Underselling Open: The Problem with Cost Framing

UPDATE: See this follow-up post.

There seems to be an emerging concern among those who work in open education that we need to be careful not to “oversell” open. I understand the sentiment and appreciate the concern. However, I think the field is in far more danger from its systematic “underselling” of open. This has been worrying me for quite a while now, and I’ve been as guilty of it as anyone else.

The problem begins with the context in which we talk about open. That context almost always goes something like this:

– Textbooks are immorally expensive
– Those high costs harm student learning
– We need a solution to this problem
– Open textbooks are the answer

This contextualization is problematic in many ways, but for now I want to focus on one that I will call “cost framing” – presenting open as the answer to a cost problem. Cost framing draws people’s attention solely to issues of cost (causing them to equate open with free) and wholly neglects the permissions that come with open licenses. This is why so many people fail to appreciate (nevermind consider taking advantage of) the permissions granted by open licenses. “Thanks for helping me find a free textbook for my students! Why are you still talking? And about copyright licenses of all things?!?”

Not only does cost framing cause people to ignore what is most powerful about open, but it also exposes open to attack by publishers. If open is simply a matter of cost, there are ways publishers can counter the “threat” of open by lowering their costs or offering discounts.

Let me pause here to mention another version of this problem. Because textbooks cost so much, many students have to wait until their financial aid checks arrive to purchase textbooks. This two or three week delay in gaining access to their learning materials puts them at a significant disadvantage academically. For years open advocates have touted “day one access” as one of the primary benefits of choosing OER instead of traditional materials. However, publishers have now found a variety of creative ways to provide day one access to their materials, like the “all access opt out” model. For faculty who adopted OER primarily because they provided day one access for students, OER are now indifferentiable from publisher materials.

In these and other ways people trying to advocate for open inadvertently end up making arguments that play directly into publishers’ hands. This happens primarily when people advocate for open based on one specific benefit of the permissions provided by open licenses (like improving affordability or providing day one access) which publishers can approximate. We should instead be advocating for open based on the infinite possibilities derived from the full bundle of 5R permissions granted by open licenses.

Listen carefully to how publishers talk about open. They always bend the definition in a way that allows them to compete favorably with (their warped definition of) open. Does open mean lower costs for students? They can compete with that. Does open mean providing day one access for all students? They can compete with that. Does open mean low “quality”? They can compete with that.

If we want to differentiate open from publisher solutions, and do so in ways that are absolutely defensible over the long term, we have to talk explicitly about permissions. And not as an afterthought in the last ten minutes of our presentations – permissions need to be at the core of our argument about what makes open powerful and desirable.

Cost framing open hurts more than our ability to differentiate what we do from what publishers do. It hurts students, faculty, and the broader movement when we introduce people to the idea of open by telling them that it’s the answer to their cost problem. Cost framing limits faculty and students’ vision in ways that are difficult to overcome. If “open textbooks” are simply textbooks that are free (that is essentially what we’re saying when we position them as the answer to the problem of expensive textbooks), why would I ever consider changing my pedagogy or assessment strategy in ways that might dramatically improve student learning? I don’t typically make meaningful changes to my pedagogy or assessment strategy when I adopt a new textbook. (The textbook framing of OER is a separate problem, but not the one I’m addressing here.)

If the open education movement is going to facilitate dramatic improvements in learning by all students, we must center the conversation about “open” on permissions. We can’t expect to create astonishing improvements in student outcomes by making miniscule tweaks to our pedagogy. We will need to leverage the qualitatively different opportunities provided by open in our teaching, and those new opportunities exist because open gives us permission to do new things.

Great, you say. If we’re not going to talk about open in terms of cost framing then how should we talk about it? This is an excellent question, and not one I’m sure we have a satisfactory answer to. My current best answer is what I call the possible/permitted framing.

For several years I have introduced open by first talking about how education is a specific form of sharing (sharing know how, feedback, encouragement, passion, etc.). I then describe the internet as the most powerful platform for sharing ever created. Combined, these two statements argue that the internet could be the most powerful platform for education ever created. However, the things the internet lets me do that make it such an effective platform for sharing are exactly the things that are regulated by copyright. This sets up a tension between what is possible and what is permitted.

Napster provides a well-known example of the tension between the possible and the permitted. As Napster showed the world, one of the things the internet makes possible is the free sharing of content instantaneously with anyone around the world. And as the court demonstrated to Napster, copyright does not permit this kind of sharing. Hence the tension. The question becomes – how can we resolve this tension so that we can bring the full technical capability of the internet to bear on education? And the answer is, in a word, open.

Open licenses provide us with a range of permissions, including the permission to share freely online. Thus, one of the things we can do thanks to these permissions is solve the textbook cost problem. (Because of the permissions granted me by open licenses, I can freely share OER with students instead of asking them to buy textbooks.) That’s so amazing that many faculty struggle to believe it at first. Once they wrap their head around the idea, their very next thought can be “If the permissions granted by open licenses empower me to solve the cost problem, what else can I do because of these permissions?” The possibilities are limitless, because in the context of open what is possible = what is permitted.

When faculty ask themselves “what else can I do because of these permissions?”, we’ve come within striking distance of realizing the full power of open.

Let me point out that this possible/permitted framing still makes the point that open can solve the textbook cost problem – it just shows explicitly that open solves the cost problem by means of permissions. This was always the case, but faculty are blinded to this fact by cost framing.

Now granted, this explanation doesn’t fit into a 30 second elevator ride – meaningful solutions to complex problems seldom do. But this narrative can easily be laid out in 15 minutes, and it accomplishes two things. (1) It avoids luring people into reductionist thinking about OER that equates them with free textbooks. (2) It leverages the “wow!” moment of solving the cost problem to demonstrate that the permissions granted by open licenses are extremely powerful, and encourages people to think about what else might be possible because of these permissions.

After providing this explanation I give examples of some of the things faculty are doing in terms of open pedagogy (including disposable / renewable assignments) and the empirical research on the impact of OER adoption on student success. I then try to point faculty’s minds forward to a range of benefits that are emerging because of the network effects open enables. Internet-scale human collaboration is perhaps the most powerful force the world has ever known, but it is literally impossible in the context of traditionally copyrighted resources (when you can’t access, modify, or share materials there’s nothing to collaborate on). If we’re careful stewards and gardeners, open educational resources will be the fertile soil in which these massive collaborations in support of student learning grow.

I’d love to hear your criticisms and other thoughts about the possible/permitted framing. I’d love it even more if you would come up with a better way of framing open that puts permissions front and center!

8 thoughts on “Underselling Open: The Problem with Cost Framing”

  1. YES!!! YES!!! It’s not the about the open textbook, it’s about the open LICENSE! Love this, David– thank you.

  2. Hi David, I’m working up research about learning designs, OEP and OER. One of the important things I’m discovering in preliminary conversation with instructors is that there is extremely little trust in the learner. Framing that at a possible/permitted conversation, if we intentionally and purposefully support learners (of any and all ages) to discern, to give and receive feedback, to collaboratively find or make good quality OER, to solve problems, to think critically, to be creative and messy, to make mistakes and learn from them, to ensure they’re using inclusive design when they license and share resources with each other, we unleash their power to collectively change their moment in time, change their learning trajectory, change their beliefs in their capabilities. This is less about what instructors can do, and much, much more about what learners can do. Based on my role (learning designer) shifting the textbook paradigm starts with an invitation and conversation, partnership with an open-minded instructor to consider what a learner is capable of (what’s possible), and what they will give learners permission to do and try. It may be argued that permission for learning is not an instructor’s to grant, but there are many paradigms in formal higher education, and in our culture that make that power hierarchy a reality. The instructor’s willingness might then extend to asking students, What are you capable of? (what is possible), What will you give yourself permission to try? I look forward to seeing what happens when we place our faith and trust in everything learners can do. Long response, but as you say, complex.

  3. Nice article. Thanks.

    The same thing happens in open source software. “Free” grabs attention first. Many people stop there. Others go on to see the benefits of customizable code.

    OS people have learned how to write code that is easy to customize, how to check each others’ customizations for quality, and how to incorporate useful customizations into the shared product. There are improvement workflows, documentation standards, and security teams.

    Equivalent processes could help OER. I’m not sure what they would be, though.

    • Oh, I love this idea, but it would need to include community support and oh, youtube tutorials. I’ve made an educational app for Android and … figuring out GitHub etc. is a bit of a challenge. Likewise, my experiences trying to figure out navigating in the Canvas LMS have been fraught with dead ends, tho’ the community is supportive. I have extremely limited time (it’s “my time, my dime” around a 40-hr. job) but … I suspect that’s true of lots of people.

      I sometimes run into actively hostile communities (not to mention any names, StackOverflow, tho’ it’s gotten better in the past 5 years or so) but almost as effective a deterrent is getting no answers to questions because you don’t even know how to ask them.

      I’m finding the community in the Service Learning MOOC per http://designersforlearning.org/openabemooc is helpful, as is the Canvas LMS community, but I think we need to get to a better level with designing those “equivalent processes” you describe.

      • (I am designing basic math lessons for adults and I want them to be adaptable … so I”m planning on including the assorted files I use to create them so that people could swap out images, speed things up, slow things down… and it would be great to have an already-figured out framework for this!)

  4. Hi David, I agree that both cost (defined as access) and ability to edit/modify/remix are important. Reducing cost in particular is extremely helpful for students who face a very real problem of buying required course materials vs. rent, food, or other expenses within the context of rising debt. Cost/access) is also an important aspect of learning for faculty who genuinely care about their students. From personal experience, many faculty are unaware of the cost and implications for students of the learning materials (readers, texts, and homework access codes) they require. Raising awareness of this issue and the principle-agent problem therein and offering alternatives is one way to address a portion of barriers to learning.

    Ability to remix/edit/modify etc. is the beauty and most exciting part of Creative Commons (and other) open licenses. It is great and my favorite thing about open licenses; there is tremendous potential for creative practice in teaching, learning, and in so many ways not yet imagined. In my experience, this is a second step which is too overwhelming to face as a first-option. Many faculty are so very well schooled in “you cannot do this” that it takes some time to get over. Few faculty are willing to jump in and start remixing without first getting over the hurdle of first trialing/supplementing or adopting open course material. Then, the editing becomes an option once the logic and potential of Creative Commons. (I’m not saying that some don’t edit right away — just that “most” — including myself initially — are too overwhelmed with transitioning and evaluating the option they’ve taken.

    So, what’s compelling?: I think starting explicitly with faculty Academic Freedom is important. Cost/access is very important too. Addressing other barriers (especially for students with disabilities) is important. And, finally, raising awareness of the “fun factor” among faculty: Teaching with open materials and in the open can be really fun, engaging, and challenging. Open is the opposite of boring, and this is highly attractive to faculty and students.

    Perhaps it is time to look at faculty motivations behind adoption, adaptation, and creation?

    Lastly, to the point I really wanted to make re: “not selling.” “Not selling” relates to HOW one persuades. There is nothing wrong with persuasion that is truthful and respectful, even if the parties agree to disagree. Persuasion that seeks to misinform or manipulate, intentionally conceals motivation or values, forces an agenda, or (in my opinion) aims to establish a monopoly have problematic long term outcomes; let the “buyer” beware! Not respecting faculty academic freedom (and probably even just not affirming academic freedom) is also problematic on a number of levels. An affirmation of “not selling” has to do with respecting faculty choice — specifically academic freedom and choice of learning materials. Open is about more freedom, not less.

    Disclosure: Anita is a member of the Open Textbook Network Advisory Council.

    • Anita, thanks. My main point is that our conversations about OER should emphasize how all of it’s benefits – increasing academic freedom, improving affordability and access, revising and remixing – flow from permissions. Permissions are what differentiate OER from other materials and are the source of their benefits. We need to be far more clear about that in our conversations with faculty and others.

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