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.

6 thoughts on “Of OER and Free Riders”

  1. Thank you David. I also left this comment in response to you and other on my own blog, so forgive me for adding here as well, but I thought it appropriate.

    At the University of Saskatchewan we started seeing a noticeable increase in the adoption of open textbooks and other OER last academic year. That’s also when we launched our program to encourage adaptation of existing materials, and creation of new OER. Interest in adoptions is growing steadily for this coming academic year and there has been strong initial interest among instructors to create and release OER. For most new creations, instructors are perfectly happy with a CC-BY license and want to share with anyone who can make use of the material. Time and concerns about tenure and promotion are the biggest barriers from what I’ve seen. Nobody has commented about not wanting to share with others who don’t contribute.

    While there is some government funding to support these projects, most is paid by the university and the individuals involved as “in-kind”. This has allowed us to stretch resources further than if we relied entirely on government or third-party funding that was specifically earmarked for the creation of open textbooks. As one of the leaders of this initiative at our institution, I think I can say that we’re trying to benefit our students and share with anyone who needs / wants what we have to offer in this area. We’ve already benefitted so much from what BCcampus and OpenStax have done and both groups have offered up what they have without asking for anything in return. They represent the true spirit of open and we are trying our best to emulate that.

    Also, some instructors have expressed interest in possibly working with their students on these projects, so I’m hopeful we’ll start traveling down that road soon.

    If our momentum of adoption and contribution continues, perhaps we’ll become one of those institutions with “widespread” OER initiatives.

    • “We’re trying to benefit our students and share with anyone who needs / wants what we have to offer.” Yes! That “true spirit of open” – a genuine sense of gratitude that leads to generosity – should animate all the work we do.

      I’m excited to see what your faculty and students do together!

  2. I really appreciate this discussion and your thoughts on it, David. I think part of my reaction may be to the application of the term “free-riders” in this context, which I agree sounds offensive and off-putting. Adopting OER can take a little effort (although usually no more than switching from one publisher’s textbook to another), so the term also devalues this work and the sentiment behind it. But I totally get that the deeper question being posed here is one of sustainability.

    Given that the creators create in order for people to 5R (using this as a verb here) the resource, the issue may indeed be one of balance. I can’t say with certainty that I know where the fulcrum lies, whether it is 2-5% or more or less, but no doubt the fulcrum itself will shift as more adopters enter the movement.

    I think it is perfectly understandable that government, philanthropic organizations, universities, and professional societies focus their funding on areas of highest enrolment (representing the greatest social & economic return on their investment). But I also see this funding as targeting faculty who teach these courses (far more numerous than those who teach upper level/grad courses) and, in facilitating their adoption of OER, opening the door to their adaptation and creation of OER, including via open pedagogy, like you modelled so well with the open textbook for Project Management for Instructional Designers.

    What I mean by this is that I am confident that we will continue to see more adopters and optimistic that new adapters and creators will spring from their midst. I am also confident that more people will join the open family because of the exciting potential of open pedagogy. This is partly why I anticipate the discussion expanding to include not just the problem of scarcity (mainly for upper level courses) but also the problem of abundance, as we plan how best to transparently manage and curate the new OER and derivate works that are being produced.

    • Rajiv, I love your phrasing here (much better than mine!). When we try to apply the logic of the free rider problem to an individual OER adopter, it “devalues this work.” It does take effort – not to mention courage – to forge ahead and try something new. When Professor X is knee deep in all the effort (and occasionally pain) involved in the first semester of OER adoption, the last thing s/he needs to hear is “nice try – how about contributing instead of just leeching off the community?” I can’t imagine a better way to slow the pace of OER adoption than taking this kind judgmental tone. People who adopt OER should be congratulated and encouraged, not put down.

      Like education, OER is really about sharing. The best, most effective way to move the field forward (encouraging both OER adoption and creation) is to exemplify a genuine attitude of care and generosity through the way we share with and support each other. Personal insults never moved anything forward.

      And yes, for sometime we will be battling on both the abundance front and the scarcity front. But we don’t need to dump that concern on new OER adopters. Let’s make sure they have a great first experience, and that will naturally lead some of them into worrying about these larger problems (as it has us).

  3. __Have an open mind and read David Annand’s 2 papers about the economics of OER _ ‘Developing Incentives for the Use of Open Educational Resources in Higher Education’ _ https://riunet.upv.es/bitstream/handle/10251/65127/Advances%20in%20Higher%20Education.pdf?sequence=1#page=179 _ AND _ ‘Developing a Sustainable Financial Model in Higher Education for Open Educational Resources’ David Annand, The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning _ http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/2133/3419 _

  4. Where did the number $250k to develop a 300/400 OER text come from? Traditional publishers pay much less than this to develop a 300/400 level text. The production, ancillary, and technology requirements are much lower. The OER community should work collaboratively with societies to enable peer review so that the resources meet faculty requirements. The cost to develop a market scalable high level OER text should be no more than $50-$100k.

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