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Open Educational Resources (OER's) are seeing a rise in popularity in institutions of higher ed, as both colleges and state-and-local governments strive to address textbook affordability and other costs associated with education.

These resources are advertised with positive aspects, including:

  • OER's are free to students.
  • Instructors can edit OER's and share them (Creative Commons license type depending) freely.

Criticisms include:

  1. Because many OER's are created without any funding structure, they don't receive periodic upkeep/revisions as commercial texts do. Hence, they may be unreliable as a resource.
  2. OER's undercut commercial products and therefore hurt job opportunities for people in publishing industry (authors, editors, etc.). Hence, there is a financial cost to adopting OER's, paid by those who lose job prospects.
  3. Pressure to use OER's (from colleges and local governments) creates tension inside academic departments because it restricts academic freedom. Therefore, instructors may be told to use a textbook because it's free, and not necessarily because it's good.
  4. OER's stigmatize authors in academia from creating materials and taking them to market. Hence, authors may no longer feel that selling their own texts/materials is appropriate, receiving shame for not offering to give away their work.

So...I want to know the real costs of OER's.

First, is the above list of criticisms correct, and do you know about any evidence to support them?

  • Are OER's damaging publishing markets? If so, do we know any particulars (numbers, examples)?

  • Have any institutions adopted an OER text, only to have it become unusable because of a lack of editing attention?

  • Are any faculty forced to use bad OER's in order to cut costs? Are they receiving pressure or stigma for wanting to use for-pay, commercial texts?

And...are there other costs associated with OER's not mentioned above? Please note that I am not positing as true any of the above positives or criticisms -- rather, these are things I have heard in conversation with other instructors.

Thank you in advance for your help here.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Mar 12 at 16:32
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+100

I will refer to your criticism by number, hoping that any updates to the list will be additive...

  • Criticism 1 (maintenance) is, in a theoretical sense, true, but open materials are often addressing it in their own way: with collaborative tools like github/gitlab and bug trackers that make reporting of errors and improvements easy. Meanwhile, publishers aren't always great at quality control, particularly when it would require them to reprint their books often (see, e.g., Hefferon's gitlab). For example, Serge Lang's Algebra is famous for its amount of mistakes and lack of polish, despite having seen three editions. My impression is that printed books are rarely revised to improve quality; instead re-editions often include new chapters, permute existing chapters, and try to dumb down some material so that it can fit more courses. Anecdotally, this is being done in order to make the old editions incompatible and thus scorch the used-book market; of course, intent is hard to prove in this question.

  • Criticism 2 (job killing) can be (and is) levied at pretty much any innovation. But this is how the world is supposed to move forward, by making formerly hard and costly things trivial and automatic! (And history, so far, has always shown that those who want to work will never run out of things to do. Getting paid for them is a different story... But medieval stasis cannot be the answer.)

  • Criticism 3 (pressure) is not happening anywhere around me (and I'm generally gravitating towards OA-friendly places). I have been using open texts whenever I could, but I don't see anyone pressuring me into doing that. (Students have occasionally thanked me for it, though I've more often been critiqued for not assigning a text that could be consistently read. Needless to say, with a subject properly covered by open-access texts, you can get the best of both worlds.) I suspect that intercollegiate pressure is much more a function of the climate at one's institution than of whatever is happening in publishing.

  • Criticism 4 (stigma) is probably a real effect. Once again, however, shifting standards are a consequence of any sort of improvement! LED lights have been stigmatizing old-fashioned lightbulb makers in just the same way. In many ways, book writing has already taken a large reputational hit before the Internet came along, and general advice in the academic community seems to be that the main purpose of writing a book is "so you can show your grandpa" (meaning that even the generation currently in their 40-50s will not see it as a particular milestone). The main reason seems to be the proliferation of books and the ease of publishing one (even with the established presses), not the advent of open access sources.

As you are asking for further criticisms, let me throw a couple in the air, although (being an OA advocate myself) I do not view them as heavily important:

  • Criticism 5: The free might drive out the good. I.e., if the best openly available materials are inferior to some printed books, some teachers will nevertheless pick the former for their free availability. I suspect this is a real issue occasionally, but mostly a temporary one. At least on the undergraduate level of my disciplines (algebra and combinatorics), there are usually freely available sources of the highest quality I know (when it comes to linear algebra, I even consider them superior). Finding good free texts gets harder the more advanced (and rarely taught) the class is, but most teachers don't assign bad texts just because they are free.

  • Criticism 6: Free resources might enable monocultures. If every lecturer has a choice between (say) 10 popular linear algebra texts of roughly equal quality, then you might expect each of these texts to have a popularity of roughly 10%. If someone writes a free text of comparable quality, you will suddenly see lots of lecturers adopting that free text purely because it is free. Subjects that are not covered in that text will disappear from classes; people's viewpoints will differ less (which is not a good thing for academia, whether or not students accept it). Note, however, that the same thing happens whenever a really good textbook comes out (say "analysis" and you will hear "Rudin"; say "differential geometry" and you will hear "Spivak"). In such cases, open access may actually disrupt that equilibrium even as publishers may lack the courage to do so.

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    All good stuff. I might add that course syllabi’s and lecture notes have been easily available for more than 20 years, yet a large variety continues to exist. Also, there are any number of classics in various fields that were perfected decades ago, yet people continue to publish less useful ones. Dover reprints were great, and cheap, for many courses. – Jon Custer Mar 8 at 2:35
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    Point 2 seems to be related to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_broken_window – Tommi Mar 8 at 14:06
  • @darij grinberg ...though I've more often been critiqued for not assigning a text that could be consistently read. Would you explain what you mean by "consistently read"? Do you mean that you've chosen a book that may not be used in the next course in a sequence? – user138719 Mar 12 at 23:14
  • @user138719: I mean a text that I am (more or less) consistently following (as opposed to a patchwork of chapters from different sources, or lecture notes I'm writing that come out with a delay, or even no notes) and that the students could read in case they missed or misunderstood something in my lecture. – darij grinberg Mar 12 at 23:47
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The question asks about hidden costs of OER's, but the real hidden costs are the ones associated with non-free texts. Students are forced to pay exploitative amounts of money for a text, but this is hidden from the instructor, who typically has no idea if the book has gone up in price since last year.

STEM students are also forced to pay large amounts of money (typically $100/semester) for online homework systems like MasteringPhysics or MyMathLab. These were originally quite cheap, but then the publishers jacked up the prices year after year. Again, the endlessly rising cost is hidden from instructors. There are open-source solutions such as LON-CAPA and WeBWorK, which can easily be provided to students for free. However, book reps steer professors into hitching their wagons to their own outrageously expensive systems. This also prevents students from buying used books, since only the new book comes shrinkwrapped with access to the software.

Because many OER's are created without any funding structure, they don't receive periodic upkeep/revisions as commercial texts do. Hence, they may be unreliable as a resource.

There are some reasons why the opposite may be true. The market incentivizes authors and publishers of non-free books to make trivial or cosmetic changes, but not to make substantive changes. Cosmetic changes are good in the marketplace for the same reason that they're good when you're trying to sell cars. Frequent trivial changes, such as renumbering homework problems, are also a big win because they prevent students from using a used copy of an older edition.

I also don't think commercial textbooks have a good track record for staying up to date. I'm a physicist. An example in my field is that professional relativists decided many decades ago to follow a convention in which mass is considered to be invariant, i.e., it doesn't depend on one's frame of reference. Authors and publishers of textbooks, especially at the college freshman level and lower, are only now beginning to adjust to this convention. This is because there is no commercial incentive for them to change. In fact, there was probably a disincentive, because they don't want to annoy professors who have gotten used to teaching things according to conventions that date back to the Roosevelt administration.

OER's undercut commercial products and therefore hurt job opportunities for people in publishing industry (authors, editors, etc.). Hence, there is a financial cost to adopting OER's, paid by those who lose job prospects.

Yes, and that's a good thing. When the automobile came along, jobs were lost by workers who made buggy whips. It was a good thing that those people lost their jobs. Capitalism isn't a permanent license to keep on doing the same thing forever in the same way. This is the concept of creative destruction. In a system where everyone is forced to pay subsidies to buggy whip manufacturers, society gets poorer over all.

Pressure to use OER's (from colleges and local governments) creates tension inside academic departments because it restricts academic freedom. Therefore, instructors may be told to use a textbook because it's free, and not necessarily because it's good.

Institutional and government pressure to use OER's are very weak (although they do exist in some places -- see note below). Institutional and government pressure not to use OER's are very strong. And it's fallacious to argue that openness is somehow opposed to quality. They're orthogonal.

What really restricts academic freedom is when a department insists that all faculty use the same text. Publishers are very good at getting faculty locked in to a specific text. For example, they get them hooked on a specific online homework system, or other ancillaries such as the slides that they provide to go with the book.

Using texts that cost money also sets up a dynamic that is opposed to academic freedom, because students buy a certain text, which costs money, and there is then a feeling that you can't change texts, because students have already bought the text for the first-semester course, and now you can't ask them to buy something different for the second semester of the sequence.

OER's stigmatize authors in academia from creating materials and taking them to market. Hence, authors may no longer feel that selling their own texts/materials is appropriate, receiving shame for not offering to give away their work.

Citation needed. I haven't seen any evidence of such a stigma.

Note on institutional and government pressure to use OER's

There was a series of comments debating whether any such pressures really existed, with many people expressing skepticism about their existence. They do exist in some places, but they're rather weak. I teach at a community college in California. Democrats in the state legislature -- bless their little socialist hearts -- have tried hard to legislate the creation of OER's and encourage their adoption. State senator Darrell Steinberg has pushed this hard, as did (moderate Republican) Governor Schwarzenegger and Governor Brown. Some relevant legislation was SB 1052 and 1053. There was a lot of confusion and milling about because the politicians were not particularly connected to the reality of the classroom, and commercial interests saw this as a way to promote their own interests. E.g., Apple saw it as a way to convince K-12 schools to buy an iPad for every kid. At the post-secondary level, the net effect so far seems to have been that there is some very gentle encouragement at my school to use OER's. Workshops have been offered. Every semester, my department asks me in the textbook adoption form to state whether I'm using a free textbook in my course. When I check the box saying yes, they respond by putting a little icon next to my course in the schedule of classes (which students never actually read, because they search for classes using a web interface). The main thing that IMO has been beneficial about all this is that it's at least made clear that it's OK for instructors to use OER's -- which had been very much in doubt before.

  • "OER's stigmatize authors...", "Citation needed" Precisely my motivation for asking this question. I have heard this exact sentiment/argument from three instructors in my department, so they may be speaking strictly from their personal experiences or conversations they've had with others. Whether this is real or imagined, and how widespread it is, is at the heart of my original question. – user138719 Mar 10 at 21:54

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