Why Can’t OER Enjoy the Same Success as Open Source Software?

Opinion | Open Educational Resources (OER)

Why Can’t OER Enjoy the Same Success as Open Source Software?

By Brian Jacobs     Sep 3, 2014

Why Can’t OER Enjoy the Same Success as Open Source Software?

Few today would consider the greatest strength of Open Source Software (OSS) that it is free. Indeed, it has lowered costs. But more fundamentally, it’s reshaped the way we think about the production, distribution, and sharing of software as an artifact. It has challenged centuries-old notions of property rights and authorship, and through these challenges inspired new socio-economic relationships and countless innovations.

Open Educational Resources (OER) have the capacity to extend this framework to education, provided that their proponents likewise view them as more than simply a means of lowering content costs. At the same time, one must also recognize the distinctions between the actors (hackers vs. instructors) and their products (software vs. educational materials). The achievable goal for OER by doing this is that it reshapes pedagogy as profoundly as OSS has reshaped software.

These are some of the points I made in an essay published last week. David Wiley, one of the leaders of the movement, then published a critical response to some of my views. His response is well worth reading.

The umbrage focuses on the issues of cost and the distinction between software and content. I think it’s non-controversial that the movement for open educational content emerged mimetically, and that early advocates, including Wiley, saw themselves as mapping the OSS production models to educational content.

There’s lots of evidence for this, but here’s a central one: his proposal for an open content license (back before the creation of Creative Commons in 2001) states that “OpenContent is freely available for modification, use, and redistribution under a license similar to those used by the Open Source / Free Software community.”

There is also a critical difference: Unlike the standard OSS license (both then and now), Wiley’s license prohibited one from charging for open content at all: “You must cause any work that you distribute or publish, that in whole or in part contains or is derived from the OC or any part thereof, to be licensed as a whole at no charge to all third parties under the terms of this License, unless otherwise permitted under applicable Fair Use law.” Contrast this, for example, with the standard GPL license for OSS: “You may charge any price or no price for each copy that you convey, and you may offer support or warranty protection for a fee.”

In the hacker community, there was understandable reluctance in restricting licenses to non-commercial use because of the fear that it would reduce innovation and enterprise. And they were right. Imagine the fate of Linux if commercial entities were unable to distribute the software or make money off it.

Creative Commons, the successor licensing body, corrected this with the introduction of its minimally-restrictive “CC-BY” license. Not surprisingly, the open content owners using it (such as OpenStax) have had the most success, with public/private partnerships driving this forward (The commercial prohibition, however, lives on with the CC-NC designation.)

Openness as Weltanschauung

Whereas “free” largely means “freedom” in the hacker world, for Wiley and many of OER’s strongest advocates, it has come to mean primarily “no cost.” When more than 60% of students report forgoing at least some of their textbook purchases because of cost, such a focus is understandable. And undeniably, to this point the “freedom” that’s so central to open software has yet to transfer into large numbers of faculty engaged with open content development.

This, then, brings us to the central disagreement: different views regarding OER’s virtue as a means of lowering content costs, which I see as a necessary but insufficient condition for its mainstream use.

Wiley’s argument falls into two parts: First, faculty don’t adapt content (because they often don’t know how and wouldn’t if they could); and second, OER can be wildly successful even without faculty content participation (and without the potential conflicts that would come from compensating them).

I agree with his analysis where I noted in my article that “most instructors are not editors, let alone creators of their classroom content; they are simply end users.” As such, a satisfying OER solution must be entirely “turnkey,” requiring little work on the part of faculty.

At the same time, however, one ought not hypostatize the present and take this circumstance as an immutable truth. Instead, tech disruptions (especially) remind us to be suspicious about such assumptions. And these clearly beg some questions.

  • What if, instead of thinking of faculty builders, adapters, and adopters as individuals working essentially in isolation, it were possible to create a community such that the strengths of the network compensated for the weaknesses of a single member?
  • What if faculty time “surpluses” and “deficits” were themselves efficiently managed through such a network, moving toward an equilibrium cross-institutionally?
  • What if the ability to discover and curate content no longer acted as an ominous burden but instead acted to empower faculty in unprecedented ways?
  • What if faculty were fairly compensated for their time, not simply for choosing a text (as is common practice in commercial textbook publishing) but for meaningful and quantifiable engagement with the content and learning technologies, and that this compensation significantly increased the number of faculty participating--reducing student costs and improving learning outcomes on a wide scale?

Align the motivations among the stakeholders--faculty, administrators, tech innovators, and students--and open content can have the kind of impact in education that OSS has had in software. That’s what the goal of the OER movement ought to be--not a cheaper version of the commercial textbook model, but a fundamentally different one.

Wiley mentions that his company is now introducing a model intended to use the tuition revenue gains stemming from OER’s use as a way of funding faculty’s use of this content. I’m glad that David recognizes the importance of compensating faculty. In theory it’s a wonderful idea: Lower content costs improves retention, which then generates funds that could be available to expand its use. Even if one could manage through the practical issues and institutional politics, though, such a model does little to foster innovation in the open source ecosystem. One is still left with the choice between lower costs and compelling new learning technologies that are enjoyed by the more well-to-do students.

By founding a for-profit company dedicated to helping increase adoption of OER, Wiley clearly recognizes the role that commercial entities can play. But there’s an abiding sense that his “pragmatism over zeal” is directed toward cost-reduction as OER’s main focus. What’s needed instead is creative pragmatism that is unconcerned with preserving a particular conception of open content as an end in itself and instead focuses on the limitless possibilities that the freedom of openness represents.

Wiley’s tireless efforts are one big reason OER has already come so far, and his leadership and thinking will continue to be important as it progresses. Hopefully our dialog represents what David has in mind by iterating toward openness. I am likewise glad that he is out there, experimenting, building, and making a difference.

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