open content

Comments on the US DoEd Proposed Rule – Open Textbook Pilot Program

I submitted the following comment today on the Department of Education’s proposed rule “Open Textbook Pilot Program.” The deadline to submit a comment is April 30, so read the rule and get your comments in soon.

It may surprise readers to find me arguing against requirements of openness in some of my comments. But in the spirit of “pragmatism before zeal,” I argue in my comments specifically against three unintended consequences of open requirements as they pertain to LMSs, efficacy research, and assessment security / adoptability. It is true that, if the Department acts on my first two comments below, there are aspects of the work that might otherwise have been open that will not end up being open. However, if the Department does act on these comments, the parts of the work that are open will be more widely adopted, will result in more students saving more money, and, most importantly, will result in more students learning more.

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is David Wiley. Please allow me to say a few words regarding my qualifications for commenting on the Open Textbook Pilot Program. I hold a PhD in Instructional Psychology and Technology from Brigham Young University. My publications about open education have been cited over 4000 times ( I am the author of the 5Rs framework ( that many colleges and universities use to frame their open education initiatives. I am the founder of the Open Education Conference, which recently met for its 16th annual convening. I previously ran a major university research center dedicated to open education (the Center for Open and Sustainable Learning at Utah State University) and I am currently the Chief Academic Officer of Lumen Learning. In calendar 2019, Lumen Learning directly supported over 250,000 students in using open educational resources. We estimate that these students collectively saved over $30M. Another 75 million learners freely accessed the open educational resources on our website in 2019.

In this letter I am consolidating previous comments I have made on this program as well as adding new comments.

The Definition of “Open Textbook”

The proposed definition of “open textbook” reads, in part:

“An open textbook may also include a variety of open educational resources or materials used by instructors in the development of a course and those learning activities necessary for successful completion of a course by students. These include any learning exercises, technology-enabled experiences (e.g., simulations), and adaptive support and assessment tools.”

The text is unclear regarding whether or not the tools that provide adaptive support, the tools that provide assessment capabilities, and any other tools that might be used to store, manage, deliver, augment, or support “open textbooks” must also be openly licensed. The text is also unclear regarding whether or not these tools must be made available to students for free. It is absolutely critical that the rule clarify these questions.

Specifically, it is critically important that the answer to these questions be “no.” The overwhelming majority of “open textbooks” used in US higher education today are delivered to students via learning management systems (LMSs) like Blackboard, Canvas, and Desire2Learn. Grant recipients will rightly want to continue this practice. However, the majority of LMSs are (1) not openly licensed and (2) have hosting, maintenance, and other associated costs that institutions frequently pass on to students (e.g., as part of a mandatory technology fee). Requiring grant recipients to use only openly licensed or freely available tools to support the delivery, usage, maintenance, and support of “open textbooks” will effectively prohibit awardees from using their own learning management systems to offer classes with “open textbooks.” This would be a horrible consequence.

It is also true that the overwhelming majority of non-LMS technology platforms that provide adaptive, assessment, and other complementary capabilities are neither openly licensed nor freely available. Requiring all tools used in conjunction with “open textbooks” to be openly licensed or freely available will also prohibit awardees from leveraging a wide range of teaching and learning capabilities in conjunction with their “open textbooks”. It would also be quite curious, given that the primary technology platforms used by previous awardees under this program – namely, LibreTexts and Smart Sparrow – are both proprietary technology platforms.

A prohibition on using proprietary technology platforms in conjunction “open textbooks” would also sabotage Proposed Priority 3(b), which requires awardees to evaluate the impact of open textbooks on learning outcomes and course outcomes. When the treatment group of students are using “open textbooks” that are required to be essentially static content (like a PDF) delivered outside of the campus learning management system, and the control group are using equivalent content integrated within the LMS and complemented by advanced adaptive, assessment, and other capabilities, the impact of “open textbooks” on student outcomes is all but guaranteed to be negative. This would also be a horrible consequence of the proposed rule.

In conclusion, the proposed rule should be amended to clearly state that, for the purposes of the grant, the tools used in conjunction with “open textbooks” are not required to be either openly licensed or freely available.

Licensing of Ancillary Resources

The proposed rule mentions “ancillary learning resources,” “ancillary instructional materials,” and “ancillary materials” but does not define any of these terms. While instructional content produced under the grant must be made available under a “worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, and irrevocable license to the public to exercise any of the rights under copyright conditioned only on the requirement that attribution be given as directed by the copyright owner,” the licensing status of ancillaries is never addressed directly in the proposed rule. It must be.

Presumably, the category of ancillaries includes individual assessment items, assessment banks, complete quizzes, homework problems, assignments, rubrics, and model answers. It is critically important that there NOT be a requirement for assessments designed to measure student learning to be released under the same open licensing terms as instructional content. If assessments designed to measure student learning (hereafter, “assessments”) are required to be openly licensed, the department’s investment in their creation will be wasted within a matter of months.

Assessments from a wide range of commercial publishers and OER providers inevitably end up on cheating websites where students share questions and answers with one another. Once that happens, all a student has to do is type a partial question into Google and they can immediately find correct answer information. When assessments are traditionally copyrighted, a takedown notice can be issued to a website publicly sharing copyrighted assessments. However, when assessments are openly licensed, a cheating website is within its rights to continue publishing homework and quiz answers. While the game of whack-a-mole with various cheating sites that publish copyrighted assessments can be time consuming, copyright at least makes it possible to demand that assessments are taken down. When assessments are openly licensed, there is no recourse for the assessment creator. In other words, the open licensing of assessments undermines assessment security.

Faculty frequently spot check questions in assessment banks to see if the answers are available to students online. If they find the answers online, faculty know they can’t use those assessments in their courses. Inasmuch as the availability of ancillaries like assessments is a major factor in faculty decisions to adopt “open textbooks,” the goals of the proposed rule would be served greatly by encouraging the creators of assessments to maintain traditional copyrights on those assessments. The language of the proposed rule should make it clear that they are permitted to do so.

In conclusion, the proposed rule should be amended to clearly state that, for the purposes of the grant, the ancillary resources created in conjunction with “open textbooks” are not required to be openly licensed.

Technical Assistance Providers

As currently written, an “eligible applicant” is a consortium comprised of “at least” IHEs, a single educational technology or curriculum design expert, and an advisory group of “sector partners.” While the language “at least” in the definition of “eligible applicant” does not rule out the inclusion of organizations that provide technical assistance in consortia, the proposed rule should be amended to specifically state that “technical assistance providers” are permitted to be members of consortia. Technical assistance providers have specialized expertise that will likely be valuable to grantees under the program. For example, Creative Commons, the organization that creates the copyright licenses used by the overwhelming majority of “open textbooks,” has previously provided technical assistance to recipients of federal grants as awardees have worked to comply with open licensing requirements. There is no reason to discriminate between non-profit and for-profit entities in the provision of technical assistance to grantees.

In conclusion, the proposed rule should be amended to make clear that consortia with technical assistance providers as members are “eligible applicants,” and that both non-profit and for-profit entities are eligible to serve as technical assistance providers.


Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed rule. I look forward to the Department following Congressional direction this year in awarding a large number of smaller grants under the Open Textbooks Pilot Program.


David Wiley, PhD

open content

The Musician’s Rule

It’s well established in the educational research literature that explicitly connecting new information to prior knowledge improves learning. So, let’s do that for what may be the single most important point that can be made as we rush madly to move all classes online – professional development of faculty is critical to student success anytime, but especially in online teaching and learning contexts.

Here’s a simple explanation that will help most institutional leaders and faculty make the connection. I call it the Musician’s Rule:

It doesn’t matter whether you give a person a $30 student violin or a $1M Stradivarius. If you don’t also give them violin lessons, they’ll probably sound terrible.

And, the corollary:

Pretty soon thereafter – regardless of how much you paid for the violin – they’ll probably stop playing it altogether.

Our investments in educational technologies should always be matched with investments in our faculty. If they’re not, we risk spending millions on fancy violins our faculty will play once or twice, poorly, and then abandon out of frustration. And make no mistake – that’s not a criticism of faculty. It’s an opportunity for those who lead and support facultty to lead and support them more effectively. And it’s more important now than perhaps it ever has been before.

Professional development matters.

open content

“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 and maintain 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. Candace Thille founded CMU’s OLI 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, maintenance, 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 a 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.