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…