A Response to “OER Beyond Voluntarism”

Well, this has turned into a rather enjoyable conversation. To recap what has unfolded so far:

  • It began with Jose Ferreira inviting me to appear on a panel at the Knewton Symposium,
  • on the panel, I made the claim that in the near future 80 percent of general education courses would replace their commercial textbooks with OER,
  • after the conference, Jose responded to my claim by telling publishers why I was wrong,
  • I responded by explaining that the emergence of companies like Red Hat for OER would indeed make it happen, using the Learning Outcomes per Dollar metric as their principal tool of persuasion, and
  • Michael Feldstein argued that it depends.

Yesterday, Brian Jacobs of panOpen published an essay contributing to the conversation. While I agree that some in the field have yet to pick up on a few of the points he makes, I’m a little perplexed that he would choose to position these points as a response to writing by Michael, Jose, and me. By making these points in a response, he implies that we have yet to understand them. Take this bit for example:

Their comments, though, didn’t tackle what I’ve come to see as the core issue for the OER movement, a foundational assumption that has crimped its progress. The assumption holds that because open-source educational content is like open-source software…its application and uses should follow in a similar way. The short history of the two movements makes clear that this is not the case.

I’ve been accused of many things in my life, but never of missing the difference between open content and open source. As the person who coined the term “open content” sixteen years ago specifically for the purpose of differentiating it from open source, I’ve never had to defend against this particular allegation. Not sure what to say.

Or this:

The OER movement’s almost singular focus on cost can obscure the larger objective — actually getting more students through to graduation while ensuring that they’ve learned (and enjoyed learning) something along the way.

when I spent almost half of the post he is responding to laying out the Learning Outcomes per Dollar metric for empirically measuring the impact of OER use on students’ academic performance. And then demonstrating with actual data from an OER adopter the incredibly powerful ways that OER adoption impacts learning.

Perhaps the article isn’t a response to Jose, Michael, and me at all. Maybe Brian is just using the conversation as an opportunity to underline a few unrelated points he feels need making, and that’s fine. And these little tidbits aren’t what I actually wanted to write about, anyway. Sorry. What I really want to do is unpack and comment on the core argument of the essay. First I’ll disagree, and then I’ll agree.


As important as [the OpenStax] project is, it doesn’t yet realize the promise of OER as disaggregated high-quality content created and modified from anywhere.

Overworked and underpaid instructors are looking to content and course technology to make their lives easier, not to take on the additional responsibility of managing their own content without financial recognition for that labor.

From these and other portions of the article, I believe Brian’s argument is based on two premises:

  • In order for students to get the full benefit of OER, their faculty need to be aggregating, revising, and remixing OER – really tailoring and customizing it to meet their specific needs
  • This is a lot of additional work for faculty, and they won’t do it unless they are provided with additional incentives

Arguing from these assumptions, he arrives at the following conclusion:

This can be done by charging students nominally for the OER courses they take or as a modest institutional materials fee. When there are no longer meaningful costs associated with the underlying content, it becomes possible to compensate faculty for the extra work while radically reducing costs to students… a system for distributed content development also needs to be accompanied by a system of distributed financial incentives.

So, just stating each step of the argument explicitly to make sure I’m getting it right (hopefully he’ll correct me in the comments if I’m getting it wrong):

  • if we charge students a little when faculty adopt OER,
  • we can use a portion of that revenue to incentivize faculty to do the work of curating disaggregated OER and engaging in the revising and remixing process,
  • (because if we don’t incentivize faculty by paying them, then most will never engage in these activities), and
  • if faculty aren’t aggregating, revising, and remixing disaggregated OER, students won’t get the full benefit of OER.

I largely agree with Brian’s premises, but disagree somewhat with where he takes the argument based on them. (As I’ll argue below, this disagreement is both healthy and a Good Thing.) Here’s where I think the primary differences in our thinking lie.

The “Full” Benefit of OER

First, while I agree in theory that students don’t get the full potential benefit of OER if their faculty don’t engage in the aggregate, revise, and remix process, it’s unclear to me how much benefit students miss out on when faculty simply adopt OER “as is” (though we’re studying this question now). For example, the overwhelming majority of faculty in the college algebra example from my previous post – where passing rates increased from 48% to 60% after faculty switched to OER – did zero aggregating, revising, or remixing. Maybe the change in pass rates would have been even higher if they had, but are we really going to poo-poo an increase of 12 real percentage points in the pass rate? If students are getting much of the potential benefit even when faculty don’t aggregate, revise, and remix, is it worth incurring the additional costs necessary to achieve 100% of the full benefit? This brings us directly back to the Learning Outcomes per Dollar discussion in my previous post. What’s the delta in learning we would place in the numerator? What’s the delta in cost we would place in the denominator?

Why Don’t Faculty Remix?

Second, I disagree with the notion that not getting paid for their time and effort is the primary obstacle to faculty aggregating, revising, and remixing OER. I’ve trained hundreds of faculty in the past two years and have learned some interesting things along the way. One is that the faculty working in the institutions that serve our most at-risk students – those students who would likely benefit the most from OER – are the faculty with the least technical capability. In quite a few cases, these were faculty who needed support for technical tasks as “simple” as attaching a document to an email. Offering them $100 to remix some OER is not going to endow them with the skills – either technical or pedagogical – they need to do this effectively. That takes serious boots-on-the-ground training and support. It can be done, but it’s not a simple matter of offering a faculty stipend. (This also brings us directly back to the Learning Outcomes per Dollar discussion in my previous post.)

Builders, Adapters, and Adopters

Even in cases where faculty adoption of OER was supported by one-time grant funding (i.e., they were getting paid extra), our observation across dozens of campus visits and faculty trainings is that faculty generally fall into one of three categories: builders, adapters, and adopters. Builders have the time, interest, and skill to create, aggregate, revise, and remix OER. Adapters have the time, interest, and skill to make minor tweaks to OER that have been previously packaged in order to work “out of the box.” Adopters simply use OER designed to work right out of the box, just as they found them.

We think the distribution of faculty among these groups is something like 1% builders, 7% adapters, and 92% adopters. (As per our previous research on the number and types of changes faculty made to Flat World Knowledge’s open textbooks, “as with Duncan (2009), we found that the rates of revision and remix were relatively low. Only 7.5% of textbook adoptions over a two-year period were adoptions of custom books. This indicates that while the ability to revise and remix sounds exciting, the number of those who take advantage of this opportunity is relatively small.”) A strategy targeting the 1% – even if it grew to include the next 7% – is unlikely to have the broad impact we all hope OER will achieve. The strategy we’re looking for has to include the 92% without constraining the other 8%.

The Mythical Surplus

Another issue relating to paying faculty is that, as many of us have experienced, the offer of additional funding does not add hours to the day. Many of these faculty are already so overworked and behind on existing commitments that even with a little sweetener they can’t find the time to engage in aggregating, revising, and remixing OER. The entire notion of faculty who would remix if only they were paid assumes a professoriate with surplus time and skill who are looking to maximize their return on the expenditure of that surplus. Unfortunately, that is not the life experience of many faculty. While I freely admit that it’s a terribly hard trap to avoid falling into, this approach seems to disproportionately favor faculty at schools that are much better resourced than their community college cousins.

Incentives, Alignment, and Conflict

My final, and perhaps biggest, issue with paying faculty to adopt OER is the inherent misalignment of incentives it creates. For faculty who previously made their materials choices based primarily on what they thought was best for their students, we now throw money into the mix – “if you choose these materials, we’ll pay you!” And the incentive payment to the faculty member will inevitably be built into the cost which their students pay, raising the price for students in order to financially benefit faculty. Yuck. (Don’t most colleges have conflict of interest policies governing textbook adoptions that directly benefit faculty financially?)


I agree that there are costs associated with adopting OER – someone has to find, vet, properly attribute, load into the local platform, etc. the OER that will be used in classes. Sometimes a faculty member will have the time and skills to do this themselves. Sometimes an institution will provide these kinds of supporting services through the staff of their library and center for teaching and learning. Other institutions won’t have the internal capacity to provide these supports and will have to hire new people or partner with outside organizations for them.

Support Fees

In the latter cases, institutions have to find new sources of funding to pay for those new people or outside support services. There are many ways of doing this. Brian has described the “support fee” model. My experience has been that when you propose to a student “how would you feel if the school instituted a $5 or $10 course support fee in exchange for removing the $170 textbook from the syllabus?”, they happily ask “where do I sign up?” From the student perspective, the economics of this option are hard to argue against.

The INTRO Model

On Monday we’re submitting an article (for a special issue of EPAA) that introduces a new funding model we call the INTRO model – INcreased Tuition Revenue through OER. In this article we use actual enrollment, drop rate, tuition, policy, and other data from a large OER adopting institution to show that:

  • when faculty adopt OER, drop rates decrease significantly
  • when drop rates decrease, the institution refunds significantly less tuition
  • when they refund less tuition, the institution has more funding to spend on things like supporting OER adoption among its faculty

In this particular example we demonstrate that, if the current OER pilot was expanded to all sections of the 20-some courses currently piloting OER, the institution could expect to retain over $100,000 a year in tuition that they’re currently refunding. Some of this new funding could be used to pay for services supporting faculty adoption of OER without charging students.

I’m sure there are other models for funding OER adoption support services out there if we’re creative and open-minded enough to find them.

Parallel Experiments

And I am in total and complete agreement with this statement from Brian’s piece:

What’s needed are lots of entities — for-profit and nonprofit — to experiment with funding models.

YES! We need more experimentation happening, and we need it happening in parallel instead of serially. We can’t all stand around watching the Flat World Knowledge experiment, and only start trying something different when it becomes clear that their approach isn’t quite the right one. As Linus said, in what is possibly my favorite quote:

And don’t EVER make the mistake [of thinking] that you can design something better than what you get from ruthless massively parallel trial-and-error with a feedback cycle. That’s giving your intelligence _much_ too much credit.

Even though I disagree with some of Brian’s conclusions (which is why I’m experimenting with a different business model), I absolutely want him out there experimenting with his particular business model. If I’m sufficiently humble, I’ll learn a thing or two from him before it’s all said and done. (If he’s sufficiently humble, Brian may learn something from me, too.) From this learning a new generation of models will emerge and be tested. They will be followed by another, further refined set of models. That’s how the field moves forward in its understanding of how to support OER adoption at scale, and it’s how at least 80% of general education courses will end up adopting OER in place of commercial textbooks.

2 thoughts on “A Response to “OER Beyond Voluntarism””

  1. David,

    Thank you for a thoughtful and interesting post. I hope it’s clear to all that we’re on the same side of the OER debates (when one steps back from the particulars of our discussion ). I do indeed expect that I’ll continue to learn from your insights and important work.

    I thought a bit about this post and wrote an article/response, which is now up on EdSurge: https://www.edsurge.com/n/2014-09-03-opinion-why-can-t-oer-enjoy-the-same-success-as-open-source-software.

    Thanks again for your views, and I wish you great success with the new venture.


    • Brian, thank you for the same! To my mind, there’s nothing more thrilling than a good debate between two (or more) smart people who are able to disagree while remaining civil and constructive.

      Thanks for the well wishes, and I send my own right back to you. I’ll make my next contribution early next week…

Comments are closed.