The Open Education Resource Movement Has Promise, but It Also Has This Significant Limitation

Let’s get controversial. In my education innovation circles there is widespread support for Open Education Resources (OER). I value and support the promise, possibility and idea of OER, but there is a persistent equity issue in the OER world that doesn’t seem to get much attention. Before I get into that, how about a quick definition break?

For newcomers to the topic, here is a quick description of OER from CreativeCommons.org:

Open educational resources (OER) are free and openly licensed educational materials that can be used for teaching, learning, research, and other purposes.

Open Education “…is the simple and powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that technology in general and the Web in particular provide an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use, and reuse knowledge.”
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

That sounds great, right? What is there to not like about free resources? There is potential to remove a financial barrier to education materials for more learners, thus lowering the cost of education. It gives faculty (students, and pretty much anyone) greater control over the teaching materials. OER also creates fertile soil for any number of potential teaching and learning innovations. From a philosophical lens, OER also contributes to a type of collaborative creation, co-creation, sharing, and use of education resources. All of those have affordances.

So why would I have an issue with OER? Allow me to offer a few scenarios about how open education resources often get created, drawn from my direct conversation with content creators. After that, I’ll explain.

The Grant-Funded Independent Scholar

A person seeks out a grant from a foundation, government source, or other organization. Essentially this grant money serves as pay for the person to create the content. In return, the person agrees to license the content so that it becomes an open education resource, free for others to use (and in this case) edit, revise, and reshare as they see fit. The creator of the original content doesn’t get royalties for ongoing use of the content, as one might through a traditional publisher, but as long as that person has another source of income, or is able to keep securing grant money for the next project, the person has a living wage.

The Tenured Professor

This person already has a solid, stable source of personal income. And when deciding to work on writing a book and related resources that she intended to make an open education resource, her University actually gave her an extra grant or stipend for the work. So, she not only got paid her regular salary for blocking out time of her day to do the writing. She essentially got bonus pay.

The Content Creation Team

Similarly, in this third scenario, a team of scholars at multiple Universities came together to work on a shared open education resource project. They secured a grant from an outside source that paid for a percentage of these faculty member’s salaries. In other words, each faculty member got a 10% or 20% release from their regular work to focus on this project, and the grant paid the college that percentage of each faculty member’s salary. So, while the faculty member didn’t get paid extra, the work on the OER was an integrated part of their workload at the University.

The OER But Pay-For-Print Author

This person, a teacher at a K-12 school, submitted a book proposal to a publisher that agrees to publish the book in digital format as OER, but also sells paper copies of the book. The author gets royalties on any book that is purchased. Typically that might amount to anywhere from $500 to $10,000 dollars over a 5 year period. So, it is a nice side-project for the author, but he does this more as a free gift to the world, depending upon his full-time job at the K-12 school for his primary income.

The Education Entrepreneur

This fourth category is incredibly rare, but not if we expand our thinking beyond formal OER, allowing ourselves the messiness of also including the creating and sharing of free content in general (ala bloggers like me). Imagine a person who writes and creates content on a blog or other online platform, making it freely available for others to read, use, or maybe even edit and reshare. This person doesn’t get paid for creating any of this content and doesn’t have another job. He just writes and creates content with much of his time because he wants to share ideas that matter with the world. Yet, how does he make a living wage? Well, he uses the creation of free content to get lots of people to visit his website. His reputation grows as a thought leader so much that a number of funding opportunities emerge:

  1. Invited and paid speaking opportunities.
  2. Paid consulting opportunities.
  3. Traditional online and paper publishers notice his work and reach out to offer paid/contracted writing work (of course, that content is rarely OER).
  4. As his reputation grows, he starts to get full-time job offers because of his expertise.
  5. Vendors and others reach out about possible sponsorship deals, offering to subsidize his work in return for advertising or promoting products and services for them.
  6. He even has a Patreon account where followers of his work make one-time or monthly donations to fund his ongoing writing and projects.

There are very few OER creators in this educational entrepreneur category. It is a tough road. While many can augment their full-time salary by doing this type of work, there is as much luck as there is skill in making this happen.

Who is Missing?

This brings me to a persistent concern in the OER movement. Right now, OER either depends upon the narrow band of people in the categories described above, or it relies upon people working for free. Add to the fact that there is a significant amount of passionate and evangelistic fervor among some advocates of OER with a thick layer or moralistic assertions. They celebrate poets, musicians, and others creatives who charge for their work; but the moment that someone’s creative energy is focused upon something defined as educational content, they decry the creative who might opt for a traditional publishing route.

There is a fervor among some, but certainly not all, that almost comes off as wanting to ban or abandon any education content that includes a price tag. Yet, doing this has a serious risk of turning education content creation into an elitist enterprise. There are lots of people out there who don’t fit neatly into any of the categories that I described earlier in this article, but they produce great content.

OER has its promise and benefits, but this is no small matter to address. Not only does it involve the problem of limiting content creation to a privileged few (or demanding that others content creators beyond this group work for free), it also underestimates the significant creative and intellectual resources that come from people who don’t work in places that will pay them to create OER.

So, as much as there is a place for OER, I expect that some of the best and most creative content will continue to have a price tag associated with it. Regardless of that fact, it would serve the OER community well to identify some creative solutions that increase access and opportunity for a broader array of content creators.

And just for a fun, paradoxical conclusion to this article…


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