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Scholarly Communication

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Mythbusting 101: Reflecting on a Year of Open

by Michelle Reed December 21, 2017
Year of Open 2017

Earlier this year, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) published “OER Mythbusting.” The document identifies seven common myths related to open educational resources (OER) and presents facts to counter the myths. In my discussions with UTA faculty and administrators about OER over the past year, I’ve been asked to address a few of the myths in multiple conversations. Below I’ll discuss these and others I’ve encountered in my time at UTA.

“OER are just free resources.”

Conflating free and open is incredibly common. However, the distinction is important. The “open” in open educational resources implies educators and students can access the material for free and ALSO exercise great freedom in revising and reusing the material. Open in this context hinges on authors proactively granting to downstream users the legal permission to engage in acts traditionally prohibited by copyright laws. This includes permission to download and retain the material, to share the material, and to revise or remix the material. These permissions are frequently communicated via a Creative Commons license.

Understanding the permissions component of OER may seem challenging because the boundaries of what is and is not allowable under copyright law are frequently blurry. Generally, in the absence of explicit permissions, it’s best to assume that everything you find on the Web is copyrighted. With copyrighted materials, you have the freedom to view the content, even for free. It’s also legal to link to copyrighted resources that are freely available on the Web. However, that’s generally where our rights as users end. Therefore, if you embed such resources into Blackboard or modify them in any way, you are taking a risk. Working with OER eliminates this risk because OER are intended to be legally shared and reused.

“There’s no such thing as a free resource.”

This one is true—sort of. It’s correct that there is a cost associated with the production and dissemination of resources. Even digital resources have hosting and maintenance costs, and all quality educational resources, regardless of how they are shared, take significant time and resources to produce. What we mean by “free” in the context of OER is “free for the user”—not free of all production costs.

So then, how are such projects possible? OER represent a shift in how publishing educational content is funded. Traditionally, this is how the system works: commercial publishers invest in creating a resource and then recoup the cost (and make a plump profit) through sales to students; textbook authors typically make (far less plump) royalties off of these sales. In this situation, the textbook is almost always fully protected by copyright, which is usually held by publishers rather than authors. This prevents educators from customizing or modifying the content in any way without seeking permission from publishers, who often require payment for the privilege. The most popular OER model shifts the responsibility for funding resource creation from students, who have been footing the bill at an increasing markup for decades, to another organization or entity with the condition that the resulting work is openly licensed. The license requirements mean the resource will forever be free for anyone to use or revise. What the funding covers varies but frequently includes a stipend for authors, peer review and hosting of the content, and production software.

Who are these funders? Libraries, for one. Academic libraries are increasingly funding OER creation through grant programs like the one sponsored by UTA Libraries, and many receive additional support from campus partners, such as provosts' offices, teaching and learning centers, distance education units, and governing bodies. Some professional societies fund these projects, and others are funded by foundations, as is the case with Rice University’s OpenStax. State governments are also getting involved. This year in Texas, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 810, which establishes a grant program to support OER creation and adoption across the state.

“OER course labels punish faculty who haven’t adopted open resources.” 

Speaking of SB810, the new law requires that institutions of higher education in Texas integrate OER labeling into course schedules or registration systems. In response, some educators have objected on the grounds that doing so punishes faculty who do not use OER or, in another take on the same theme, fails to reward faculty who have successfully reduced resource costs when they do not meet the “arbitrary” price point for the OER label. Arguments in this vein miss the mark on the beneficiaries and purpose of such initiatives. OER course labels are intended to increase transparency in how institutions communicate with students about the cost of required course materials. They are essential in helping students plan for the cost of their education. They are not a punishment for faculty who do not use OER, nor are they a reward for those who do.  

Recognizing the goal is to benefit students, some institutions have adopted the plain language of “free,” “low-cost,” or “affordable” resources in place of OER on course labels. Doing so invites a conversation about what constitutes an “affordable” resource. However, it’s important to remember that the legal requirement is related to OER use, not general affordability efforts. Though OER are always free in their digital format, a number of for-profit companies, including Lumen Learning and Cengage, are wrapping this free content with what they call “value-added” services that are usually capped at $25 per student.  Using a price point that reflects what is becoming an industry standard allows faculty to disclose OER use when the cost for students is not free due to these add-on services.

“Publishers are going to fight this.”

A far more accurate statement is “publishers are going to co-opt this.” It’s not a secret that the unsustainable pricing model commercial publishers have relied on for years to extract huge profits at the expense of students and their families is failing. Earlier this year, for example, Pearson reported its biggest loss in the company’s history. In the past, textbook publishers have blamed students for the rising prices—pointing to used and rental textbook programs as culprits—while student advocates have spoken out against the captive market, frequently comparing students’ required purchase of textbooks to that of patients purchasing prescriptions drugs. In both situations, the person making the selection isn’t footing the bill.

Publishers have been on the defensive for longer than OER have been making waves, though the availability of open content is certainly driving some change. A recent Babson report reveals use of open textbooks published by OpenStax in “large enrollment courses is now at 16.5%, a rate which rivals that of most commercial textbooks.” Commercial publishers are already experimenting with new models that capitalize on open content—a trend that shows publishers are approaching OER as an opportunity rather than a threat to be staved off.  OER advocates have responded with warnings that branding a product as “open” does not make the product an OER.

“The bookstore is going to fight this.”

False. Bookstores have been on the front lines of increasing affordability of educational resources for years, and this experience makes them valuable partners. Bookstore managers will often be the first to tell you that they do not perceive OER as the enemy and they are not fearful that open content will bankrupt campus bookstores, as much of their profit tends to come from the sale of university apparel and other branded merchandise.

Rather, when discussing OER, bookstore representatives tend to focus on the need for early and accurate reporting of resource adoptions so they can stock their shelves appropriately by the start of classes. Sharing information about OER usage with campus bookstores allows them to provide optional hard copies of OER to students who prefer this format. Bookstores cannot accommodate these students, let alone answer questions about textbooks, when they don’t know what resources are required. Improving reporting is one of a number of goals shared by bookstore representatives and OER coordinators, and it’s where we at UTA are rolling up our sleeves.