Economic barriers to a university degree have rightfully become a central point of concern in education politics. One partial solution is to offer courses and entire degree programs built entirely around open educational resources, or OER.
Given the high cost of textbooks, the argument goes, freely accessible online materials expand access by reducing the cost to students. And with growing interest from colleges and universities, professional organizations, and governments, open resources have come of age. While much of the discussion focuses on learning outcomes and cost to students, the problem with OER is not necessarily the material itself, but how digital materials and the movement around them combines with the casualization of academic labor and the influence of outside, for-profit interests on the curriculum.
These bigger realities not only have the potential to undo the benefits of open resources, but they threaten to turn them into a means of exacerbating the exploitative conditions of almost all academic labor while further disempowering the majority of faculty members.
Theoretically, at least, one can’t really be anti-OER. Information wants to be free, and besides, what teacher would reject potentially useful material? Digital media has its pros and cons, depending on course and discipline.
But instructors in all disciplines ought to be wary of the movement that has grown up around open educational resources. The movement exists inside and outside the university and includes for-profit ed-tech companies and corporate lobbying groups as well as individual administrators and educators. Achieving the Dream, for instance, has provided financial incentives to 38 community colleges to develop OER-only degrees.
Its "investors" include the Gates Foundation, Bank of America and Walmart. Funding also comes from Blackboard, whose popular online learning platform is the type on which OER-based courses would be dependent. Another major player is Lumen Learning, which markets consulting services and OER-based curricula to institutions of higher education. Open resources may be free, but if we have learned anything in the digital age, it’s that there is a handsome profit to be made off “free.”
The amount of these profits flowing back to the faculty members who do the work to design, adapt and maintain OER curricula is relatively small. While some have received stipends ranging from $1,000 to $15,000 to develop original OER material, the grant model often does not pay enough for the labor involved and may not be sustainable.
Besides, the occasional stipend to a few individuals means little when the successful design, implementation and revision of an OER-based curriculum demands work from full- and part-time faculty as well as librarians and other staff supporting an institution’s online infrastructure. And the labor is cumbersome: not only do instructors have to make sure the content is up-to-date and the material actually works with students, but there is the routine work of copyediting, patrolling for dead links and fixing glitches with activities and assessments in the learning platform. One or two individuals working on a grant-funded or even full-time basis can’t do it alone.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of university teaching is done by part-time, low-paid or temporary contract labor. Open educational resources thus mean greater exploitation of faculty members who lack both the resources and stability to commit to the success of the curriculum. Contingent faculty may have had the least say in the decision to adopt OER, but they tend to be the ones who teach the high-enrollment general education classes around which much of the current textbook discussion centers.
No OER initiative can be successful without the efforts of faculty members, as the ones with the experience in the trenches, to maintain and develop materials. But if those materials are to be shared across a department or program, those professors will, in all likelihood, see their work become part of a curriculum that is not theirs. For contingent faculty members, that means that universities will continue to profit from their labor long after administrators have stopped taking their calls.
Faculty who design OER curricula would do well to ask for whom they are really working. Teachers approach their work with a strong spirit of collaboration and so may be tempted to make their original materials available as open resources. Unfortunately, technology corporations see in our collaboration a chance to bolster their brands.
So far, Amazon is leading the pack with its OER exchange service Inspire. The day after Inspire went live in 2016, Amazon had to remove files illegally taken from teacherspayteachers.com, an online marketplace that, unlike Inspire, allows teachers to receive remuneration for the original materials they create and share.
Worse, the flexibility and adaptability that is otherwise an advantage of OERs can be easily co-opted to allow for-profit interests direct control over the classroom. There is now a trend toward courses dictated by businesses for businesses, in spite of the questionable academic value of these classes. Instead of promoting academic freedom through greater flexibility with course materials, OERs are subject to becoming vehicles for infusing corporate agendas into the classroom.
When faculty lose, students lose. Unfortunately, the OER movement imagines books as little more than overpriced containers of content. Good professors, on the other hand, know the learning process varies across courses and disciplines. For instance, in language classes, it isn’t just the content that is important, but how the content is arranged on the page to guide the learner. Such an effective arrangement may be difficult or impossible to achieve on a screen the size of a tablet or even a smartphone.
In addition, studies have shown that holding a print book boosts recall and yields a more satisfying reading experience. We are creating barriers, not access, when we deny students the cognitive benefits of print.
The high cost of textbooks that OER advocates often invoke is a real issue: the College Board estimates that students at public four-year schools currently pay on average $1,250 a year for books and supplies. However, such costs are dwarfed by the other costs of college, not in the least the $9,650 the average in-state student pays each year to attend a four-year institution. If we are serious about bringing down the cost of college, colleges and universities must contain the bloat in administrative ranks and salaries, and politicians must reprioritize higher education as a public good and follow through on that commitment through massive reinvestments in state systems.
The good news is that the use of OER need not be an either-or proposition. Such initiatives can only be successful if the decision on whether and how to implement OER is made by individual professors at the class level. Good educators have always known how to utilize effective resources to meet the needs of their own students, needs that they understand better than career administrators, publishers or Silicon Valley disrupters.