More on the Cost Trap and Inclusive Access

My recent post about the cost trap and inclusive access prompted responses by Jim Groom and Stephen Downes. I’ll respond to Jim’s post first, as it provides an opportunity for some necessary clarification on my part.

[Back in 2012 – 2013] I was impressed (like many others I’m sure) with how Wiley was able to frame the cost-savings argument around open textbooks to build broader interest for OERs.

If you’re a longtime reader of Iterating Toward Openness, you’ve read my discussions of means and ends in this context a number of times. For example, in 2015 I wrote that “My ultimate goal is this: I want to (1) radically improve the quality of education as judged by learners, and (2) radically improve access to education. And I want to do it worldwide.” For reasons I have outlined countless times (relating to the pedagogical innovation only possible in the context of permission to engage in the 5R activities), I believe OER adoption is a critically important means to achieving this end. As Jim notes above, for some period of time talking about the cost savings associated with OER was an effective way to advocate for OER adoption, helping us get a step closer to the end goal. However, in the new context of inclusive access models, arguments about “reducing the cost of college” and providing students with “day one access” are increasingly ineffective at persuading faculty to adopt OER because publishers have completely co-opted these messages. Ask a publisher why inclusive access is good for students and the list of reasons they will provide sounds like it came straight off a 2013 OER advocacy slide.

But what does bother me a bit is the suggestion that OERs have not been primarily (and very intentionally) marketed as a cost saving strategy for years now. And the idea of pivoting away from that at the exact moment Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill are adopting that approach seems a bit too convenient. I fear it is OER wanting it both ways. What do you offer when cheaper is no longer enough? Well, you can return to the authenticity of the pedagogical experience of open and reassert the primacy of the open license. But when you do this, the Creative Commons license (as well as the 5 Rs) seem to be just as much a brand as anything those corporate publishers are doing to corner the market.

It’s not an accident or “convenient” that I’ve been clamoring about this for months. My increasingly intense pleas are a direct response to both publisher behavior and publisher messaging.

The question we must each ask ourselves is – what is the real goal of our OER advocacy? If your real goal is promoting OER adoption (because you believe in its transformative potential or for any other reason), then it is time to talk about permissions first and cost second – and to clearly address cost as part of the problem caused by a lack of permissions (as I will explain in further detail below).

However, if your end goal was never OER adoption, but was increasing access and affordability (and that’s a worthy goal!), there’s nothing you need to change in the way you talk about cost. In fact, if improving access and affordability are your end goal, you may be starting to feel like your work is just about finished – inclusive access models are delivering day one access and drastically lowered costs to students.

Personally, my goal is not to provide less expensive access to the same teaching and learning experience to more people – access and affordability have never been my end game. My goal is to facilitate radical improvements in education for everyone in the world, and I continue to believe that we will only see these improvements in proportion to the degree that we succeed in broadly deploying an open education infrastructure (of which open educational resources are a key component). But increased access and affordability are one of many ways students benefit when their faculty adopt OER, and it was not intellectually dishonest to begin OER advocacy conversations with the cost benefit (rather than one of the others) when that was the most effective argument for adopting OER. Likewise, it is not intellectually dishonest to begin future conversations with a different benefit. Cost is no longer the most effective argument for adopting OER.

You may argue that we’re not quite to the point yet where this statement is strictly true. If we’re not, the time is soon coming, and the language the entire field uses to advocate for OER adoption is a huge boat that will be very slow in turning. Even now I worry that we may have started too late.

On to Stephen’s response. This opens with a lengthy recounting of the many ways in which he has been a long-time, stalwart champion of OER-enabled pedagogy and taking umbrage at my call for greater focus here. Yes, Stephen, you have been talking about this consistently for a long time. Consequently, I’m obviously not talking to you when I encourage people to be more focused on OER-enabled pedagogy.

After defending his record of commitment to OER-enabled pedagogy Stephen addresses me personally (and sometimes aggressively) in his post, even going so far as to claim an intimate understanding of my thoughts and motives. I this think merits a longer response.

I won’t spend much time responding to the first section of Stephen’s essay, which is essentially a lengthy demonization of commercial entities. I will say only this: I am constantly surprised by the degree to which many of my friends, who are otherwise thoughtful academics, are perfectly willing to stereotype in this arena. To listen to them speak and read what they write, it seems as if these people who otherwise make their livings in the tiny nuances between large generalizations believe categorically that all non-profit entities are agents of righteousness and all for-profit entities are agents of evil. I believe many of them would be aghast if I accused them of stereotyping on the basis of age, race, gender identity, or religion. But stereotyping on the basis of tax status seems to be acceptable – perhaps even expected – in some parts of academic culture. It’s hard to believe this needs repeating, but organizations and individuals deserve the basic courtesy of being judged by their own actions and not those of others in any class to which they might belong.

Moving on to the substance of his response, Stephen writes:

The core issue here, argues Wiley, is one of permissions, not cost.

It is absolutely true that permissions are the core issue and not cost, because cost is a function of permissions.

The only reason publishers are able to inflate the costs of their educational materials so outrageously is their monopoly on permissions to make and distribute copies granted to them by copyright. If Campbell’s Biology were openly licensed or in the public domain, it would be available in a wide range of formats with a wide range of supports at a wide range of prices. But because Pearson has the exclusive rights to distribute this title, there is no competition and you’ll pay over $200 for a new copy. On the other hand, the public domain title Pride and Prejudice is about $8 per new paperback copy no matter who you buy it from (and cheaper or free in other formats), because everyone has permission to copy and distribute it. You’ll pay slightly more for an annotated copy, which might run you $15. (How do you feel about people who create value-added editions of public domain literature?)

The egregiously high cost of educational materials is a symptom of taking a traditional approach to copyright with educational materials. Traditional “all rights reserved” copyright is the cause; high costs are but one of its many negative effects. Moving forward, when we talk about cost we should do so in the context of permissions – both because our work should strike at the roots, not hack at the branches, and because this is a way of talking about cost that is unlikely to be co-opted by publishers (unless they move to openly license most or all of their catalogs).

Stephen next asserts his own commitment to OER-enabled pedagogy by questioning mine.

We are focused on the advantages of OER-enabled pedagogy. What do you think the whole MOOC thing George Siemens and I and others was about? Beginning in 2003 and continuing consistently thereafter I have depicted learning resources as words in a conversation, and applied the logic of language to the logic of reuse. In 2006 I described and recommended the community-based model to support sustainable OER-based pedagogy.

In the intervening years we’ve seen no support from David Wiley with respect to this alternative model. His focus has been on traditional institutions of learning and the traditional classroom model. When he has worked toward the production of OERs, it was to produce textbooks. I’ve spent years working toward a pedagogy of sharing and networks and communities enabled (partially) by open educational resources; Wiley has appeared disinterested. (emphasis in original)

It’s true that I have not thrown my efforts into Stephen’s community-based model operating mostly outside of formal institutions. This is true for two reasons. The first relates to one of my all-time favorite quotes, this one from Linus Torvalds:

Don’t EVER make the mistake that you can design something better than what you get from ruthless massively parallel trial-and-error with a feedback cycle. That’s giving your intelligence _much_ too much credit.

We need an ecosystem of models – lots and lots of ways of trying to sustain and scale positive impact in open education. We need lots of smart people doing everything they can to move those different models forward. We need those models to bump into each other in the world and to evolve over time. Hopefully, if we engage in this process of surfacing and working to advance a range of models long enough (“massively parallel trial-and-error with a feedback cycle”), we can find one or more that actually works. For the good of the field, Stephen shouldn’t want me working on his model any more than I should want him working on mine.

(Parenthetically, this is also one of the primary reasons Lumen is a for-profit and not a non-profit. There is very little diversity in the ways organizations working in open education are structured (almost all are non-profits) or in how they sustain their work (primarily through grants, supplemented with some services revenue). For example, the field desperately needs to diversify our sources of revenue. What would happen to the field if Hewlett announced tomorrow that they were changing the focus of their education funding? It might not be tomorrow, but they won’t fund OER indefinitely. We need many people exploring many models for scaling and sustaining the impacts of open education if we’re going to find models that work over the long-term.)

The second reason I haven’t invested heavily in Stephen’s approach is that I continue to be interested in the formal learning that happens in accredited institutions that award recognized credentials. Those credentials continue to be one of the best paths to achieving economic security for oneself and family. Many of those accredited institutions serve a large number of first generation, low income, academically underprepared students who need significant support and encouragement during the learning process. Needless to say, these students are not roaming autodidacts who, left to their own (digital) devices, will thrive and succeed as “free range learners” in a world of MOOCs. I see a significant need to continue to focus on the teaching and learning that happens in these spaces, and so I continue to work here.

Stephen is also upset that I accuse people of “‘not talking about open pedagogy’ when they take a perspective that is not based in the precious 5 Rs.” Because no one knows what ‘open pedagogy’ means, I am very careful not to use that term and I made no such accusation in my post. The term “OER-enabled pedagogy” has a very specific meaning, which is grounded specifically in the 5Rs, and OER-enabled pedagogy – and only OER-enabled pedagogy – is what my post was about.

Stephen then discusses my critique of the predominant model of delivering MOOCs:

The problem [Wiley] sees with these MOOCs isn’t the pedagogical model per se, it’s that they have the wrong licensing. “I believe we must ground our open thinking in the idea of open licenses. Specifically, we should advocate for open in the language of the 5Rs,” he writes. And this has been his position consistently for a number of years. (emphasis in original)

Yes, this has consistently been my position for several years. In addition to being the root cause of the cost problem, a lack of permissions constrains our ability to engage in a range of more authentic, constructionist pedagogies. Some (though certainly not all) of the problems with xMOOC pedagogies are a function of the lack of permissions teachers and students have in the traditionally copyrighted content around which these courses are most often designed.

  1. We learn by the things we do.
  2. Copyright prohibits us from doing specific things.
  3. Consequently, copyright prohibits us from learning in specific ways.
  4. Open licenses grant us permission to engage in these previously prohibited activities.
  5. Consequently, openly licensed content allows us to learn in new ways.

Exploring and leveraging the new ways of learning enabled by open licenses is the core of what OER-enabled pedagogy is all about.

Stephen continues:

The reason people talk about the cost of open educational resources is because some people – David Wiley included – think it’s an essential part of ‘open’ that the resources be commercialized and that vendors charge money from them…. Wiley (and a cluster of other OER advocates) insist that creators must use a CC-by license, allowing commercial use, if they want their work to be considered open.

My definition of open, when used in the context of open content or open educational resources, has been crystal clear and unchanging for over a decade. Open means free plus permissions. (If you’re interested, you can read this tiny review demonstrating that the “open” in open content, open educational resources, open access, open data, open knowledge, open source, and open standards means “free plus permissions.”) The only real change in my stance has been the addition of a 5th R to the permissions three years ago.

Nowhere in my definition of open is there a requirement that a resource be licensed in a way that allows for commercial use. In fact, one of my main problems with the “open definition” is that it does explicitly require licenses to allow commercial uses of materials for them to be considered “open.” This is one of several reasons why you never hear me refer to that body of work. I disagree with it strongly.

It is true that I advocate for CC BY because this license maximizes reusability, is the most interoperable of all CC licenses, and is the easiest for people to comply with. With other CC licenses you almost always get well-meaning people violating the terms because they don’t actually understand what ShareAlike, NonCommercial, or NoDerivatives mean (it’s hard enough to get people to follow the best practices for attribution). But while I advocate for CC BY, I also advocate for the community to be understanding when people or institutions make other choices. As I wrote in defense of projects that choose the BY-NC-SA license,

When an institution enters a new world (like the world of open educational resources) we can and should expect the early adopters to move in baby steps, dipping their toes in before diving in head first. The force of will necessary to motivate the institution to take even these tiny initial steps comes at great personal costs of time, effort, and political capital to the individual champion or tiny band of champions who push the cause within the university. The costs are very real.

In my view, the so-called “free content movement” should welcome these institutions with open arms and applaud their first attempts at entry into the community. After all, just getting a handful of university courses digitized, licensed By-NC-SA, and posted online takes a massive commitment of time and love and tears and pain. This is a genuinely laudable first step. However, instead of a show welcome and gratitude, too often the institutional champions are greeted with complaints that their resources aren’t “free enough” and accusations that they must not really care about helping people learn, because they couldn’t convince their institutions or faculty peers from day one that they didn’t need the NC clause. After suffering the pains of conception and birth of their project, this feels like the ultimate insult to the champions. It dispirits and depresses them at exactly the moment when we should be encouraging them, building them up, and refreshing them before they begin round two.

For some creators of OER, an NC-bearing license will always be the best choice (though I believe these cases to be rare). For other creators of OER, an NC-bearing license will be the first step on a journey toward more openness. Either way, when people begin licensing their content as OER, we should explain to them what the community has learned over the last two decades of openly licensing content and then allow them to make an informed decision. Then we should respect that decision.

I advocate for CC BY. I also advocate for respecting others’ choice of license. Stephen’s mind reading fails him when he claims I “think it’s an essential part of ‘open’ that the resources be commercialized and that vendors charge money from them.” Nothing remotely like that has ever been included in my definition of open.

Stephen continues:

At core, Wiley sees ‘commercial’ as good, while I don’t. More accurately, I think, Wiley sees ‘commercial’ as the only good, while I think that public and community-based non-commercial alternatives are equally viable.

Again, Stephen’s mind reading is almost as wrong as it is possible to be. I believe education to be an undertaking so large in scope and so critical in importance that we need all hands on deck – including individuals, governments, community-based networks, non-commercial organizations, and for-profit companies. I believe each of these are capable of making unique and important contributions. But I also believe that in order to make positive contributions to the great educational undertaking an individual or organization (regardless of its tax status or lack thereof) needs to share a relatively small set of common values. Some individuals, government agencies, community-based networks, non-commercial organizations, and for-profit companies share these values. Others don’t. But when multiple groups with some shared values collaborate to achieving a common goal, much more is accomplished than when we exclude willing and anxious participants who share many of our values and want to contribute.

I want to pause here to make a point I believe to be critically important. You don’t need to have ALL values in common with another person or organization in order to collaborate productively toward common goals. For example, I am constantly impressed by the good work done by the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable. The SLIFR is a group of organizations (Baha’i, Baptist, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Sikh, and others) that disagree on the most fundamental of all things – literally, the very meaning and purpose of life. But they share other values, like a desire to end homelessness in SLC, and so they focus on those common values to do collaborative work that benefits many people. Not even the faculty member in the same department in the office next door to you shares all your values. Our growing inflexibility and unwillingness to work with others with whom we share some values – but who fail to pass an ideological purity test – is the primary cause of dysfunction in our politics at the moment. I hope we can avoid repeating this mistake in education. (See what I did there? Religion and politics in the same paragraph!)

Finally, Stephen writes:

Of course [Wiley] wants us to stop talking about cost – that would deflect the criticism of his own business model. Lumen Learning is in the same business as Pearson, Cengage and McGraw-Hill Education: selling textbooks (directly or indirectly) to students…. You want me to stop talking about cost, David? Stop charging money for something that should be free. Return education to the community network. Help work with us together without putting a price tag on it. (emphasis in original)

Stephen is generally quite thoughtful. But here he joins a cast of characters who appear to have made no effort to learn about what Lumen actually does but who still feel comfortable making public statements about our work based purely on their assumptions.

When Stephen asks Lumen to stop charging money for something that should be free and return it to the community, what does he imagine those things to be?

Is it the OER we have aggregated, aligned with learning outcomes, consistently formatted, supplemented with videos and interactives, and meticulously attributed? Is it the new OER whose creation we’ve commissioned? Is it the new OER we’ve created ourselves? All of that is publicly and freely available to the community under open licenses on our website. So that can’t be it.

Is it the software we’ve created to help faculty manage all the complexity around attribution in the context of revising, remixing, and making compilations of OER? Is it the software we’ve created to simplify the process of integrating OER into any LMS via the open standards LTI and Common Cartridge? Is it the work we’ve done to make it easier to align WordPress-based content with learning outcomes? Is it the features we’ve added to and the bugs we’ve fixed in the Pressbooks plugin for WordPress? Is it the improvements we’ve made to the IMathAS quantitative assessment platform? Is it the extensions we’ve made to the Open Assessments platform? All of that is publicly and freely available to the community under open licenses on our GitHub site. So that can’t be it.

Is it the time Lumen staff spend each week on the phone, on email, in face-to-face workshops, and in other settings helping people find, use, improve, integrate, and update OER that Stephen thinks should be free? Is it the time they invest in data-informed continuous improvement, increasing the effectiveness of OER term after term? Is it the AWS hosting, systems monitoring, backups, and other technical services they provide and support? People’s time and technical services like hosting have real, recurring costs associated with them. And yet Lumen provides a fair amount of this to the community for free anyway, for example, through our Office Hours and by paying for the hosting of the community instance of IMathAS running at Many, many people take advantage of these services, which have real, recurring costs and which Lumen provides for free as a service to the community.

But if you want Lumen staff to be responsible and accountable for running, managing, and supporting your OER-related infrastructure, yes, we charge for that – just like OER Commons does for its Microsites service. Or if you want to use the new tools we’ve developed to support personalized learning in the context of OER, yes, we charge for that – just like OpenStax does for its Tutor product. Or if you want us to fly to your campus and run OER workshops for your faculty and provide other implementation support, yes, we charge for that – just like Open Up Resources does. And I sincerely and wholeheartedly believe it is completely appropriate for us to charge a fee for these services, just like other organizations in the open education space do.

I think Stephen’s call for Lumen to ‘stop charging money for something that should be free and return education to the community network’ reflects, most likely, his lack of understanding of what we do and how we do it. But I don’t know that for certain. Hopefully, he now has a clearer sense of what we do and his future criticisms will be better informed.

And no, Stephen, Lumen is not “in the same business as Pearson, Cengage and McGraw-Hill Education.” They are primarily in the business of leveraging their copyright monopolies on content duplication and distribution to extract exorbitant fees from students, and secondarily in the business of building technologies that enforce and protect those monopolies (e.g., implementing novel DRM in proprietary content delivery platforms). Lumen is in the business of doing just the opposite.

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