The Sleight of Hand of “Free” vs “Affordable”

In a recent webinar about OER, organized by one of the major textbook publishers, there was a lot of conversation about whether OER are “free” or “affordable.” This conversation was problematic in two ways.

Before I begin though, just to be clear, allow me to reaffirm that OER are free, plain and simple, full stop, period. That is literally part of the definition of OER. OER = free + permissions.

Problem the First

The first problem with the conversation about “free” vs “affordable” is this: it conflates OER (which are definitely free) with value-added services offered in conjunction with OER. We all use one or more of these value-added services as we provide OER to students, but frequently we background the costs associated with some of them (engaging in what Thaler called “mental accounting“). For example, we charge students a mandatory fee to pay for the campus LMS (from which OER are often provided) but tend to ignore that platform expenditure when we think about the cost of OER to students.

Some of these value-added services do a better job of improving student learning than others. Some are better aligned with the values of the open education community than others. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Lumen falls into this category of providing value-added services around OER.)

We should never conflate the cost of value-added services offered in conjunction with OER with the cost of the OER itself. Once they have been produced and openly licensed, OER are free to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute. The platforms from which they are provided, the tools for revising and remixing and attributing, the time and expertise to vet licenses and confirm attribution, the data collection and analysis necessary to drive meaningful continuous improvement of the resources, the actual maintenance and improvement of the resources over time, faculty training and teacher professional development, and a whole host of other OER-related services may or may not be free, affordable, or insanely expensive.

Reasonable people might argue over whether the added cost of paying for a particular value-added service actually results in additional value proportional to the cost. I believe this question to be critically important, and have been shouting from the rooftops for years about the need to talk about “learning outcomes per dollar,” maybe in terms of an OER Impact Factor. I would strongly argue that many of these value-added services are worth paying for (though maybe not as much as they currently cost). And these are empirical questions for which we can go find (and publish) answers. But a conversation about the ROI of a value-added service only makes sense if you cleanly separate out the OER, which is free, from the value-added service, which costs money. Conversations about “whether OER should be free or affordable” completely fail to make this important distinction.

Problem the Second

The second, and larger, problem with the free versus affordable debate is that it’s a decoy. A distraction. A first class, super skillful, street corner magician “look over here so you don’t see what’s happening over there” sleight of hand. When OER advocates say “free” and publishers say “affordable,” launching into an argument about the distance between those two positions (and obfuscating the difference between OER and value-added services), it’s an easy debate to get lost in. Certainly interesting enough to consume your attention for an entire webinar. However, the true strategy here isn’t to narrow the distance between free and affordable in the mind of the listener (though you might think it is). The real purpose is to prevent the listener from turning their attention from “free” to “permissions.”

Remember that whole open = free + permissions thing? If you’re reading this blog you probably already knew that. But at least 2/3 of US faculty don’t. If publishers can insure that every time faculty talk about OER that conversation devolves into a nuanced and subtle discussion about the distinction between free and affordable, they can keep faculty from ever thinking about permissions. And that is page one of the publisher playbook. That is the real goal.

From a messaging perspective, I continue to believe that OER advocates should place more emphasis on permissions because this is the aspect of OER to which publishers have no answer. Publishers simply have no response to the 5Rs. When someone starts talking about how small the difference is between free and affordable, just turn the conversation to permissions by asking a question like, “Am I free to make as many copies of the material as I like?” “Can I make word or paragraph-level changes to the content so that it speaks more directly to my students?” “Can I give away free copies of the material to my students?” “Can my students and I engage in the collaborative co-creation of new knowledge as we jointly revise and remix your materials with others?”


Open education wins this argument every time, and I continue to be baffled as to why we as a field just seem uninterested in having it. Maybe even the majority of the open education field fails to understand that this is where the real power in what we’re doing lies?

Understanding that open = free + permissions only matters if we occasionally remember to talk about those permissions (not to mention personally leveraging them to the benefit of our own students). That is exactly what publishers want to distract us from doing, and they’re succeeding.

Make no mistake – as long as webinars, conference panels, and other conversations about OER focus on cost (free versus affordable) we are letting publishers set the terms of the debate. We need to reclaim them.



I said above that publishers simply have no response to the 5Rs. That will remain true until the day they join the OER movement and begin releasing their own content under CC licenses, completing their transformation from publishers into platform companies. I am increasingly convinced that that day is coming. Have you thought about how you will respond? Will you thank them, welcome their contributions to the Commons, and begin revising, remixing, and reusing their content ? Are you willing to “let them in” to the movement (at least in your own heart and mind)? You need to be getting your answers to these questions ready.

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