The Real Threat of OER

There is much to respond to in a comment left by David Anderson (Executive Director for Higher Education at the Association of American Publishers) on Nicole Allen’s recent HuffPo article College Textbooks: Do You Get What You Pay For, but I’ll focus on one claim. He writes, “While to an OER advocate faculty are mere pawns to their agenda, to publishers, faculty are critical partners in academic success.”

The overwhelming majority of OER advocates are faculty, and they have become OER advocates for two reasons. One reason is the incredibly high prices of the textbooks and other materials produced by commercial publishers, and the deleterious effect on student outcomes created when students cannot afford their course materials. Publishers may eventually respond to this problem by dropping their prices to reasonable rates as he indicates they are beginning to do.

However, the second reason faculty have become OER advocates – and more of them are becoming OER advocates each day – has less to do with price and more to do with empowerment. For example, OER give faculty permission to truly personalize their courses. This personalization is not merely switching the sequence of content from A B to B A, or substituting content C for content A. It is personalization that allows faculty to go deep inside the material to permanently change, rewrite, and replace examples, photographs, and language so the materials speak directly and clearly to the students in their specific classes. OER give faculty permission to engage in their own design-based research about how course materials work for their specific students and to continuously improve what isn’t working. OER give faculty permission to support students in adapting and personalizing course materials for themselves and their peers, so that student work becomes a meaningful contribution to their success and the success of future students rather than a collection of ephemeral bits that are graded and deleted. OER give faculty permission to collaborate with their peers across institutions on new pedagogies and assessment strategies enabled by the absence of copyright restrictions, confining terms of use, and digital rights management technologies that restrict what students and faculty can do. The other examples that could be added to this list are, by definition, limitless – because OER empower faculty by giving them permission to do anything they can imagine with their course materials.

Publishers continue to believe that “free” is the main threat posed to their business models by OER. Perhaps that is because pricing is a threat they understand and know how to counteract. However, the core idea of openness – to generously grant others the broad range of permissions that enables them to innovate in any manner they can imagine – that is the real threat OER pose to commercial publishers. While the prices for commercial materials may eventually approach affordability, publishers are structurally unable to grant faculty the broad set of copyright permissions necessary to truly empower them. Their business models forbid it.

Talk about your scylla and charybdis…

6 thoughts on “The Real Threat of OER”

  1. As someone who has written an OER textbook myself, I agree – it may start out being about saving money, but finishing a usable product is empowering. My issue was frustration with textbook companies that change only a headline or two and call it a “new edition” (not exaggerating – this happened with the book for one of my courses).

    • That practice is obviously monetarily motivated and their needs to be some governing organization which prevent such practices that take advantage of teachers and students. As you stated, teachers are vulnerable because they do not have the liberty/permission to design their own curriculum, and students of vulnerable because they have to get the prescribed textbook for the course.

  2. At what point, beyond the etext and into the zone of full-meal deal educational experiences, are post-secondary instructors surrendering instructional design to publishers? Homework systems could get so sophisticated students are, in essence, taking the course from the publisher. That could work, if publishers became articulated into the post-secondary system. If might be one of the directions learning outcomes take us. Get your credits for prerequisite mastery wherever they are to be had. (Someone would have to undertake to accredit the publisher platforms.) And ladder into higher level classes at the point the learning isn’t so well understood it can be handled in a semi-automated fashion? In the paper era, instructors decided how they used a textbook. Homework systems take all that sweaty work out of instructors’ hands. Which means instructors aren’t designing their own instruction any longer.

    • Agreed, teachers often are no longer able to design their own curriculum, nor select the text books to be used in conjunction with their course.

      Do you think accrediting publishers would be a good idea? I can see the corruption and double dipping already. I think that would be a very strong conflict of interest benefiting only the publishers.

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