The Cost Trap, Part 3

In my recent post I asked us each to consider what “what is the real goal of our OER advocacy?” Stephen answers that his goal is access for all, and takes me to task for wanting more.

In my post I wrote,

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… 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.

Stephen’s goal is access for all. To me, access for all is a waypoint and not the end point. I don’t want to provide access to all to education as we currently do it. I want to facilitate radical improvements in education for everyone in the world. I want everyone in the world to have access to something qualitatively better.

Ismael tweeted:

This was my feeling also while reading Stephen’s post. It appears – and I invite Stephen to correct me if I’m misreading him – that Stephen feels like formal educational institutions are a hindrance to the work of extending access to all because their affordability problems extend far beyond the price of textbooks:

But even more to the point, these policies represent no cost savings at all to a person who cannot afford to pay university tuition in the first place. When OER advocates talk about “access for all” they are rarely, if ever, taking only about tuition-paying students.

Access for all means access for all.

And that, again, is why the ‘faculty persuasion’ argument is a red herring. For those people who cannot afford access to faculty – which by my count is somewhere around 97 percent of the population (225 million out of 7 billion) the decision of a faculty member one way or another is for the most part irrelevant.

That’s totally true. And it seems like there are at least two paths you can take once you reach this realization. The first, which I believe is Stephen’s path, is to reject the idea of formal institutions and begin building new models of learning that eschew colleges and universities in favor of informal networks. The second, which is my path, is to make common cause with others who are working on solving the problem of the cost of attending a post-secondary institution, like Martha Kanter, Morely Winograd, and others making slow but steady progress eliminating tuition as a barrier to students.

Another difference in our approach seems to be the size of the steps we want to take to get from here to there. Although I don’t know that I’ve ever read an explicit statement from him on the topic, I have the sense that starting anywhere smaller than the whole world feels inappropriate to Stephen. (As I’m doing a bit of mind-reading here I invite Stephen to correct me if I’m getting that wrong.) On the other hand, I’m fundamentally a “small steps” person, which has led me to try to limit the scope of my current work to the US post-secondary education system (and more specifically US community colleges). In addition to feeling like existence proofs are extremely powerful (“see, it can be done on a smaller scale – we should try to do it on a larger scale”), we are learning critically important lessons doing this work locally that will inform later attempts to do it globally. (I am fully aware that there is a good chance I won’t live to see that global work that I imagine ever get done – I feel that my responsibility is just to move the ball as far down the field as I can before handing it off.)

Stephen continues:

Wiley says “Cost is no longer the most effective argument for adopting OER.” But he has utterly no evidence to prove that. If anything, the evidence says the opposite, as I have shown.

Here I fear we are talking past each other due to our different foci. In my mind, the only people who “adopt” educational materials are faculty. People certainly locate and learn from a wide range of resources in a wide range of informal settings in public libraries and online, but that’s not what I would call “adoption.” When I use the words “adopt OER,” I mean a faculty member choosing to replace whatever appeared in the Required Materials section of their syllabus last term with OER this term. Because “adopting OER” must by definition mean something else to Stephen, I can understand why he feels like there is no evidence for such a claim. But there is plentiful evidence that this is true in the context of post-secondary faculty choosing required materials for their courses. I personally have dozens if not hundreds of these conversations each year, and my colleagues at Lumen have hundreds more. And we spend a lot of time sharing stories and talking about this topic.

Stephen then explores the market dynamics of textbooks:

In fact, I can buy Campbell’s Biology right now for about $CAD 97 (about $US 70) on Amazon. It will be used, of course. 10th edition. I can buy the 3rd edition for about $CAD 18. This brings us close to Pride and Prejudice territory. Campbell’s Biology is still fully copyrighted (and will be until 2099). Pride and Prejudice, as noted, is a public domain work. These numbers strongly suggest that there is a lot more to textbook prices than licensing.

Price is based on willingness to pay. Exclusive rights over something nobody wants is worth nothing. The publisher (in cooperation with the universities) creates demand for the work by making it a required text (and then releasing edition after edition after edition of the work to discourage used book sales).

Yes, there is far more than licensing at work here. For example, Stephen talks about willingness to pay. It is not that difficult to draw the line from a desire to live a financially stable life, to a desire for employment, to a desire to earn a degree required by an employer, to a desire to take a course required for that degree, and finally to a desire to purchase the textbook required for that course. The willingness to pay for education – and everything it includes, like textbooks – is very high indeed, as we see by the incredible rates at which students gamble with their futures by taking on loans to fund their education.

But Stephen gets the description of the dynamics around textbook pricing wrong in some genuinely intriguing ways. Publishers don’t create demand for textbooks (though they absolutely manipulate supply in ingenious ways, which, through its relationship with demand, allows them to manipulate prices). Universities don’t create demand for textbooks (except indirectly, by existing). It is faculty who choose whether or not a textbook is used in a course, it is faculty who choose the specific textbook(s) used in a course, it is faculty who assign specific homework problems from specific pages of a specific edition of a textbook in a course, and it is faculty who create the demand for educational materials in formal education. If you don’t believe it, consider the argument from the other perspective – when faculty don’t require a textbook for their courses, what would you imagine happens to the rate at which students in that course purchase textbooks? Yes, it is faculty who create demand for textbooks.

In fact, the relationship between textbooks, faculty, and students is best understood by thinking about the relationship between prescription drugs, doctors, and patients. Once a doctor prescribes a certain medication, the patient has no power beyond the decision “to purchase, or not to purchase.” They can’t decide they wish they’d been given a different prescription by their doctor and buy that medicine instead. That can’t comparison shop. They have only the one choice before them.

Almost no other part of life works this way where money is concerned. In almost every other case, the person choosing the item to be purchased is the person who has to pay for that item. This tends to encourage people to be cost conscious in their choices since they have to bear the financial consequences of their choices. However, doctors don’t have to purchase the drugs they prescribe for patients any more than faculty have to bear the financial consequences of the textbooks they choose for their students. Once you cleanly separate the act of choosing from the financial consequences of that choice, you destroy traditional “market forces” and things don’t work “as they should.”

But I’m not really sure why I’m explaining all this – because it seems like Stephen genuinely isn’t concerned about the the formal education context in the larger scheme of things:

But none of this matters a whole lot, except to university students.

He is clearly more focused on enabling learning outside the institution. And as I said before, good for him. I’m glad he is. Someone needs to be.

He continues:

The real barrier here is the $8 cost per copy of Pride and Prejudice. Even at $8 per book, most people in the would cannot afford even a small fraction of the world’s literature. That’s why we (still) need libraries, and cost-free digital copies, and the rest of it. That’s why access, over and above mere licensing, remains an issue.

Why is it that cost-free digital copies of Pride and Prejudice exist and cost-free digital copies of Biology don’t? Because the copyright has expired on Pride and Prejudice – that is, it’s because people have permission to copy, edit, and redistribute it however they like.

I don’t think Stephen really believes that the solution to the worldwide access problem lies in building more physical libraries and filling them with more printed books, but again I invite him to correct me if I’m wrong.

The price matters, and for most people in the world the price matters more than the license. A free fully-copyrighted book in the hand is worth much more than an unaffordable open-licensed book any day. Unless, of course, the real benefit of open licenses is that the resources are free.

This language implies that there can only be one real benefit of open licenses. I disagree. There are many benefits of OER, and I was clear in my last post that “increased access and affordability are one of many ways students benefit when their faculty adopt OER.” Though it has drifted somewhat, this entire conversation started when I proposed that talking about access and affordability was no longer the best way to persuade faculty to adopt OER – it was never about which of the many purported benefits of OER is the “real” one. There are several benefits, and by definition all benefits are beneficial. (I have argued that the many benefits of OER stem from their open licensing (permissions), but that is an altogether different argument from which benefit is the “real” one.)

I will repeat something I’ve said many times to David Wiley around the issues of business models and licensing: you can do whatever you want with your work and your content. I don’t care. But don’t tell us what to do with ours.

I can’t tell Stephen what to do any more than he can tell me what to do. I’ve been advocating for CC BY for years. Has he changed his approach to licensing? Of course not, because I can’t tell anyone what to do. All I can do is advocate for what I think is the best approach, just like Stephen can. I’m not sure what I’m being asked to do here – stop advocating for the approach I think is best? I certainly wouldn’t ask others to do so. Yes, I would try to persuade them to think differently about things (as exemplified by this series of blog posts), but I would never suggest Stephen stop writing or advocating for the approach he believes in.

Stephen then makes a comment on my desire to work within formal educational institutions:

Wiley is clear that he wants to focus on the three percent.

This one leaves me a little speechless. For many years now my work has focused quite deliberately on US community colleges. I understand from the tone of Stephen’s comment that he believes the members of this “three percent” who attend formal educational institutions to be affluent and privileged. Maybe he doesn’t know that 14% of these students have been homeless in the last 12 months and 33% of them have experienced food insecurity in the last 30 days. Yes, there is definitely work that needs doing here, and yes, I intend to continue doing it.

Stephen then recounts a little of the history of my relationship with the term “open pedagogy.” I was a big fan of the term until it became so contested that there was no agreement about what it meant. Once that became clear, I searched for a different phrase that had never been used before (i.e., I did Google searches looking for phrases that turned up literally no results). I settled on OER-enabled pedagogy. Not only did it not have a contested definition, it didn’t look like anyone had ever written the words together in that order before. This seemed like safe territory, imbuing a heretofore unused phrase with a clear definition. But it hasn’t turned out that way.


He writes, “Exploring and leveraging the new ways of learning enabled by open licenses is the core of what OER-enabled pedagogy is all about.” Most people would read that as meaning “exploring and leveraging the new ways of learning generated though access to all.” I think it’s pretty clear that Wiley means something different.

Yes, I mean something very different – as I described very clearly in the post where I introduced the phrase to the world late this spring. And actually, thousands of people have heard me use this phrase since I coined it, in settings from large keynotes with a question and answer period to small roundtable conversations. No one has ever indicated that they misunderstand the phrase in the way Stephen predicts that most people will.

In the final section of his post,  Stephen goes on the record declaring that he has no problem with Lumen charging a fee to be responsible for running, managing, and supporting an institution’s OER-related infrastructure. That’s terrific. But then he continues,

While it is being made to look like Lumen is charging only for running and managing an OER infrastructure, students are actually paying for the textbooks.

As I said before, the OER (or “the textbooks”) are all available to the public for free under open licenses on our site – Stephen even includes the link to the collection in his post. If what a faculty member wanted was a free textbook, they would just link their students to our site and be done with it. In fact, many faculty and students use our site (and others’ sites, like OpenStax’s PDFs) in this way.

We charge a fee when we manage and support an institution’s OER-related infrastructure. So what is that? Today, it’s an array of tools for authentication via single sign on; revising, remixing, managing, and attributing OER; aligning OER and assessments to learning outcomes; services for creating, editing, delivering, scoring, and reporting assessments back to the LMS; and analytics and messaging capabilities integrated with these other tools. All integrated cohesively within the LMS.

And to be clear, that infrastructure isn’t empty of content (though you can, of course, bring all the open content you like into the space). All the OER available to the public for free under open licenses on our site is also available within the hosted infrastructure – ready to be adopted and adapted by faculty and used by their students, with interesting and useful capabilities the LMS doesn’t provide. Michael Feldstein has done some great writing over the years in which he characterizes the intersection of content, platform capabilities, and learning design as “courseware” (see the chart at the bottom of the page). I think that, in the context of Michael’s specific definition of the term, “courseware” is a good description of Waymaker and OHM – they are both right in the center of that middle pie chart.

Stephen is disappointed that he can’t find the Waymaker source code in Lumen’s GitHub repository. Waymaker is, in fact, our name for the way we bring many tools together cohesively, including the open source Pressbooks, Candela, and Open Assessments source code in our GitHub repo. Much of the Waymaker code is there even though the repo names may not make that clear. In fact, all code underlying Waymaker is in the public repo except the code for the analytics dashboards and messaging services, which we have not yet released as open source. (I can’t give you a timeline today for when that will happen.)

The accusation that Lumen is “getting institutions to require that students pay a fee” to access OER is simply wrong. The OER are free and open to the public – anyone and everyone can use them without paying a fee. But when we maintain and support the infrastructure that provides the SSO, assessment services, grade passback, analytics, and other integrations –  we charge a fee. And if you don’t want or need those services, just link to the OER.

In summary, it does seem like most of the disagreement (and occasional confusion) between Stephen and me is my desire to work within the context of existing formal educational institutions and his desire to work outside / around them. Any discussion of tactics or strategies (e.g., questions of what will work best when advocating for OER adoption) that doesn’t recognize this fundamental difference in approach will likely (continue to) be frustratingly hard to follow.