OER Pioneer David Wiley Predicts All Community Colleges Will Dump...

Digital Learning

OER Pioneer David Wiley Predicts All Community Colleges Will Dump Traditional Textbooks By 2024

By Jeffrey R. Young     May 23, 2017

OER Pioneer David Wiley Predicts All Community Colleges Will Dump Traditional Textbooks By 2024

This article is part of the guide: Thought Leaders Discuss The College (And Classroom) Of the Future.

It’s popular to predict the death of the textbook—and these days even textbook providers seem eager to move away from their age-old publishing model. Perhaps we’re in the zombie phase of textbook publishing, when commercial texts are walking corpses that never get fully eradicated.

David Wiley, a pioneer of open education resources who co-founded Lumen Learning, a for-profit company that supports OER efforts, sees one place where textbooks could actually be vanquished by openly licensed alternatives: community colleges. In fact, that day may not be far off.

EdSurge sat down with Wiley earlier this month at the ASU+GSV Summit, as part of our Thought Leader Interview series on the future of education. Below is an edited and condensed version of the conversation, or watch the complete interview.

EdSurge: Open Educational Resources seem to be having a moment as far as broader interest among instructors. But you’ve been doing this since the early days of the idea. What got you into this in the first place?

Wiley: Well, this is such a sappy sounding story. I’m from West Virginia originally, and as I was finishing my undergrad, I became the university’s first webmaster at Marshall University. At that time, the university had no idea what to do with this person.

At one point I created a JavaScript calculator for a class, and I had this kind of realization like clouds parting, like ray of light shining down on me—that with this JavaScript calculator, I could build that calculator one time, and a million people could use it. It was very different from the physical calculators that you had to wait your turn to use at my elementary school.

And of course, economists have a name for this. It’s not like I’d discovered something new about the nature of digital materials. But somehow in that moment—understanding that when things are digital, you can create them once, and then a million people can use them—it caused me to have this kind of diverging kind of path of my thoughts. One path was, this is how Bill Gates gets to be Bill Gates. He writes software one time and you just sell it, sell it, sell it. It’s like printing money on CDs or floppy disks maybe at that time. But the other path was, if you could figure out how to fund the initial development, then everybody could use it for free. And I felt like I’m obligated in some moral sense of the word, that now that I understand this, I’m responsible to go do something. It was downhill from there, I guess. I’m still doing it 20 years later.

Eventually you wound up co-founding your own company, Lumen Learning, and you gave up a tenured professor job at Brigham Young University to do it. But there’s a lot of skepticism among professors and leaders at colleges about for-profit companies. Why create a for-profit to push for things to be open and accessible?

I co-founded Lumen with my partner, Kim Thanos, who had come out of the for-profit world. And I had come out of the grant-funded, university-research-center kind of world. We sat on my porch and argued about ‘Should it be this? Should it be that? What are the pros and cons?’ And really at the end of the day, it seemed that as a for-profit, there’s access to additional kinds of funding and support that you just don’t have access to as a nonprofit, in terms of scaling and growth. And there’s so many nonprofits in the OER space already, and there are only a couple of big funders in the space.

Have you faced any skepticism or push-back over that decision?

Every day. Every day.

How do you deal with that?

By doing good work. Nobody gets that we’re a for-profit a lot of times. So if I give a 30 minute or hour-long talk, I spend a whole slide at the beginning of the presentation saying, “Lumen is a for-profit.” I want to make clear you understand we’re a for-profit. Because by the time I’m done, you’re not going to believe me and you’re going to be really confused about that.

We do peer-reviewed research. We publish in journals. We always pay the open-access fees so that the things we publish are out there and broadly available. As a matter of contract, every school that we enter into a partnership with, the contract says anything that we develop together will be openly licensed and available for the whole community to use for free. We really have a commitment to the values of the open community. And it’s critically important to us that we live those every day.

I can understand why people are surprised that you’re for-profit because OER seems so anti-commercial in its whole conception.

But look at Red Hat. They’re purely about adding value to the ecosystem of open source. And so for people for whom that metaphor makes sense, thinking about Lumen as a Red Hat for OER is a very simple way to communicate what it is we’re trying to do.

You’ve talked about how OER is not just about a cheaper option, but that it can change the way materials are used in class. Can you say more about that?

If OER is just about being free, then publishers can always decrease their prices and say they’re really, really affordable, so they’re basically the same as OER.

But on the other side, if you talk about the interesting things pedagogically that are unlocked by the open permissions, that is really what’s most interesting. If we learn that what we do in copyright prevents us from doing certain things, that means copyright prevents us from learning in certain ways. Open licenses give those permissions back to us.

Can you give an example?

There is a medical school faculty member who actually teaches a course on Wikipedia in medical education, where med school students spend an entire semester on Wikipedia improving the quality and accuracy of writing on some topic related to public health or diabetes.

In the past students spent the whole semester just writing a research paper about diabetes and turning it around and getting it graded. But now the students know that what they’ve done is a contribution to the broader community.

What’s the biggest barrier to that kind of thing catching on more widely?

I think that the biggest barrier is just that people don’t know that OER exists.

Will we see a world with no more textbooks in 10 years?

What do you mean by textbook? I think open content will have a bigger impact on the textbook market than open source had on the software market.

It will be harder and harder for faculty to argue to students that you should buy this $180 textbook, when the student knows that their roommate is in another section using only OER instead. That actually creates market pressure for faculty that they’ve never experienced before. At some point you have to be able to justify why you are not using OER, and it just becomes the default.

How long until we get there?

Well I think the question is actually answerable for community colleges—it seems like five to seven years is realistic. There are about 80 all-OER degree programs that are either up and running or on their way. Every one of those programs puts price pressure on the other programs that are geographically close to it. So if it’s 25 percent cheaper to get your business degree here than it is to get it over there, you’re going to go over here, and there will be a competitive advantage. So other schools in the region have to do it just to compete. It’s that ecosystem thing balancing itself out. There really is almost an epidemiology of how OER adoption propagates out that way.

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