What Difference Does It Make?

Last week I shared a little of my thinking about the problems inherent in the way people in the field talk about OER. Primary among those problems is our bewildering refusal to talk about the permissions necessary to engage in the 5R activities. These permissions are a critical part of the definition of what it means for a learning resource to be open. Second among the problems I discussed is our seeming inability to be clear about OER being free (the other critical part of the definition of what it means for a learning resource to be open), while services provided in conjunction with OER might cost money.

Those problems manifested themselves plainly in my newsfeed this morning. Like they do every day. For example, here’s an upcoming webinar from Inside Higher Ed about “The OER Moment“:

There’s a supposed definition of OER in the very first sentence, but there’s no mention of permissions anywhere. According to IHE, OER are nothing more than free online materials like a story you might read on the New York Times website or a photograph you might see on the National Geographic website – and they’re about to hold a webinar in which they’ll repeat this alternative fact to everyone attending. And it’s not IHE’s fault that they have this deeply impoverished view of OER – they’re learning about OER from us, the OER advocates.

Or take this story from the Houston Chronicle:

From the first word of the headline, we find ourselves back in the free versus affordable confusion. The OER produced by OpenStax are free – that’s why they’re OER. As a value-added service, OpenStax makes printed copies of their OER available for $30 – $60. That’s fairly cheap compared to what people pay for traditional textbooks, so in that light the headline sort of makes sense. But again, (1) there’s no mention of permissions anywhere and (2) we’ve confused the issue of what is free (the OER) and what is affordable (the service of printing).

Publishers absolutely delight in this “cheap textbooks” framing of the OER message because (1) they can lower their prices so as to be competitive with “cheap” and (2) the language of “textbooks” sounds super 1960s while publishers are talking about systems that can provide students with an infinite amount of practice with immediate feedback.

As a brief aside, we’re killing ourselves with the way we talk about formats, too. For example, take this quote from the article – “OpenStax textbooks … are available in digital PDF versions and cheaper $30 print editions.” Of course they’re available in other formats, too, but those formats are mostly useful for facilitating the 5R activities enabled by those permissions we keep ignoring. The notion that OER are either PDFs or printed materials perpetuates the feeling that the entire movement is way behind the times and gives publishers additional fodder to attack us.

BTW, did you know that it’s entirely possible to implement some of the most basic insights from educational psychology – the very principles enacted in many of these online practice systems – in print? The spacing effect can be practiced using Leitner boxes, for example. (I’m not suggesting that we start selling supplementary shoe boxes and index cards, I just thought you might find it interesting.)

I know you shake your head in genuine wonder, asking yourself “Why does he care? What difference does it make which words we use? Nobody cares about permissions! Doesn’t he get sick of writing the same blog post over and over again, complaining about definitions and language?”

You bet I get sick of it.

But here’s why I keep fighting – somewhere around 75% of faculty still haven’t heard about OER.  That means there’s still time for OER advocates to get our acts together. There’s still time for us to help the majority of faculty understand the true power of OER.

Being “free online materials” is not the true power of OER.

Being “cheap textbooks” is not the true power of OER.

If a 2022 Babson survey of faculty shows 92% faculty awareness of OER, with the majority of faculty agreeing with the statement “OER are free materials,” OER advocates will have no one but ourselves to blame. We’re asleep at the wheel. The time to steer the conversation is now, while people are still being introduced to the idea of OER – not five years from now when our decades of work have been reduced to “cheap textbooks.” We need to start talking about permissions – and sharing the powerful things that happen when faculty and students leverage them.

I hope I speak for all of us when I say: I haven’t spent the last 19 years of my life fighting to create cheaper textbooks. I’m trying to lay the foundation for a fundamental shift – a real revolution – in teaching and learning. I’m fully aware I’m playing a very long game, and I expect to play it another 20 years with little hope of seeing the vision completely fulfilled. However, it is a game worth playing and a vision worth fighting for. And neither “cheaper” nor “free” can get us there. Only “free plus permissions” can.


In a recent webinar about OER, organized by one of the major textbook publishers, there was a lot of conversation about whether OER are “free” or “affordable.” This conversation was problematic in two ways.

Before I begin though, just to be clear, allow me to reaffirm that OER are free, plain and simple, full stop, period. That is literally part of the definition of OER. OER = free + permissions.

Problem the First

The first problem with the conversation about “free” vs “affordable” is this: it conflates OER (which are definitely free) with value-added services offered in conjunction with OER. We all use one or more of these value-added services as we provide OER to students, but frequently we background the costs associated with some of them (engaging in what Thaler called “mental accounting“). For example, we charge students a mandatory fee to pay for the campus LMS (from which OER are often provided) but tend to ignore that platform expenditure when we think about the cost of OER to students.

Some of these value-added services do a better job of improving student learning than others. Some are better aligned with the values of the open education community than others. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Lumen falls into this category of providing value-added services around OER.)

We should never conflate the cost of value-added services offered in conjunction with OER with the cost of the OER itself. Once they have been produced and openly licensed, OER are free to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute. The platforms from which they are provided, the tools for revising and remixing and attributing, the time and expertise to vet licenses and confirm attribution, the data collection and analysis necessary to drive meaningful continuous improvement of the resources, the actual maintenance and improvement of the resources over time, faculty training and teacher professional development, and a whole host of other OER-related services may or may not be free, affordable, or insanely expensive.

Reasonable people might argue over whether the added cost of paying for a particular value-added service actually results in additional value proportional to the cost. I believe this question to be critically important, and have been shouting from the rooftops for years about the need to talk about “learning outcomes per dollar,” maybe in terms of an OER Impact Factor. I would strongly argue that many of these value-added services are worth paying for (though maybe not as much as they currently cost). And these are empirical questions for which we can go find (and publish) answers. But a conversation about the ROI of a value-added service only makes sense if you cleanly separate out the OER, which is free, from the value-added service, which costs money. Conversations about “whether OER should be free or affordable” completely fail to make this important distinction.

Problem the Second

The second, and larger, problem with the free versus affordable debate is that it’s a decoy. A distraction. A first class, super skillful, street corner magician “look over here so you don’t see what’s happening over there” sleight of hand. When OER advocates say “free” and publishers say “affordable,” launching into an argument about the distance between those two positions (and obfuscating the difference between OER and value-added services), it’s an easy debate to get lost in. Certainly interesting enough to consume your attention for an entire webinar. However, the true strategy here isn’t to narrow the distance between free and affordable in the mind of the listener (though you might think it is). The real purpose is to prevent the listener from turning their attention from “free” to “permissions.”

Remember that whole open = free + permissions thing? If you’re reading this blog you probably already knew that. But at least 2/3 of US faculty don’t. If publishers can insure that every time faculty talk about OER that conversation devolves into a nuanced and subtle discussion about the distinction between free and affordable, they can keep faculty from ever thinking about permissions. And that is page one of the publisher playbook. That is the real goal.

From a messaging perspective, I continue to believe that OER advocates should place more emphasis on permissions because this is the aspect of OER to which publishers have no answer. Publishers simply have no response to the 5Rs. When someone starts talking about how small the difference is between free and affordable, just turn the conversation to permissions by asking a question like, “Am I free to make as many copies of the material as I like?” “Can I make word or paragraph-level changes to the content so that it speaks more directly to my students?” “Can I give away free copies of the material to my students?” “Can my students and I engage in the collaborative co-creation of new knowledge as we jointly revise and remix your materials with others?”


Open education wins this argument every time, and I continue to be baffled as to why we as a field just seem uninterested in having it. Maybe even the majority of the open education field fails to understand that this is where the real power in what we’re doing lies?

Understanding that open = free + permissions only matters if we occasionally remember to talk about those permissions (not to mention personally leveraging them to the benefit of our own students). That is exactly what publishers want to distract us from doing, and they’re succeeding.

Make no mistake – as long as webinars, conference panels, and other conversations about OER focus on cost (free versus affordable) we are letting publishers set the terms of the debate. We need to reclaim them.



I said above that publishers simply have no response to the 5Rs. That will remain true until the day they join the OER movement and begin releasing their own content under CC licenses, completing their transformation from publishers into platform companies. I am increasingly convinced that that day is coming. Have you thought about how you will respond? Will you thank them, welcome their contributions to the Commons, and begin revising, remixing, and reusing their content ? Are you willing to “let them in” to the movement (at least in your own heart and mind)? You need to be getting your answers to these questions ready.

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This is just a quick note to say that if you’re following the work being done on JSON feeds (as a compliment to – or potential replacement for – RSS), I’ve activated JSON feeds on opencontent.org. If you want to try reading Iterating Toward Openness that way, you can access this new feed at https://opencontent.org/blog/feed/json.

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