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!