Some Thoughts on OER or Why Capitalists Can’t Cook

Soviet school propaganda poster.David Wiley posted on his blog “From here to there: Musings about the path to having good OER for every course on campus.” Part of that path includes the fact that “This work will require us to invest time and energy in understanding publishers’ goals, business models, and operations.” Why would we bother doing that when we have models of teaching and learning that can produce OER from the community that uses the OER? It makes no sense unless your goal is to build a financial relationship with publishers. I have worked for educational publishers: Harcourt/Harcourt eLearning/Archipelago, etc. early in my career, and they were focused on creating and selling textbooks and ancillary materials for a profit. That was it. Anything else the publishers are doing is not meant to make the world a better place; its to figure out how to have an obsolete business model survive as long as possible. There is nothing wrong with that. America was built on that model. I have profited (mostly very indirectly) from that model. You cannot insult or vilify a corporation: they literally do not care – you can even fine them 5 billion dollars and they won’t break a sweat – as long as it does not touch the bottom line. I am not talking about good and evil here – this is how they work. Read Forbes.

I am not a hippy. I am not a communist. I do not want to see the fall of capitalism. I am not an idealist. I think there are things that capitalists do well and things that capitalists are lousy at. Corporations build great roads; they are lousy at health care. Corporations are great at raising money; terrible at caring for the environment. Corporations make consistent products like automobiles; they are terrible at education. I don’t want a home-made one-of-a-kind certified gluten free car. I want one from a factory that will work consistently, so there is one for capitalism. You may have been brain-washed already to think that corporations make good burgers, but they don’t. Come over to my house on a Saturday afternoon, and I will disabuse you of that delusion and throw in a frosty one to boot. McNuggets are cheap, uniform and consistent, but they are not chicken. They just aren’t. And so it is with education.

So what is all this about? As I responded on David’s blog: we need to bring OER out of the teaching & learning communities that use them, not the corporations. We have seen great examples of that in the past. For instance, the math textbooks that were being used at College of the Redwoods during Project Kaleidoscope. Publishers were not interested in that work because it grew organically out of the community – the purpose of the math textbooks and their online testing system were meant to solve particular problems in the teaching and learning communities of Humboldt County. They were also very successful in teaching the students of that particular community. If a company was really interested in teaching and learning, in student success, they should be looking at how projects like that are successful and seek to teach that process.

David’s post is overly-concerned with business interests. I think we need to get away from commercial publishing because of costs and that it is an out-dated and inauthentic model for teaching and learning. He warns us though that “If rates of OER adoption in high enrollment courses increase substantially over time (as, presumably, OER advocates hope they will), taking these adoptions and their associated revenues away from publishers could undermine publishers’ ability to create, maintain, and provide learning materials for upper-level and graduate courses.” I say good riddance. It is almost a threat from the publishers – that if we adopt OER at the undergrad level, prices will go up in upper grad. That will only lead to more OER in the upper grad levels.

He points out that the publishers are excited about OER because it will untie them from the royalty payments that they are currently obligated to pay. Plus, here is the really big one: “It must be true that publishers wish they could just assume that solid content is going to be there, doing a reasonable job of being content and an excellent job of being royalty-free, so they can get on with building the features and services they’re actually excited about on top of the content.” The next big battle will be to get students out from under commercial, online testing systems and ancillary materials, and online course packets. I don’t care what sauce the McNuggets are going to come with – McNuggets are still not chicken.

By focusing on justifications for commercial models, we do a great injustice to all of the great work that is being done in Open Pedagogy. I have been working in education a while now and what can happen is that corporations (big and small) with big budgets always attempt to define the problems and take over the narrative. It is easy for them to do because money equals power and access (journals, conferences, speaking engagements, etc.). A corporation that is handing out grants and stipends will always have an audience. As educators, we can’t let moneyed interests drive the narrative. Open education resources that are faculty and student driven work. It is something that is happening now. Questions about “is it sustainable?” should always be answered with “sustainable for whom?” Every community of teachers and learners has their own particular strengths, needs, abilities, and voice. These can and should be harnessed to build OER and learning experiences. I know many who feel the same way that I do – they are not mad or angry – they are passionate about teaching and learning. They are passionate about opening up the access to education to as many people as possible, and tearing down the barriers.

Is that sustainable? If sustainable is defined as corporate profits, maybe not.

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