OER and for-profits: Are we selling out?

Why it may be critical to partner with the for-profit world to facilitate innovations.

profit-OER-learningCan an advocate for open educational resources (OER) and student equity justify partnering for for-profits?

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has defined OER as “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and repurposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.”

Hewlett and other philanthropic foundations have spent millions of dollars supporting the creation of nonprofit initiatives dedicated to providing OER to the world.

However, while most people understand the “free” part of the definition,they don’t necessarily understand what it means to “repurpose” the materials. The repurposing may allow individuals, non-profits and for-profits to use those original materials and remix them, transform them, and even build them into new products.

So, when nonprofits partner up with for-profit corporations, are they “selling out”?

(Next page: Justifying an OER advocate’s collaboration with for-profits)

In the United States, full-time students at public universities spend an average of $1200 per year on textbooks. In some states, textbooks cost more than community college tuition. OER, especially open textbooks, have been hailed as a leading way to ensure that, once students arrive at college, they can stay in.

In my almost 30 years as a college educator, the open educational resources movement has done more, in my opinion, to increase access to education and close the equity achievement gap than any other movement. Students have access to all materials on the first day of the course. Those students who are on financial aid do not need to wait to purchase textbooks. Veterans do not need to spend their limited GI-Bill dollars on supplies. The entire class can start learning together. The class is not divided into the “haves” and the “have nots.”

Given that I am an advocate of OER as well as an open textbook co-author (meaning I do not receive royalties on adoptions of “my” text), how is it that I also embrace relationships with the for-profit corporations and even promote them? How do I honestly believe it is fine for them to earn money off of “my hard work”? How do I justify these costs to students and the public while still advocating for open textbooks?

OER and open textbooks save students millions of dollars. Yet, OER are “free the way a free puppy is free” (1). They are free for the user, but not the developer, promoter, sustainer. In order to sustain and grow OER, nonprofits need business plans to wean off of the foundations supporting them. The for-profits pay the non-profits a portion of the revenue, and these funds help sustain the non-profits—the corporations are helping to sustain the nonprofits, as well as devising innovations that help students learn.

For example, including the Creative Commons Attribution license, a license that keeps the copyright with the owner, yet allows others to sell works including the OER commercially, has led to innovations, which have contributed to increased student success (increased pass rates and decreased withdraws) in introductory statistics courses. These innovations, including online learning systems linked with the course, are delivered via the web or in apps on tablets and assist students. When I ask students for feedback each term, their number one appreciation for “what’s working” is the online learning system, even though they pay a small fee for it.

So, are OER nonprofit advocates sellouts? I certainly say ‘no.’ It is important to partner with the for-profit world to facilitate innovations.

The main criterion, one that allows me to sleep peacefully at night, is that students have the choice of what to pay for. Students have lifetime free access to open textbooks. Not just one term, not behind a log-in site—OER are always available to everyone. Students have a choice to use the online text only, to download the PDF or to read the book on their mobile devices. None of those versions cost money. If students want hard copies, they may print parts or all of the text at home or may purchase a bounded low-cost copy from a for-profit company. The cost of printing the text is the student’s choice.

Online learning systems such as WebAssign, most of which include homework grading and other types of assessment, charge a fee to students. I give my students the choice. I require that they do their homework inside WebAssign during the free two-week trial period. After the two weeks, the students have a choice to continue with the system and pay the low cost for its services or turn in paper homework to me. I strongly recommend that students continue with the system.

Again, students have that choice and only two students from my several hundred students over the years have opted to switch to paper homework.

Another corporate innovation is the apps the companies develop and sell, often for a low fee of less than $5. Again, students have the option to pay for the app or not.

Yes, the corporations earn money. But, the big “yes” is that the students increase their learning. These innovations offer immediate feedback and formative assessment 24/7, link to similar examples, and offer multiple attempts, which lead to increased student participation and success.

In conclusion, OER advocates aren’t selling out. We can work together to develop partnerships to increase student success while staying true to each of our missions.

(1) Jason Pickavance, director of educational initiatives at Salt Lake Community College

Dr. Barbara Illowsky is professor of Mathematics and Statistics, as well as director of Basic Skills and OER for the California Community College Online Education Initiative at Foothill-De Anza Community College District in CA. She is co-author of “Introductory Statistics” published by OpenStax College. Dr. Illowsky is also on the Board of Directors of WebAssign, an employee-owned benefit company that provides an online instructional system. Dr. Illowsky received the 2013 International Educator ACE Award by OpenEducational Consortium.

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