The Future of Learning Materials

By | October 15, 2019

Thank you Meggie Wright and Michelle Reed for reading a draft of this post. 

This post responds to a controversy that began when the Open Education Conference invited commercial publisher representatives to join a keynote panel on the future of learning materials:

This panel brings together publishers of both OER and proprietary materials with a range of business models, including representatives from OpenStax, Lumen, Cengage, Macmillan, and McGraw-Hill. Each has accepted an invitation to answer your questions about how learning materials will be created, maintained, improved, licensed, sustained, and distributed in the future. These questions (e.g., particularly questions about sustainability), are some of the most important unanswered questions facing our field today.

Michelle Reed, Director of Open Educational Resources, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, posted a useful critique of the conference organizers’ decisions about the panel format and makeup. She argues that Cengage, Macmillan, and McGraw-Hill should not be positioned as central to the future of learning materials because they intentionally created the problem of unaffordable learning materials in order to maximize profit.

This is a thought-provoking discussion here in Oregon because the purpose of Open Oregon Educational Resources is to lower the cost of textbooks at Oregon’s public colleges and universities. OER are one way to do this, but so are no-cost/low-cost all-rights-reserved content, along with library-licensed resources. Faculty can exercise their academic freedom to select the course materials most appropriate for their needs, which means that a statewide textbook affordability program like Open Oregon Educational Resources must find ways to engage with all players without compromising on values.

Values are important because the harms done by the biggest commercial textbook companies are significant. We know that unaffordable course materials hurt students. High prices are a barrier to attaining academic goals. They cause suffering for students who are financially insecure and lead to debts that persist long after graduation.

These companies’ pricing models have also created problematic structures in our institutions. Campus stores are expected to be self-supporting units, even generating revenue for the general fund in many cases. Now that faculty awareness of affordable course materials is rising, some institutions have said goodbye to that textbook revenue. Often the shortfall is left to the bookstore manager to lose sleep over, or results in outsourcing to a third-party store, rather than being addressed holistically as a campus-wide issue.

Brian Lamb, Director, Innovation Open Learning at Thompson Rivers University, wrote a Twitter thread satirizing the Open Ed Conference organizers’ case for inviting these companies’ reps to the panel, comparing the situation to inviting oil companies to sponsor a climate change conference. The analogy works because after companies create a problem in order to maximize profit, they are met with skepticism when they make claims about being part of the solution. First, these companies are starting from a trust deficit. Having demonstrated that their business model prioritizes profit, they are perceived as bad actors. Second, since in the past they have been guided by profit motive, it’s valid to suspect that they are now interested in solving the problem they created because they see an opportunity for further profit. Last, there are hard feelings over the companies’ past actions that get in the way of seeing the potential for working together now.

I’ve noticed that this same skepticism is sometimes displaced onto bookstores. They are assumed to be bad actors because they are structurally required to generate revenue. In fact, the campus store is an essential service and bookstore managers are campus community members. A blog post in response to the current debate by Rajiv Jhangiani, Associate Vice Provost, Open Education, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, is helpful in thinking through the hard feelings in order to extend the benefit of the doubt to commercial publishers. He writes:

And yet the narrative is not so simple because some of the for-profit players are making efforts to be good (or at least better) actors in open education. I believe that these efforts should be recognized and lauded. In some cases we are witnessing the outcomes of individual efforts to (slowly) change long-standing organizational culture. I believe these internal advocates need our support to engineer systemic change, to get their organizations to understand the value (and not just the price) of doing right by students.

Jhangiani’s words provide a nuanced view for a program like Open Oregon Educational Resources that must support the decisions that faculty make now, while remaining optimistic for long-term outcomes. We can recognize when we are on the same side – our students’ side. But we can do this with awareness of the very big differences in power, priorities, and context between for-profit corporations and public institutions.

Along these lines, Meggie Wright, OER Librarian, Lane Community College, highlights the point that sustainability is at the center of the current controversy, and asks “sustainability for whom?” This question is important because the term “sustainability,” when used as a one-size-fits-all monolithic concept, can become a weapon to shut down good ideas. Or it can contain unexamined assumptions that OER efforts have to be self-supporting in order to be successful. Or it may be used to paper over the truth that the current way of doing things isn’t working, that the alternative of taking no action is itself unsustainable.

Open Education Conference organizer David Wiley, Chief Academic Officer of Lumen Learning, writes: “Sustainability will be defined as an open educational resource project’s ongoing ability to meet its goals.” This definition is useful because of its flexibility: sustainability means different things in different contexts. For the commercial publishers on the Open Ed panel, sustainability means returning revenue to company shareholders. Public-sector OER programs have entirely different goals and so sustainability will look very different.

For Open Oregon Educational Resources, sustainability includes staying engaged with all potential partners in order to meet the goal of lowering textbook costs, but that doesn’t mean putting commercial publishers at the center of our efforts. We currently have a mission statement but not a vision statement, and I think we need both in order to clarify how we will move towards an equitable future. What do you think the future of course materials includes? Comments are welcome here, or head over to the #OpenEd19 discussion on Twitter.