An Accidental, Systematic Attack on OER Sustainability Models

UPDATE: In a discussion about this post on LinkedIn, the following points of clarification were made: (1) the Kansas State University fee I use as an example below is a course type fee, not a course materials fee, (2) faculty have to proactively ask the university to charge their students this extra fee for their course, (3) despite being called the “Open/Alternative Textbook Initiative course fee,” only 10% of what students pay goes to the Open/Alternative Textbook Initiative – 90% of the money goes to the faculty member’s department, and (4) there is no way for students to opt out of paying this fee. So clearly this fee wasn’t the best example to use in making a point about the sustainability of OER.

On the other hand, I am utterly at a loss to understand how this fee is supposed to be better than inclusive access programs. The fee is incredibly deceptively named and there’s no way students can opt out of paying it. But that’s supposed to be ok because the fee’s administrative categorization is different?  Because it’s a course type fee instead of a course materials fee, the KSU fee is likely exempt from the effects of the current round of negotiated rulemaking. But the KSU fee may, unwittingly, chart a path forward for inclusive access and other similar programs. Institutions may simply need to establish “inclusive access” as a course type because, apparently those fees are ok?

I’m preserving the original post below rather than taking it down because, while the KSU fee was the wrong example to use, the arguments about ZTC initiatives undercutting the sustainability models of large-scale OER providers, as well as being classic examples of the free-rider problem, are still valid. 

A few weeks ago I wrote about how organizations in the OER community whose advocacy is focused almost exclusively on the cost of course materials could hurt the work being done by the rest of the OER community:

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.

Well, late last week we learned that at least some of these advocates are perfectly aware that these institutional OER programs will be prohibited under the proposed rule. Last week’s OER Digest links to a letter from the Student PIRGs to the US Secretary of Education that explicitly includes programs like the Kansas State initiative in the kinds of programs it encourages the Secretary to “curb” through the rulemaking process.

The sustainability of OER efforts has been a primary concern for the open education movement from the beginning back in the 1990s. It had become enough of a concern by 2007 that the OECD convened a special meeting on the topic, which resulted in significant contributions from Downes, myself, and others on the topic. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it took decades to find models to sustain the creation, maintenance, and ongoing improvement of OER that actually work in practice (as opposed to “working” in an academic paper) – beyond the pseudo-model of “write more grants.”

However, as I said in my last post, it feels like every time someone in the OER community finds a model that promises to sustain the creation, maintenance, and ongoing improvement of OER, someone else in the OER community finds a way to undercut that model.

An Accidental, Systematic Attack on OER Sustainability Models

Whether they realize it or not, advocates are targeting the sustainability models of both the ecosystem-level OER creators (like OpenStax) through their advocacy for ZTC policies and the institution-level OER creators (like Kansas State) through their more recent rulemaking advocacy. Those in the community whose advocacy is focused on the cost of course materials, and especially those who advocate for “zero textbook cost” (ZTC) initiatives and policies, are actively undercutting the sustainability model used by OpenStax, Lumen, Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative, and others, as I have described at length previously. And this latest rulemaking advocacy is a different kind of example – some creative institutions actually found a way to sustain their local OER efforts, only to see others in the OER community find a way to undercut those efforts (or in this case, try to make them illegal!).

ZTC programs are a textbook example (pardon the pun) of the classic free-rider problem:

The free-rider problem is a type of market failure that occurs when those who benefit from resources, public goods and common pool resources do not pay for them or under-pay.

(And yes, OER are public goods not common pool resources.)

If only a few institutions forbid students from being assigned materials that have any costs associated with them, there may be little harm done. But what would happen if every institution in the US had a ZTC initiative? What would happen to OpenStax if the ongoing revenue they receive from their numerous homework system and other platform partners (including Lumen) suddenly disappeared because of ZTC initiatives? If a large number of institutions were ever to adopt ZTC policies – that is, if a large number of institution became free-riders – much of the broader OER ecosystem could collapse. There would be a large body of orphaned OER with no one responsible for maintenance or updates. And it wouldn’t take long before faculty stopped using these out-of-date resources and returned to more expensive, traditionally copyrighted resources.

And if the rulemaking advocacy is successful, and individual institutions lose their mechanism for funding their OER efforts, you can expect to see institutional programs across the country – like OER mini-grants that fund faculty creating or adopting OER – be cancelled because their funding disappears. And there might be follow-on effects, like decreasing registration rates for OER conferences as funding to participate disappears. &c.

OER advocates often hold up commercial publishers as the bogeyman that threatens to destroy the OER movement and undo all the righteous work it is trying to do. But it looks like OER advocates are doing far more harm to the OER movement than commercial publishers ever have or will. There are several possible futures in which the OER movement as we know it ceases to exist – and none of them are the result of the efforts of commercial publishers. I don’t think that advocates are consciously trying to harm the OER movement, but doing it accidentally doesn’t change the outcome.