OER / ZTC Advocates Have an AI Problem

At some point over the last decade, open educational resources (OER) advocacy in US higher education became zero textbook costs (ZTC) advocacy. The two are intertwined now in a manner that would be difficult to disentangle even if you wanted to try. There are plenty of practical reasons why this might have happened. For example, politicians understand costs much better than they understand learning, which makes policy work and other political advocacy around eliminating textbook costs far easier than advocating for ways that “open” (whatever that word means) might be leveraged to improve student outcomes. But OER / ZTC advocates have had a fundamental problem simmering for many years now, and the recent advent of large language models (LLMs) like GPT-4 will quickly bring that simmer to a boil.

The idea of “zero textbook costs” makes a kind of sense when you believe that the ideal instructional materials are books. Books contain static, unchanging words and pictures on a page. They’re perfect for printing or exporting as a PDF. And when you’re talking about a PDF – a digital file of which you can make seemingly infinite, perfect copies for fractions of a penny – I understand why one might expect the price of these files to eventually approach their true cost to deliver – free.

The elephant in the room is that the interactive capabilities of computers and the internet make it possible to create dramatically more effective educational materials than static books (whether print or PDF). The ability to provide learners with practice and immediate, corrective feedback is very powerful. CMU researchers have demonstrated that the learning effect of this kind of online interactive practice is approximately six times larger than the learning effects of either reading or watching video. However, these kinds of interactive learning materials have a cost associated with delivering them, which means that whether you get them CMU, OpenStax, Lumen Learning, or elsewhere, they typically have a price that is greater than zero. Consequently, because there is a price associated with using “courseware” (the term many people use for this kind of interactive educational resource), OER / ZTC supporters end up actively advocating against courseware and for static educational materials that will result in inferior learning outcomes for students – all in the name of saving them money. This is why I refer to this line of advocacy as “free no matter the cost.”

OER / ZTC advocates have largely succeeded in turning a blind eye to the courseware elephant in the room. But conversational LLMs like ChatGPT are a towering pyramid of elephants in the room. They take us all the way back to Bloom’s two sigma problem, in which Bloom and colleagues demonstrated that the average student – the average student – who is tutored full-time outperforms 98% of students who learn in a traditional classroom setting. Tutoring is an incredibly powerful teaching method, and LLMs have finally made this capability broadly available at a reasonable cost. There may be ineffective initial attempts, but eventually combining courseware with LLM-powered tutoring will dramatically improve outcomes for students who get the chance to use these tools.

But alas, some students won’t get that opportunity. As with courseware, LLMs have real costs associated with their hosting and delivery, meaning that learning materials that incorporate LLMs will have a price greater than zero. And this means that students whose faculty, department, institution, or state have guaranteed that students will pay zero dollars for their course materials will miss out on these next-generation learning materials.

Conversational LLMs like ChatGPT will confront OER / ZTC advocates with an even starker choice than courseware has in the past. Will they continue to advocate for “free no matter the cost,” even as it becomes more obvious that they are essentially advocating for decreased student learning? Maybe student complaints about OER / ZTC policies that, paradoxically, deny them access to these kinds of highly effective learning materials will finally move the learning materials discussion beyond “zero cost” and back to being focused on how we best support student learning. We can hope.

Is there a role for OER in this emerging learning materials landscape? I believe there will be. But that’s a topic for another time.