Open Education Resources (OER) and the Modern University


Over the last couple of years, the University of North Dakota and the North Dakota University System has invested significant resources in promoting the adoption of open educational resources (OER). As a small, open access publisher this makes me very happy because it incentivized the use open access works that aren’t exactly like those published by my press (we haven’t done much in the way of textbook publishing), but are at least share the same spirit.

In response to this policy, the NDUS has received some positive press in the higher education media and now regularly trumpets how much they’ve saved students. This demonstrates a recognition that higher education is expensive and that not all of the expenses are associated with tuition and that the university could do more to manage some of these other costs. The OER push is also unique, it seems to me, in that it understands that the private sector – in this case  textbook publishing companies – is not always going to keep costs down and, in some cases, it is developing a public alternative that effectively competes in terms of quality and cost with the private sector. This runs counter to most of the major trends in higher education in the 21st century, which, Christopher Newfield so expertly unpacks in The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How we can Fix Them. (2016). As our largely Republican legislature looks to renew and even increase funding for the adoption of OER in North Dakota, it seems like a good time to urge them (and our student and university leaders) to take the next step and to put into place policies that not only support, but will also sustain the use and production of OER and open access material into the future.

Here are some observations along these lines.

1. OER Ecosystem. OER don’t just hang out in the ether waiting to be adopted by faculty. They are produced – usually at significant expense – by faculty and publishers across the U.S. In general, these costs are distributed between institutions, grants, donors, as well as investments of faculty time. For the OER ecosystem to flourish and for the number and quality of OER textbooks to continue to expand and diversify, the entire system requires resources, not just the adoption of books. It seems to me that the desire to fund adoption alone as is the current situation in North Dakota, rests on the assumption that by incentivizing demand, these funds will stimulate supply. It may be that there is a hope that the increase in supply will stimulate competition and improve quality (or, at very least, access to and distribution of these kinds of resources). 

I’m not sure that this way of thinking should apply to open access publishing. First, while there is always a market for resources – more successful and influential open access publisher surely have access to more funds – this is only indirectly related to the adoption of open access resources. In other words, while most open access publishers, I assume, want their books to be used, most of us do not directly benefit from a book that is adopted more frequently and widely because there are no profit margins on open access books. It also doesn’t directly increase our capacity to produce high quality open access books. It might indirectly, though success in grant applications or attracting better quality manuscripts, but the path from a successful adoption to increased resources is not the same as in a market driven industry which assumes that the sale of a product will produce capital. As a result, there needs to be attention to the entire network which supports OERs and this includes ensuring that competitive funding exists for their production as well as for their adoption.

Moreover, most OERs require not just energy to adopt and to produce (see below), but energy to maintain. The best open resources exists with a system that encourages collective modification, versioning (forking and otherwise), and sharing to keep textbooks up-to-date. In commercial publishing, the need to maintain textbooks as current fuels, in part, the constant arrival of new editions with new features and information. This process is expensive and the cost is passed on to consumers (while also recognizing that textbook companies iterate textbooks also to fuel a cycle of obsolesce that generates increased profits). OERs also require updating, but it won’t be directly monetized through textbook sales. What is necessary to feed the OER ecosystem and ensure that OERs remain up to date is the willingness to support their maintenance. Otherwise, classes that rely on outdates OERs will either suffer a lack of a quality textbook or simply revert to commercially available ones.  

The production of OERs can be accelerated (and the costs managed and dynamic potential of digital platforms maximized) through the use of various open publishing platforms (MIT’s PubPub, PressBooks, annotation software like, University of Minnesota’s Manifold). These platforms, however, require digital infrastructure, maintenance, and mentoring for faculty to create dynamic open content and engages students.  

2. Incentivizing at Home. At UND, there’s an interest in evaluating the quality of scholarship produced through any number of ranking schemes of publishers and journals. Needless to say, rather few of these outlets are open access. While this isn’t unusual in higher education, it certainly sends a mixed message concerning the value of open access publishing. On the one hand, we receive incentives for publishing in journals that are then sold back to our universities at considerable costs means that universities are effectively double billed for the cost of scholarly production. Moreover, UND incentivizes this approach to knowledge making which reinforces the idea that open publishing is not as good as traditional publishing (and, at worst, the larger message that somehow quality costs more).

In a more direct way, I’m skeptical that UND incentivizes textbook publishing at all. Some faculty might do this if they sign a remunerative contract with a publisher or see producing a textbook a long-term gain in efficiency for how they teach and prepare their classes. Most faculty, however, follow local incentives and dedicate their writing time to peer-reviewed articles in top tier scholarly journals. Writing an open access textbook means that there will be no paying contract with a publisher or royalties, there’s unlikely to be support baked into existing on campus incentives (in fact, the program that supports adoption of OERs excludes requests to support the production of OERs), and writing a successful grant to support the writing of an OER effectively doubles the energy necessary to pursue this outcome on campus.  

3. The lessons from MOOCs. The current enthusiasm for OERs feels a good bit like the enthusiasm for Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs). These were initially seen as an opportunity to expand the impact of university teaching at no cost to students and to allow a vast new audience to learn from the best teachers and scholars in the world. While it is clear that MOOCs never quite lived up to their educational potential. (For a discussion of this entire topic go here.)

It didn’t take long for folks to look to monetize MOOCs through various certificate programs that rewarded paying students for their performance. More than that, many place realized that MOOCs were expensive to produce and to keep up to date and to operate. Private companies that arose to produce and manage MOOCs for universities struggled to make a profit and, invariably, passed some of their expenses back to universities. In the end, it would appear that the MOOC, despite its utopian promise, failed because, to oversimplify greatly, few successfully anticipated its cost. I worry that the current trend toward OERs will run into a similar problem. When confronted by the costs of developing, supporting, and maintaining an open access ecosystem, university administrators, legislators, and faculty will balk and either try to pass the costs back to faculty in the form of unfunded mandate to develop OERs or simply let the program quietly die.

In sum, a successful OER initiative requires more than incentivizing adoption. I propose these things:

  1. Establish funds to support the production of at least 3 OER projects per year (approximately $60,000-$80,000 total).
  2. Establish funds to support the maintenance, updating, or “forking” of existing OERs (say, $30,000 per year for up to 3-6 projects).
  3. Establish funds to support OER publishing platforms on campus with local experts and local installations (here for a recent list).
  4. Incentivize open publishing across the university through recognition of OER scholarship during annual reviews and at the departmental and college level.
  5. Support regular fora where faculty who use and produce dynamic open access content (not just OER) across campus.  




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