“ZTC Thinking” and the Hybrid OER Sustainability Model

This week on the blog I’m serializing a talk I gave for CSU Channel Islands last week as part of their Open Education Week festivities. My talk was titled, The State of Open: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In the first installment on Monday, I explained how a fundamental failure to understand copyright makes the definition of OER in the new UNESCO recommendation nonsensical. In the second installment yesterday, I described how it appears that many in the OER community have taken their eye off the ball of student learning. In this third installment I’ll talk about the impact of what I call “ZTC thinking” on the long-term sustainability of OER.

Image by annca from Pixabay

The search for a model that will reliably sustain OER initiatives over the long-term has been underway for over 20 years. While there have been many people working on many different aspects of OER over these two decades, I will focus below on three organizations that (1) create OER, (2) proactively advocate for OER adoption, (3) provide direct support to faculty for OER adoption, and (4) do these at national scale – Rice’s OpenStax, Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative, and Lumen Learning. As we’ll see below, these three organizations’ similar goals create similar sustainability challenges and opportunities. I started working on open content in 1998. Rich Baraniuk (founder of Connexions and later OpenStax) started in 1999. CMU OLI launched in 2002. So we really are talking about 20 years of thought, iteration, and struggle to find a way to sustainably support the large-scale creation and adoption of OER in higher education.

There have been a number of important theoretical contributions to the topic of OER sustainability over the years. I would point specifically to papers published as part of an OECD convening on the topic in 2006, including contributions from myself, Dholakia, King, and Baraniuk, and Downes. However, as the revised and remixed saying goes, no business plan survives first contact with customers. These theoretical contributions were intellectually stimulating, but real progress wasn’t made on OER sustainability until people started quitting their jobs and betting their mortgages on their ability to sustainably impact student learning at scale with OER.

At a high level, OpenStax, OLI, and Lumen have all evolved to use essentially the same two-part sustainability model. In part one of the model, one-time funding (like grants) pays for the large, one-time cost of creating something new, like a new open textbook or online homework system. In part two of the model, ongoing revenue from product sales pays for ongoing costs like maintenance, improvement, upgrades, and the various costs involved in keeping an organization running. (It’s not quite this clean. For example, many grants allow a small amount (10%) to be spent on the overhead associated with running an organization. Also, when there’s enough revenue it can be used to support one-time R&D expenses. But hopefully you get the broad picture.) Each organizations’ product offerings are listed below:

Organization OER Product Offerings
OpenStax Free and open on their website Print copies: $25 – $90
OpenStax Tutor homework system: $10
Rover by OpenStax math system: $22
Technology partners’ products: $10 – $50 
Open Learning Initiative  Free and open on their website OLI adaptive courseware: $25
Lumen Learning Free and open on their website Waymaker adaptive courseware: $25
OHM math courseware: $25

I’ll call this “one-time funding plus revenue from product sales” approach the “hybrid OER sustainability model” below.

There are three incredibly interesting things about the hybrid OER sustainability model these three organizations are using. The first is that it’s actually working. After 20+ years of searching for way to sustainably impact student learning at scale with OER, it feels like we’re finally beginning to understand the “sustainably” part. (On the Lumen side, a large portion of the credit goes to our amazingly smart and creative CEO, Kim Thanos.) There’s still more for us all to learn about how to tweak and optimize the hybrid OER sustainability model, but it’s working.

The second incredibly interesting thing is the degree to which the hybrid OER sustainability model blends a more traditional business model (where one-time funds are investments instead of grants, and product sales support ongoing operations) with a more traditional non-profit model (where there are only one-time funds, and the products created with those grants are given away for free to make the world a better place). All three of these organizations provide interesting case studies in social entrepreneurship, in which the tools and techniques of traditional entrepreneurship are leveraged for social good.

The third incredibly interesting thing about the hybrid OER sustainability model is that ZTC thinking rejects it outright. When the primary goal of a campus-wide or system-wide ZTC initiative is to insure that no one pays for course materials, a consequence of that initiative is that it prevents organizations from using this model to sustain themselves. If every college and university in the US adopted this kind of initiative, what would happen? One of my favorite sayings explains the undeniably central role of cash in an organization’s sustainability – “no organization ever closed its doors because they ran out of strategy.” What an irony it would be if, instead of the clever tactics of commercial publishers, it was the ZTC initiatives championed by OER advocates that ultimately drove OER organizations like OpenStax, OLI, and Lumen out of business.

I’m still hopeful that people advocating for ZTC programs will recognize the effect their efforts can have on OER organizations. There are a range of creative ways to have your cake and eat it too – models where students pay nothing but organizations still have a path to sustainability, like the innovative partnership between SUNY and Lumen. But campus leaders won’t begin to look for these creative solutions until they recognize the problem ZTC thinking ultimately causes – short-term wins at the cost of long-term losses.

Taking Our Eye Off the Ball

This week on the blog I’m serializing a talk I gave for CSU Channel Islands last week as part of their Open Education Week festivities. My talk was titled, The State of Open: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I posted the first installment yesterday, explaining how a fundamental failure to understand copyright makes the definition of OER in the new UNESCO recommendation nonsensical. In this second installment, I want to describe how it appears that many in the OER community have taken their eye off the ball.

Fumble by Adam Baker is licensed CC BY. https://flic.kr/p/5BAzdV

It seems like much of the OER community has all but forgotten about student learning. The community’s increasingly myopic focus on affordability leaves little space to ask questions about the impact of OER adoption or OER-enabled pedagogies on student learning or other measures of student success. While every OER initiative in US higher ed measures cost savings, the initiatives that explore the implications of OER adoption for student learning are few and far between. Affordability seems to have become the end goal of OER advocacy, instead of being an important step on the path to improving student learning.

The last decade of research on OER, cost savings, and student learning has clearly established two findings:

  • Using OER does consistently and reliably lower the cost of course materials
  • Using OER does not consistently and reliably improve student learning or other measures of student success

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Researchers from OpenStax have cleverly demonstrated that increasing access to course materials is not likely to measurably improve student success. But we desperately need consistent and reliable improvement in student learning and other measures of student success.

Just how desperately do we need these improvements?

Success rates among students seeking four year degrees are unacceptably low. As shown in the following visualization, the overall graduation rate from a four year degree program is only 60% even when measured after six years.

Graduation rates from first institution attended for first-time, full-time bachelor’s degree-seeking students at 4-year postsecondary institutions, by race/ethnicity and time to completion: Cohort entry year 2010

Source: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_red.asp

Success rates among students in two year degree programs are abysmally low. As shown in the following visualization, the overall graduation rate from a two year degree program is only 30% even when measured after three years.

Graduation rate within 150 percent of normal time for degree completion from first institution attended for first-time, full-time associate’s degree/certificate-seeking students at 2-year postsecondary institutions, by race/ethnicity: Cohort entry year 2013

Source: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_red.asp

Affordability is certainly important, but is affordability our end goal? If affordability is our end goal, our “hang the ‘Mission Accomplished!’ banner” moment will look like this: “30% graduation rates, now more affordable!”

Improving affordability is a critically important step, but it should not be our end goal. Our end goal must be consistently and reliably improving student learning and other measures of student success. These success measures only improve consistently and reliably when faculty and student engagement in effective teaching and learning practices increases. And changing faculty’s pedagogical habits and students’ study habits is much more complicated than changing the course materials they use.

When we are truly committed to using OER as a lever to improve student learning and other student success measures – that is, when our eye is back on the ball – tracking and reporting changes in these metrics will be as common for OER initiatives as estimating and reporting cost savings is today. Yes, these are certainly harder to measure than cost savings. But they’re also far more important.

Actually, the UNESCO Recommendation Makes Most OER Impossible

This week on the blog I’m serializing a talk I gave for CSU Channel Islands last week as part of their Open Education Week festivities. My talk was titled, The State of Open: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In this first bite-sized installment I’m going to address the major flaw in the OER definition provided as part of the recent UNESCO OER Recommendation. I’ve written about this in general terms before, but with more time to ponder I now have a much clearer – and simpler – understanding of the problem.

tl;dr – The UNESCO definition of OER requires something impossible – a copyright license that grants permission to engage in an activity that isn’t regulated by copyright law.


The definition in the recommendation as set forth in Section I. Definition and Scope reads:

1. Open Educational Resources (OER) are learning, teaching and research materials in any format and medium that reside in the public domain or are under copyright that have been released under an open license, that permit no-cost access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution by others.

2. Open license refers to a license that respects the intellectual property rights of the copyright owner and provides permissions granting the public the rights to access, re-use, re-purpose, adapt and redistribute educational materials.

UNESCO (who coined the term) and many others (including the Hewlett Foundation, which appears to have adopted the new language) have always defined OER exclusively in terms of copyright status. This continues to be true in the new definition above – OER are resources that are either (1) in the public domain or (2) released under a copyright license that grants a specific set of permissions.

The first part of the problem with the definition is a fundamental misunderstanding of copyright, which is revealed in the list of permissions required for a license to be considered “open” and, consequently, for an educational resource to be considered “open.” That list of permissions is repeated in both sections I.1 and I.2 of the new recommendation, albeit in slightly different forms. For a license to be “open,” it must grant the following permissions: “no-cost access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation, and redistribution by others.”

The second part of the problem has to do with the nature of copyright. Copyright regulates four kinds of activity:

  • Making copies
  • Making adaptations
  • Public display or performance
  • Distributing copies

When you combine parts one and two, you arrive at the problem. The list of permissions UNESCO requires to be included in an open copyright license is impossible to include in a copyright license. The table below maps the activities regulated by copyright into the language of the UNESCO definition.

(c) Regulated Activity UNESCO Definition 
Making copies N/A
Making adaptations Re-purpose, adaptation
Public display or performance Re-use
Distributing copies Redistribution
N/A No-cost access

“Access” is not an activity that is regulated by copyright. Consequently, access can be neither prohibited nor permitted by a copyright license. Here is a brief list of activities copyright cannot regulate:

  • Going for a walk
  • Eating a piece of cake
  • Planting a maple tree
  • Driving a car
  • Accessing an educational resource

Pause for just a moment and imagine what some of the consequences would be if copyright regulated access. If traditional copyright protection prohibited no-cost access, libraries could not exist. You would be prohibited from having no-cost access to books under standard copyright protection. Only specially licensed materials could be made available in a library – materials with a copyright license that specifically permitted no-cost access. Obviously copyright doesn’t work this way.

The UNESCO definition of OER requires something impossible – a copyright license that grants permission to engage in an activity that isn’t regulated by copyright law. It’s worth understanding that if a country, organization, or other entity were to adopt and strictly adhere to the UNESCO definition of OER, only works in the public domain would qualify as OER (since it’s impossible for a copyright license to meet the requirements necessary to be “open” according to the UNESCO definition).

At the same time the UNESCO definition requires copyright licenses to include a permission they cannot grant, it also fails to require them to include the most important permission they can grant – permission to make a copy. Without permission to make a copy, it is quite impossible to exercise the permissions to adapt, re-use, and redistribute.

This problem could have been avoided if the final recommendation had maintained the language of the last public draft, which was based on the 5Rs. The 5Rs specifically and purposefully map directly into the activities regulated by copyright. All the permissions required to be granted by a copyright license under the 5Rs definition can be expressed in a copyright license.

(c) Regulated Activity 5Rs Definition 
Making copies Retain
Making adaptations Revise, remix
Public display or performance Reuse
Distributing copies Redistribute

Until UNESCO is able to change their definition, I would encourage you to consider a definition based on the 5Rs like the one at openeducationalresources.org.