Affordable or Open?

The real promise of open educational resources lies not in their affordability but in their potential to change teaching and learning.

[The following is adapted from an article I wrote for the February 2019 edition of Against the Grain, a special edition on textbook affordability edited by Gwen Evans, executive director of OhioLink.]

A standard argument for the use of OER in undergraduate classrooms goes something like this: spiraling commercial textbook costs are forcing students to forego their purchase altogether, use secondhand, out-of-date editions, borrow from classmates, or rely on scant library copies (where available), with predictable effects on student outcomes and retention. In extreme cases, these costs have priced a college education beyond the means of many. The use of free open educational resources can remove these pernicious barriers, improve outcomes, and put a college education within the reach of more students.

Thus phrased, affordability is the most frequently used and until now most effective strategy for OER advocacy, and it is tempting to regard affordability as a self-evident justification for OER adoption. The problem with this approach is that it is looking at only one side of the issue.

At the end of the day, adopting OER, or any new textbook for that matter, comes with high switching costs for instructors, many of whom also worry that the quality of these new resources, and thus of their teaching, may decline if they adopt noncommercial resources. By and large, commercial textbooks are accurate, well written, meticulously edited, and handsomely produced. When the publisher of a known and respected textbook lowers its price in response to challenges to its affordability, instructors are offered a powerful incentive to adopt or retain it. Under such conditions, appeals to affordability by themselves cannot win the day for OER. Only the quality of these materials can do that. Quality and an understanding of how to use them to their maximum advantage. In other words, for OER to achieve their promise, the decision to adopt them must be based not on cost but on their pedagogical superiority.

Ultimately, what makes an OER “open” is not its cost but the rights profile pertaining to ownership and use of the work and, following on that, the ability of the instructor, and even the student, to modify its content, combine it with other works, and reuse it in other contexts. In the absence of these elements of open education, an OER is just an inexpensive textbook, and while there is nothing wrong with this, OER used in this way are unlikely to precipitate the educational transformation its adherents envision. If the goal is to promote OER as part of a larger educational program, and not merely as an affordable alternative to commercial products, we must do a better job demonstrating the possibilities such resources provide. Thoughtful reviews of OER, written to a standardized format designed to expose these elements, can be an important factor in this process.

Critical reviews are not always easy to come by, and I hope it is not going too far to suggest that one area for librarians to contribute to this effort is to enlist reviewers for works either contemplated or already in use on their campuses, or to provide interested faculty with a template against which to evaluate them on their own. As we have noted in these pages before, Choice has created such a template, and we invite our readers to download and use it freely.

The real promise of open educational resources lies not in their affordability but in their potential to change teaching and learning. Ensuring that the works we use conform to this goal in all respects, and are of a quality equal to or better than their commercial counterparts, is vital to the success of the enterprise.—MC

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About the author:

Mark Cummings is the editor and publisher at Choice.