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Information (Learning Material) Wants to Be Free

The long-standing tension between "free and open" and for-profit business models is now playing out with textbooks and open educational resources.

April 3, 2019
 

Over the decades, there has been considerable debate over just who first uttered the phrase “information wants to be free.” It is widely reported that this arose in a discussion between Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, and Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. These pioneers in the digital age recognized the coming struggle between “free and open” materials and “for-profit” publishing and dissemination.

This came up in an era of the pre-web internet, and relatively early on in the personal computer revolution. The early programmers and inventors recognized that information would soon be very easy to uncover, but there still was value in compensating the work of acquiring and assembling the information. Brand raised the tension between the value of information and the dropping cost of accessing that information, to which Wozniak is quoted as saying “information should be free but your time should not.”

Decades later, the tension continues. We have seen the meteoric rise in the cost of textbooks at a rate of more than four times inflation in the past decade and the advent of access codes for associated online materials that expire at the end of the term. The expiring codes undermine the rental and used-book marketplace that helped some students afford their texts.

A study by the National Association of College Stores shows the beginning of a possible trend toward the decline in the cost of purchase of required class materials, with an increase in the number of students reporting that they downloaded free online materials. Unreported are the numbers of students who simply skip buying books and other required materials. Librarians at colleges and universities have stepped in across the country to offer text materials in open reserves prompted by their concern for those students who do not have affordable access to texts. For example, at Alverno College in Milwaukee, more than half of the students reported that they had not purchased a textbook because of the cost. The Alverno library put texts on open reserve and tracked their use.

Open educational resource initiatives have sprung up nationally. These generally have taken the form of stipends and release time for faculty members to develop and assemble resources to replace their required texts. In 2015, the University of Maryland University College made a commitment to providing open resources across the undergraduate and later the graduate curriculum. Some larger initiatives have crossed college lines to provide resources to groups of colleges and universities. SPARC maintains a list of initiatives and resources.

One of the most successful initiatives is OpenStax, hosted at Rice University. OpenStax reports that in 2018 students saved more than $175 million in textbook costs using their open products. Now 20 years in evolution (the program began as the Connexions Project at Rice in 1999), the initiative continues to gain momentum and extends to more and more faculty authors and collaborators.

As recounted by University of Idaho president Chuck Staben in Inside Higher Ed, the university is testing a new incentive model for faculty to acquire or develop open resources to replace traditional, expensive textbooks. “Our plan is to give some of the estimated yearly savings from OER use to the department, our teaching and learning center, and our library (5 percent/2.5 percent/2.5 percent, respectively),” Staben said.

The Idaho president adds, “Providing even 5 percent of the projected savings from OER adoption directly to the department as flexible money would be highly motivating to many departments; the teaching center and library are incentivized to support adoption and access.”

Information wants to be free -- even more so in 2019 than 35 years ago. Students are on board. Recent studies have begun uncovering the link between OER and engagement, learning outcomes and student success.

In sum, reasons to consider moving to open educational resources:

  • Success in student recruitment and marketing because of lower costs
  • Improved student retention due to more students accessing the required materials
  • Improved student learning outcomes as indicated in recent studies
  • Implicitly finer faculty control and familiarity with resources they produce

Do you have data showing how many students have not purchased required materials each semester?

Have you investigated learning outcomes or final grades of students who did not purchase the text? Such research does involve careful crafting to protect student privacy, but it is important to determine if learning is at risk.

What OER initiatives are underway at your university?

Who should lead the initiative at your college to customize and reduce the costs of learning materials for your students?

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Inside Higher Ed's Inside Digital Learning

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