this post by saying that Adam posed a thoughtful question deserving a thoughtful response, but on reflection I see that below I’m responding more to my personal experiences and observations of the past several years than I am his specific post. Sorry, Adam.

I wrote thousands of words in response to Andrew’s post which maybe I’ll share at some point in the future. But the overall logic of my response is equivalent to the way we think about Type I and Type II error. In essence, it’s impossible to select a single decision rule about the involvement of commercial interests in open education that will be “acceptable” (by whatever metric you care to use) in all cases where it will need to be applied. Therefore, you need to consider the two types of errors that might result from potential decision rules and decide which type of error you are most comfortable making.

  1. Decision rules that preclude commercial interests from being involved in OER will ensure that no company ever profits from OER created by volunteers and nonprofits, but will also ensure that no company ever contributes, improves, or provides support for OER.
  2. Decision rules that allow commercial interests to be involved in OER create the possibility that a company will contribute, improve, or provide support for OER, but also create the possibility that a company will profit from OER created by volunteers and nonprofits.

Where do you land?

Think about our older sibling, the open source software movement. (While making analogies between open content and open source software can be dangerous, I think a closer look at open source software has something to offer us here.) The thriving open source ecosystem is comprised of individual volunteers and altruists, universities and other nonprofits, as well as major corporations and startups. And this is critically important, because in the same way that biodiversity is critical to the success and sustainability of natural ecosystems, incentive diversity is critical to the success and sustainability of the open source ecosystem.

There are an infinite number of reasons to contribute to an open source project. As a few examples, some people contribute to open source projects because they love the ideals of open source, some people contribute to open source projects because it is a condition of their research grant, and some people contribute to open source projects because their employers pay them to. While that last may seem counterintuitive (why would a for-profit company pay it’s employees to give their work away?) the practice is widespread. For example, as IBM describes on a page dedicated to open source we read:

IBM has committed to open source in a big way with contributions to more than 120 projects, including more than $1 billion in Linux development.

Likewise, Google has open sourced over 20 million lines of code in over 900 projects, Facebook has released dozens of projects as open source, and the list could go on and on.

These and many other companies are both active users of open source software and active contributors to open source software. Would the open source ecosystem be healthier and more sustainable if companies were precluded from participating? Pretend for a moment that such a feat could be accomplished. Would the “cost” (in terms of lost contributions to open source projects) of preventing IBM, Google, Facebook, and other companies from profiting from open source software be worth the “reward” of ensuring that no company ever benefits financially from the work of volunteer or nonprofit open source contributors? I believe the answer is a resounding NO. Imagine where core pieces of internet infrastructure – like Linux or Apache or hundreds of others – would be without the contributions of companies who are active users of open source software paying their employees to contribute to open source software…

The internet would be a vastly different, and markedly inferior, place.

The same logic applies to OER, but as a community we continue to cut off our nose to spite our face. I believe that part of the reason the open education movement continues to struggle with sustainability is because there is a dangerous lack of diversity in our incentive ecosystem. For whatever reason, several people in our field are very vocal about their distrust of (or utter contempt for) for-profit participants. When would-be entrants into our community are met with loud assertions that they can never participate or make contributions in a way the community will value, do we wonder why they don’t stay (or even show up)?

This is a place where the open education movement would do well to learn a lesson from the open source movement. The OER ecosystem will be far stronger, more robust, and more vibrant as we (1) increase the number of people who participate in using, creating, and improving OER and (2) increase the diversity of incentives that drive their participation in our community. Yes, there will be for-profit companies who will free ride, extracting more from the commons than they contribute. There will be individuals and nonprofits who will free ride, too. There will be companies who will violate community norms. There will be individuals and nonprofits who will violate them, too. There will be companies who do things we think are ridiculous or who will make absurd claims. There will be individuals and nonprofits who will embarrass us, too (present company included).

Once you realize what the opportunity cost of preventing occasional bad or annoying behavior would be, it becomes clear that it’s in our community’s overwhelming interest to tolerate it. We are, after all, supposed to be the open education community. If we were more accepting, welcoming, and inviting of diversity, perhaps we would have more success catalyzing the change we are collectively trying to make.



The Second Power of Open

Robin DeRosa has written an absolutely wonderful post about two of her experiences with open pedagogy. I am so grateful to her for doing so! Reading these stories filled my heart with glee and my soul with joy. And if that sounds hyperbolic, I assure you that I’m understating the effect her post had on me.

I frequently tell the stories of Project Management for Instructional Designers and The Open Education Reader in talks I give, but I’ve never taken the time to write something as thorough as Robin’s account of her experiences. I kept finding myself silently shouting “Yes!!” as I read her post. “That’s exactly how I feel!” It’s amazing how moving it is to find you have a shared experience with someone, especially when that experience has affected you so powerfully.

Now that Robin has written this piece about open pedagogy viz textbooks, maybe I’ll write a piece about a different open pedagogy experience, like the “kung fu assignment” I love so much (e.g., Blogs vs WikisDistrict Policies Regarding Blogs and Wikis, or Rick Noblenski: Blasting Caps Expert and Wiki Advocate). The field needs many more first-hand accounts of the power of open pedagogy, including both the impact it has on students and the impact it has on faculty. Reading them is truly inspiring.

Many conversations about open education begin with cost savings because open is such a powerful lever for making immediate and dramatic progress on issues related to affordability. And because many more people understand cost than understand pedagogy, I don’t expect this will ever change. That’s fine – radically improving affordability is a completely worthy and honorable goal.

Perhaps we should start talking about open pedagogy as the “second power of open.” Perhaps that language, which has a clear and specific referent, would help a broader group of people understand that there’s even more to open than they realized. (Also, in a mathy sort of way , it sounds exponentially bigger than the first power of open would be, which I believe it is.)


During his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Obama called on Vice President Biden to lead a new, national “Moonshot” initiative to eliminate cancer as we know it. Today, the White House is announcing a new $1 billion initiative to jumpstart this work. (fact sheet)

The country – the world, really – is fighting the war against cancer with both hands tied behind its back. This work is quintessentially cutting-edge science, and the lifeblood of work in any advanced scientific field is research. Cutting off access to research results – either the seminal (foundational) research or the very latest findings published earlier this morning – is a certain way to kill this kind of endeavor. When researchers, scientists, and others working on a project can’t find out was has already been tried, what has been proven to work, and what has already been shown to fail, they are doomed to spin frenetically in an eddy of frustrated impotence, forever.

The overwhelming majority of research on cancer is owned by publishers of academic journals like Elsevier and Springer. More specifically, publishers own the copyright to the research articles that report the results of the research funded by governments, foundations, and corporations. By owning the copyrights, publishers control who is and who isn’t allowed to read the research. And the toll they demand for permission to read this research is unconscionably high. (When an institution wealthy as Harvard says it can no longer afford the price of journals, you know there’s a problem.)

So here we are, trying to defeat cancer – one of the most research-intensive tasks ever undertaken – without permission to read the research on cancer. But it’s not just reading that publishers restrict. Publishers also use copyright to prevent translation of articles into other languages, and restrict data-mining of the articles by algorithms that can potentially discover patterns and connections that humans might never find.

What is the single highest impact thing the federal government can do to speed the pace of research, improve the quality of research, and facilitate “the end of cancer as we know it?” Insure that that anyone and everyone who wants to work on the cancer problem can read the research (including non-English speakers and computers).

But how can this be accomplished, you ask, seeing as the journals already own the copyrights to the journal articles? Here are two proposals.

1. Publishers are willing to release research articles they own rights to as open access in exchange for a fee. One way to open the scholarly record on cancer research is for the NIH (or another entity) to simply offer to pay this fee for “all” cancer-related articles. When they make this offer, they should demand a steep discount for two reasons. First, they’re buying in bulk. Second, they’ve already paid for the overwhelming majority of the research reported in these articles. For example, NIH invests between $105,000 and $120,000 in research funding per article written, while the Wellcome Trust estimates that publishers of high quality journals invest about $2750 to publish that article. A typical open access fee runs between $1500 and $3000. I think the NIH should offer around $10 per article.

How much money would we be talking about? It’s difficult to know exactly how many articles we’re talking about, since publishers won’t permit you to read articles that look like they would contain the answer. (But never fear! For only $30 we can rent the article for 24 hours and find the answer! See how this madness makes research impossible?)

An open access article on the NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research‘s blog suggests that in the last 30 years or so the NIH has funded research resulting in about 1.5M articles. To make the numbers easy, let’s assume that pre-1985 they supported research resulting in the same number of papers, for a grand total of 3M articles. If every single piece of research they’ve ever funded was about cancer, the cost of opening them all at $10/article would be $30M. Even at $100 per article the number is only $300M. Given that NIH is projecting that the costs of cancer care (based on changes in the US population and cancer trends) will reach $158 BILLION annually by 2020, either of these prices is a bargain basement deal if they can move the needle – which I believe the could.

This offer to buy the open access option for a huge group of articles gives publishers – whose only competition in terms of their utterly abysmal reputation is Comcast – a chance to look like the good guys for the first time in forever. Conversely, it also gives them the opportunity to stand up and defend their choice to delay a cure for cancer for the sake of their profits on the 6:00 news and on the front page of the New York Times.

2. If (when) publishers decline to be part of the solution by providing a significant discount on open access fees, the feds should invoke eminent domain. Here’s how it would work:

Strong copyright advocates have long claimed that creative works are “property” and therefore should be afforded all of property’s protections and other considerations under the law. They propagate this notion by encouraging us to use the term “intellectual property.” Let’s play that idea out for a moment. Adapting language from Wikipedia for the sake of expediency:

Eminent domain is the power of a state or a national government to take private property for public use. The property may be taken either for government use or by delegation to third parties, who will devote it to public or civic use. The power of governments to take private real or personal property has always existed in the United States, as an inherent attribute of sovereignty. This power reposes in the legislative branch of the government and may not be exercised unless the legislature has authorized its use by statutes that specify who may use it and for what purposes. The legislature may take private property by passing an Act transferring title to the government. The property owner may then seek compensation by suing in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims… Its use was limited by the Takings Clause in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, which reads, “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Fifth Amendment did not create the national government’s right to use the eminent domain power, it simply limited it to public use.

Has there ever been a better public use argument for taking private property under the government’s eminent domain power than in speeding the cure for cancer?

If we can invoke eminent domain to build a road, can’t we can invoke it to cure cancer?

As the Fifth Amendment notes, the law requires “just compensation” when private property is taken in this manner. If I were the government, I would start the conversation at $5 per article because I’d be frustrated that we didn’t just settle the whole issue at $10 per without the fight. Would publishers press the issue? What do you suppose a rigorous economic analysis would reveal the value of a 20, 30, or 50-year-old article about cancer to be?

Ryan Merkley has been doing some great writing about open access and the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative which is forward looking – encouraging us to ensure that all future research on cancer is freely and openly available immediately upon publication for people to read, translate, and data mine. His recommendations – which are terrific – are the very least we should do.

Which is more of a moonshot – curing cancer, or making the entire record of relevant research open access? Which do you really think we have a better chance of doing?