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Today’s Context Demands Use of OER

Authors Jonathan A. Poritz

License CC-BY-4.0

Today’s Context Demands Use of OER
Posted to Inside Higher Ed on 27 February 2019, here.

By Jonathan A. Poritz,,

A response to Kenneth Green’s recent Digital Tweed column “Reframing the Conversation
about OER”

Total student debt in the United States stands at approximately $1.5 trillion dollars -- yes, trillion
with a T. It increased by approximately $37 billion in the third quarter of 2018: that’s a quarterly
increase by about the endowment of Harvard University or, annualized, by more than the GDP
of three quarters of the nations on Earth1.
Public institutions of higher education in a majority of US states are funded more -- often much
more -- by tuition than by state support2, calling into question the adjective public in that
traditional terminology.
Nationally, more than a third of university students, and more than half of those at community
colleges, have experienced housing insecurity in the last year and food insecurity in the last
month, while 9% of university students and 12% of community college students were homeless
at some point in the last year3.

It’s not so much that as a society we are eating our seed corn with this treatment of the next
generation, it is more that we have set the global climate on fire, skewered our children on
pointy sticks, and are roasting them like marshmallows.

This is the context in which (Kenneth) Casey Green is willing to “stipulate” that “reducing the
cost of course materials, specifically textbooks, is a good thing.”

It doesn’t make sense to stipulate this fact and then to move on as if it no longer needs to be
mentioned. Given the actual context in which our students are struggling to get ahead, I believe
Green’s modest “good thing” should outweigh many other considerations. I would happily
compensate for a lower quality textbook by teaching more excellently if it meant that my
students didn’t have to choose between buying required course materials and eating for the
next month.

In fact, studies4 have found that students need to eat (not surprisingly) and so high textbook

3 data from 2017: Still Hungry and Homeless in College, Goldrick-Rab, Richardson, Schneider, Hernandez, & Cady,
4 Many, but a frequently cited one is 2016 Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey,
costs mean that students
   ● enroll in fewer courses -- and consequently take longer to graduate,
   ● choose courses based on textbook price rather than for academic reasons, and
   ● don’t buy required textbooks -- and consequently often do more poorly and more
       frequently fail or withdraw.
Addressing these huge problems by removing high textbook costs would be a great
accomplishment, and a discussion about OER without that in-frame would just be silly.

The second of Green’s “three stipulations,” that “Day One access to course materials is also a
very good thing,” points to the additional affordances which OER provide to students and
faculty. He again deeply understates the significance of a feature he has duly noted -- this
immediate access -- and leaves out an enormously consequential parallel issue -- those

Green notes that “a recent multicourse study at the University of Georgia comparing students
who used commercial vs. OER texts suggests that Day One access may have some modest
impact on academic performance (slightly more students with slightly higher grades) and may
also slightly reduce DFW numbers.” It’s not entirely clear why the observed impact would be
due entirely to “Day One access” -- maybe instead the OER materials are simply of better
quality than their commercial rivals? -- but certainly modest academic gains in the context of the
grim economic realities noted earlier are something to celebrate in a more than lukewarm
fashion. But Green oddly misses the main take-away from this study5: it found a one-third
reduction in DFW rates among minority and Pell-eligible students when courses
switched from commercial textbooks to OER.

So not only are OER responsible for at least a modest academic improvement for all students
while making a significant difference to one of the central issues of higher education in our time
-- skyrocketing costs and student debt -- they also make a significant difference in the
achievement gap between demographic groups. This achievement gap is another central issue
on today’s higher ed landscape, another one which Green ignores, and one which has proven
resistant to many attempts at correction. Yet OER can make a large difference here, as well.

Once again, if I could slightly improve my students’ academic performance while making a
significant dent in the demographic achievement gap, at the cost of using a lower quality
textbook (although it’s a rather bizarre metric that assigns such a text a “lower quality”), that is a
deal I would happily make.

What’s equally interesting here is again what is left out: all of the other affordances of OER.
There is now a burgeoning literature and thriving, supportive community of practice around the
new topic of Open Pedagogy, essentially new pedagogical practices which have grown up
around OER and within the culture of respect, openness, and sharing which thrives there.
5 The Impact of Open Educational Resources on Various Student Success Metrics, Colvard, Watson, and Park, Int.
J. of Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed. (2018), on the web here:
Some of the great exponents of this new pedagogy include
    ● Maha Bali -- see her What is Open Pedagogy Anyway? and
      Curation of Posts on Open Pedagogy #YearOfOpen,
    ● Robin De Rosa and Rajiv Jhangiani -- see their Open Pedagogy Notebook,
    ● Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel -- see their An Urgency of Teachers: the Work
      of Critical Digital Pedagogy, and
    ● David Wiley -- see his What is Open Pedagogy?,
to name just a few.

This movement is the most exciting thing to happen to higher ed in my lifetime. It brings
together the humanity, respect for students (and instructors!), and impetus to make a positive
change in students’ lives from thinkers like bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and John Dewey with the
technological know-how and thirst for openness, access, and justice of Seymour Papert,
Richard M. Stallman, and Aaron Swartz.

There is no point in my parodying the eloquence of the expositors of Open Pedagogy cited
above -- please go read them right now, if you haven’t yet. But one thing I can do is add a small
point I haven’t see those authors emphasize, in the spirit (following Green) of exploring what
motivates faculty. One thing that faculty members love (perhaps particularly at primarily
research institutions, where they may be worried about something with enormous impact on
pedagogy but which will require a large investment of their time) is their academic freedom.

I have never understood how faculty who fight passionately for their academic freedom, so that
they would never permit their chair to tell them how to teach a class or what books to use, can
accept the rigidity of commercial textbooks under all-rights-reserved copyright. A quite good
statistics book I used to assign has a horrible section on “personal probability” which I would
beg students not to read6 … but I couldn’t simply remove it, because copyright. My own
statistics OER7 simply doesn’t have that section, but if someone else who wants to use it likes
that material, they can download the OER from my website (for free!), add a section on
“personal probability” (OER affordances!), and have the book they want. This is allowed
because my OER is released with a Creative Commons license, a beautiful piece of legal
machinery which rewires copyright in the service of sharing and scholarly/educational

Green’s third stipulation, “A free beer is not the same as a free puppy,” is taken from a famous

6 with perhaps exactly the opposite effect,
7 Lies, Damned Lies, or Statistics, Jonathan Poritz (2017),
8 Every academic should have at least a basic understanding of the Creative Commons; see .
reworking of an explanatory analogy used in the early days of the free software9 movement: the
early theorist of this older open movement Richard Stallman said he was describing software
which was “Free as in free speech, not free as in a free beer”... although in fact this software
was usually free in both ways. Those hostile to this movement quipped that this kind of
software, so threatening to their business model, was in fact “free like a free puppy,” leaving
listeners with images of puppies making a mess in their houses, needing walks even when it’s
cold and rainy outside, and so on -- who wants that?

The odd thing is that FLOSS won this war: the majority of servers on the planet run free
software. Android is based on free software. Much of the basic infrastructure of the Internet
relies upon FLOSS. More importantly for this discussion, FLOSS is of higher quality, it is more
reliable, more customizable, more friendly to the purposes of education. Non-free software is a
dumpster fire of control, rent extraction, and privacy violation. The widely used term
“surveillance capitalism”10 is largely enabled by non-free software but can be blocked by

I would like therefore to propose a new metaphor for the kind of freedom in FLOSS -- and in
OER! Rather than “free like a free puppy,” OER and and FLOSS are “free like a free dragon’s
egg.” Yes, owning a dragon requires constant vigilance and upkeep, so that it doesn’t burn
down your castle … but wouldn’t it be great to have a pet dragon which loves you?

It remains to discuss the larger part of Green’s essay, but the part I find least convincing, based
on my experience as a professor: his contention that there is an issue with the quality of OER.
As mentioned above, there is plenty of evidence that OER are of very high quality, by any
reasonable metric. Over the more than quarter of a century I’ve taught classes out of
commercial textbooks, their flaws have been abundantly clear to me. The very best books
always have at least a few typos, poor examples, confusing terminology, missing diagrams, and
incoherent explanations. Of course, they always are missing that amazing special contribution
that only I can give.

I’ve also acted as a (paid) reviewer of commercial textbooks and seen how they have excellent
layout and design, but serious pedagogical discussions around the material they present is
usually entirely absent from the external review process which Green so lauds.

Finally, I want to point out that while we might hope we get a high quality book for several
hundred dollars, there are structural reasons to believe that almost no selection pressure exists
in favor of “high quality” for expensive commercial textbooks. This is because the feedback
mechanism given great respect by people who like capitalism -- the one that says consumers
vote with their feet for the best products at the best price, so producers must compete with each

9 You probably know “free software” as “open-source software,” but “free” is in many ways a better term. I usually
use instead the acronym “FLOSS = Free/Libre/Open-Source Software.”
10 see Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New
Frontier of Power, (PublicAffairs, 2019)
other for those consumer dollars by offering more quality at a lower cost -- is broken in the
textbook markets. As an instructor, I am sent free copies of every textbook in which I even
express interest for a class -- sometimes, even before I express that interest! But my students
pay the price for the book: they are the actual consumers, but they have had their ability to vote
with their feet taken from them by my choice of the required class textbook.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the publishers attempt to influence my textbook
selection in a host of ways including giving me slide decks to use in class, worked solutions of
homework problems, free professional development, even tote bags and beer glasses. This
market failure is in no way theoretical: it is responsible for the fact that textbook costs have risen
at three times the rate of inflation for the last few decades. It would be perfectly consistent for
this broken market to produce deeply flawed books which nevertheless come with enough bells
and whistles so as to induce faculty to require them.

Let me propose four stipulations to replace Casey Green’s three:
    1. The cost of higher education imposed on today’s students is an almost unimaginable
       cruelty and avoiding contributing to this cruelty by using OER is a way faculty can show
       they have some empathy and understanding of the reality of higher ed today.
    2. Affordances of OER are known to include both making significant progress in lessening
       demographic achievement gaps which bedevil higher ed and contributing to open
       pedagogy, an exciting new movement in education.
    3. OER [and FLOSS] are free like a free dragon’s egg: yes, there is a lot of hard, scary
       work in the future, but it will be amazing!
    4. There is little actual reason to believe that commercial textbooks are of higher quality
       than OER -- in fact, there is good evidence that they are not, at least by all reasonable
       metrics of quality -- and to believe this is to have merely blind faith in a form of free-
       market fundamentalism which doesn’t even apply in the failed market of textbooks.

                     This work, Today’s Context Demands Use of OER by Jonathan A. Poritz, is
                     release under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.11

11 I believe I have the right to make this decision. An essentially identitcal version of this article appeared in Inside
Higher Ed, but I have never been able to determine if IHE claims the copyright. But in the absence of any prior
agreement or payment, I think I must own the copyright and so can release the article under a CC license.