Shutting Down Open Resources

A budget proposal for 2012 would block federal money for producing free learning materials if comparable programs already exist.
October 18, 2011

WASHINGTON -- It’s been less than a month since the U.S. Labor Department announced $500 million in grants for community colleges to develop job-training programs and make them free for other institutions to use, but the program is already facing a threat to its existence.

A provision in the proposed House of Representatives budget for fiscal year 2012 would stop the federal government from using grant programs to develop new courses, learning materials or other related projects unless the labor secretary verifies that similar programs are not already available for purchase or “under development.”

The move is a boon to publishers, who have feared that government support for the freely available, modifiable course materials, known as “open educational resources,” or OERs, would eat into their profits and give the free programs an unfair advantage. If effective programs are already for sale, they argue, the federal government shouldn’t spend extra money to reinvent the wheel.

Advocates for community colleges and online education argued that the provision, if enacted, would stifle innovation and restrict colleges to the publishers’ more expensive programs.

“We hear any concerns that the subcommittee might have about duplications of efforts and resources,” said James Hermes, director of government relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. “If there really is truly an alternative already in existence, you don’t want to duplicate that and create something from scratch that’s already there.”

Although Hermes said he understands those concerns, the language in the House bill is too broad, he added. “It would stifle the very innovation, or at least some of the innovation, that was one of the main purposes of the program,” he said.

As community college budgets have tightened and the pressure to graduate more students has grown, many colleges and foundations have turned to open educational resources to help fill the gaps. Under that model, courses that one institution develops are put online, where other institutions can download and customize them for their students at no charge, with no restrictions or strings attached. Foundations and technology advocates have touted the courses as a way for underfunded community colleges to gain access to strategies that might help retain and graduate students.

The Labor Department program is the result of previous failed efforts by the Obama administration to provide federal support for developing open educational resources. It was originally conceived as part of the American Graduation Initiative, a $12 billion package for community colleges intended to be part of the 2009 student lending overhaul but left out of the final legislation. The Trade Act Assistance Community College Career Training Program, the job training program, replaced it.

Whether the provision in the House budget proposal will make it to the final version is unclear. That budget has been seen as a bargaining chip or starting point for negotiations, with several controversial proposals for higher education, including eliminating spending on many minority-serving institutions and reshaping Pell Grant eligibility. But the change to the job-training proposal has so far attracted little attention.

“If you couch the argument in terms of wasting money, it sounds like you have a good chance of winning the day.” said David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University and an expert on open educational resources.

But course materials are the infrastructure of higher education, he said, and spending on them should be viewed similarly to investments in infrastructure for communication or transportation.

“I understand that people don’t want to waste money and don’t want to duplicate effort,” Wiley said. “We’ve got to have some alternative ways to provide educational opportunities and freely available infrastructure that lowers the cost of entry.”

The publishing industry doesn’t object to open educational resources if they are put forward by colleges, nonprofit foundations or other entities, said Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers. But they do object to the government helping develop products that compete with their own.

“If the materials already exist, why do you want to go out and compete with them if you can’t demonstrate they’re not good?” Hildebrand said. “Why would you want to start from scratch?”

Publishers can test new materials on a much wider range of students -- hundreds of thousands or even millions -- compared to instructors at one community college, he said. “We have the government competing with the private sector and trying to create materials from scratch at a time when we desperately need to be educating students with materials that have been proven to work and systems that have been proven to work,” he said. “In our mind’s eye, it doesn’t make sense.”

It’s too early to tell whether the grants' recipients have stimulated any notable innovation,, said Amy Laitinen, a senior policy analyst for higher education policy at Education Sector, who helped develop the open educational resources initiative while working at the Education Department for Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter, a strong advocate for open resources. Most of the summaries of funded proposals from the Labor Department are too vague to determine how innovative they will be.

But if successful, the program will create “a vibrant and dynamic market place,” she said, noting that colleges’ free content can be repackaged for commercial use, including by publishers.

“If this creates more opportunities for us to do right by students, then we think we should,” Laitinen said. “If there is a product out there that’s better" than the projects the government will fund, she added, "then people are going to buy their better product.”


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