Reflections on a Conversation about a US National Open Education Policy

UPDATE: It seems like whatever momentum there was around this conversation has died.

I recently attended one of the community meetings discussing whether or not a national open education policy is needed in the US. There were two other meetings I did not attend, so I can’t speak to them. But here are my quick takeaways from the meeting I did attend:

  • There was enthusiasm about the idea of a national open education policy. There were very few expressions of doubt about the need for a policy (beyond those I expressed). It felt like everyone who came to the meeting was already on board with creating a policy before we began discussing its merits.
  • No one knows what the purpose of such a policy would be. There was no discussion of what the goal would be of creating a national open education policy. There were several times during the meeting when attendees were asked to contribute their thoughts on a range of topics. Each time I asked some version of “what goal would this policy be trying to achieve?” No one seemed interested in discussing the question, neither the session moderators nor the participants. I asked the question repeatedly because it’s impossible to create effective policy without a clear goal that you’re trying to achieve with the policy.
  • I predict a national “open education” policy would end up being something like a national zero textbook cost policy. The sense I got is that reducing textbook costs isn’t enough anymore, the advocacy has moved on to eliminating them.¬†For many years now what people call OER advocacy has actually been “zero textbook cost” advocacy. This is partly because policymakers don’t understand openness, but they do understand costs. Consequently, in order to get a grant program created in your department / institution / system / state / country you have to focus on the amount of money the program will save constituents. So for the last decade or so there has been a lot of energy devoted to either “OER programs with a laser focus on cost savings” or “zero textbook cost” programs. The US Department of Education’s Open Textbooks Pilot program is a great example. It “supports projects at eligible institutions of higher education that create new open textbooks and expand the use of open textbooks in courses that are part of a degree-granting program, particularly those with high enrollments. This pilot program emphasizes the development of projects that demonstrate the greatest potential to achieve the highest level of savings for students through sustainable, expanded use of open textbooks in high-enrollment courses or in programs that prepare individuals for in-demand fields” (emphasis added). Expect to see more of this language – probably switching from “highest level of savings” to “eliminating costs” – in any future policy.
  • The policy may have little to nothing to do with openness. Because there are many ways to eliminate textbook costs or “achieve the highest level of savings for students without using OER (e.g., library resources, traditionally copyrighted resources online, etc.), a national “open education policy” may not actually end up being about open education at all. The one place openness might make an appearance is in language like, “one way to eliminate textbook costs is to adopt OER.” But it seems likely that OER and openness would play a supporting role to the real star of a policy, eliminating textbook costs.
  • A national zero textbook cost policy would be the beginning of the end for the OER movement as we know it. I’ve written before about how the adoption of “zero textbook cost” policies undercuts the sustainability models used by OpenStax and other large OER publishers, who sustain their efforts through sales of related products like homework systems and printed editions of their books. If some version of the zero textbook cost policies that exist at institutions were to be implemented nationally, it would be a death knell for major OER producers and maintainers.
  • OER advocates may see their national policy work backfire much sooner. Many OER advocates are vocal critics of inclusive access and equitable access models, and the US Department of Education is poised to prohibit schools from automatically billing students for their course materials. However, inclusive access and equitable access aren’t the only models that automatically charge students a fee for their course materials. Many institutions charge students a fee associated with their OER courses as a way of funding the institutions’ OER efforts. For example, Kansas State University’s Open/Alternative Textbook Initiative course fee is a $10 fee that is payed by students in courses that use OER and other free, traditionally copyrighted resources. But this fee, and others like it that have helped sustain institutional OER efforts for many years, will likely be prohibited under the new rule. These are very plainly fees for course materials that are automatically billed to students. The main difference between these fees and inclusive access models being that with inclusive access its possible to opt out. (It’s almost like every time the OER community finds a sustainable model, the OER community turns around and undercuts it!)
  • There was not a single mention of generative AI. I wrote at length a few weeks ago about how generative AI completely changes the future of OER, and specifically spelled out what that meant for a potential national policy on open education. I purposefully didn’t raise the topic of generative AI in the meeting because I wanted to see if anyone else would raise it. Generative AI wasn’t mentioned a single time. Creating a national open education policy in 2024 that didn’t account for generative AI would be like creating a national transportation policy centered around horses and buggies. If zero textbook cost policies and prohibitions on models like inclusive access don’t kill the OER movement, a determination to ignore generative AI for the same cost-related reasons definitely will.