Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Keeping Open Education Resources Open

A Wikiversity Logo for Open Educational Resour...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
What does the "open" in "open education resources" mean? What it should mean is free to reuse, remix and share. If your open education resources are locked up with a proprietary platform, they are no longer open. If they are converted into "supplements" for a "free" text, they are no longer open. This is the fear behind those who choose a license that says "not for commercial use." That does not make it less open because you are not free to lock down someone else's work and make a profit off of it.

The reason I release materials to the wild with an open license is so that other educators can use them and benefit from them; maybe even modify them (and hey, feel free send me a copy back). I want to contribute to the education community. My intention is not to enrich some business who will repackage and "improve" on my work by locking it down into a closed system and then charging for access. The claim that I am making my work less open because it is not free for commercial use is ridiculous! That is like saying animals are only free if they are also free to be in a zoo. And the only ones who really benefit from the corporate lock-down of OERs and open textbooks are the corporations.

The Creative Commons license warning that an OER is not part of a "free culture" is an unnecessary distraction. FreedomDefined. org is not helping:
"Licenses which only allow non-commercial use are not considered Free Culture licenses. This is because in practice there are many ways that Cultural works can be used and reused which would be considered commercial. Another problem is that there is no generally agreed definition of where the border line is between Commercial and Non Commercial uses with very many cases falling in the undefined area in between. In practice Share Alike or Copyleft clauses provide a restriction on commercial profits since any reuse making excessive profits will soon stimulate a bunch of copycats which will bring prices down while encouraging even wider distribution of the works - which is the objective of the free culture licenses." 
That phrase "which will bring down prices" is the funny bit here. My goal is not to keep down the prices of my work but to remove the cost barrier altogether from my work! I want it free as in free of cost to any student, now and in the future.

The claim that OERs will not benefit from corporate modification and promotion is really missing the point. That is not the only way that OERs are adapted, developed, and distributed. OERs belong to the community of teachers and learners. They should remain there. The real work being done in the OER community is by communities of educators

So why do school districts go after corporate materials that are almost, but not quite entirely, unlike open? Because they are still clinging to the old paradigm that says that if it didn't get "vetted" by a corporate press, it lacks quality, legitimacy, the imprimatur and nihil obstat of a "reputable" press. We need to redefine this legitimacy. The corporate presses have not done education any favors: the price of education is outstripping the cost of inflation and healthcare. Each semester, publishers come up with new and interesting ways to justify their $280 dollar textbooks. And the sad truth is that the instructors know these subjects better than the project managers at corporate education publishing houses. The books are not more accurate because they went through their vetting process (see OER: The Myth of Textbook Reliability). Every open textbook that I have encountered that was created in-house or by a community of scholars has been hands down superior in every way to a corporate textbook because it addresses the needs of the teachers who created it and the students who are using it, it is lower in price and more accessible.

There are new models emerging for the development and implementation of OERs and open textbooks.   There are a number of models suggested by Stephen Downes in his article "Models for Sustainable Open Education Resources" that I feel have yet to be fully explored. There is also the implementation model suggested by the Kaleidoscope Project that begins with a community of scholars working on shared student learning outcomes and assessments and only then do they adopt OERs or open textbooks. In other words, open textbooks are an opportunity to have education content driven by the SLOs of the local schools, not by commercial interests.

Fretting over whether or not an OER is free to be exploited by a corporation is a huge step backward and a great disservice to the students.
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