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.