Re: From Static to Interactive and From Open to Free: Consequences Both Intended and Unintended

Re: From Static to Interactive and From Open to Free: Consequences Both Intended and Unintended

May 9, 2019 0 By JR

Since the first Open Education conference I attended (Vancouver 2015) I have been watching Open Ed, OER, and Open textbook conversations with interest. I had heard about and recommended a few open textbooks to instructors before attending that conference, and being really excited about them, but by the end of those few days and the number of open textbook sessions there were I was already pretty tired of it. Don’t get me wrong, I still recommend them when the time seems about right, and was really excited to author one as well, but I’d long felt like there could be more to it than just a textbook. That may be one of the reasons why I, along with another curriculum developer, focused so much on learning activities and check your understanding exercises in the ProCom OER project. Practice makes perfect isn’t just an old tale, and asking “what students will be able to do” following some kind of instruction may be an ID trope, but it works. David points this out in his blog post that inspired me to write today.

For a long time at different OER and Open Ed related events (workshops, presentations, conference plenaries, etc) the rhetoric of ‘publisher hating’ has been pretty prevalent. I’m more than likely guilty of expressing my opinions on Open Ed through that lens, even if it doesn’t exactly align with what I mean to say. During a recent keynote, David expressed his concern about continued demonizing of publishers and cheering the kind of “we’re out to take down publishers” rhetoric that what seem like casual statements can come across like. At the time there was a bit of a buzz on Twitter, a couple of comments that I’d like to capture here are

Whether or not my interpretation of David’s comment/question at that keynote was what he intended I think my interpretation is still worth considering when working as an ID or Ed Developer.

Things were relatively quite on this topic until I read David’s most recent post. If you haven’t seen it yet, go check it out and come back. The post is chunked into pretty clear pieces around what kind of research we’re doing to measure the impact of OER, how to support student learning (and what publishers have to offer there), and a shift in the Open Ed community from “Open to Free”. The first bit I’m glad is being pointed out, that basically content is content, and that we should focus on what students are doing in addition to reading/watching:

Despite popular rhetoric along the lines of “you can’t learn from materials you can’t afford,” their rather ingenious experiment showed that increasing access to learning materials by adopting OER instead of traditionally copyrighted resources (TCM) will almost never measurably improve learning. Learning will only improve measurably if you ALSO do something else.David Wiley

I find the phrasing here a bit confusing though. I’ve heard this argument a lot regarding access to materials supporting student success. One of the earliest articles, and one that received a lot of citations is from 2015:

The mechanisms underlying these improvements differ from those typically hypothesized to underlie improvement in student outcomes. Historically, comparison studies of instructional products have often been conducted to test hypotheses about differences in student outcomes attributable to alternate modes of delivery or instructional design approach (see Russell 2015). The authors do not believe differences of mode of delivery or instructional design between OER and commercial textbooks to be the primary mechanisms responsible for the differences in outcomes observed in this study. On the contrary, our informal review reveals strikingly similar, essentially equivalent instructional designs in the OER and commercial textbooks. We believe the effects demonstrated in this study result from differing degrees of access and affordability facilitated by open licenses used by OER. (emphasis mine) Fischer, Lane. John Hilton III, T. Jared Robinson, and David Wiley.

Now this study looked at differences in outcomes across five areas (not just grades) and students’ grades only improved in 4/15 courses studied, but I can see how the ‘popular rhetoric’ began to catch hold in conversations of OER. At least this article is open access so we can read the whole thing and see where the outcomes differed, but lots of education research falls victim to abstracts being misread/misreported and that claims take on a life of their own. You don’t need to venture to far into learning styles debates to see this happen on large scale.I look forward to seeing more studies using OER as well as having an active learning type approach.

The next section was about homework systems, which have indeed been around for ages. Computer assisted instruction may ring a bell if you’ve been around long enough. So the problem is definitely not inherently homework systems. But then David makes the claim that it isn’t publishers that make students have to interact with their homework systems, but it is infact faculty that make that choice. Therefore publishers “can’t make students do anything”. There is a subtlety to the argument here. While it’s true that publishers themselves do not tell a university that their system must be used for say Math101, and that it is the faculty that make that choice, it completely ignores power dynamics, systemic contexts, and lack of agency for the students. In the rising cost of textbooks for example, economists point out that there is a disconnect between the principle and the agent in the textbook market, unlike most other markets. That is, if I’m buying a car, the car is for me and I pay for it. If we were to translate that to textbooks in higher ed it might be like me talking to a salesperson at the car lot, getting sold on how awesome this new car model is, and then telling a complete stranger that if they want to drive around they must purchase a car I’ve been talked into. And that’s just it. Publishers don’t force students to do anything, but they sell and sometimes coerce persuade faculty into choosing their product (coerce might be a bit strong but hopefully you see the point). The sales person isn’t necessarily worried about what the research says, or misrepresents the research, and doesn’t necessarily have students’ best interest in mind. Their primary directive isn’t about student learning. They have a job to do, and that’s fine, but the kinds of sales tactics I’ve witnessed while developing courses and seeing/hearing the way the sales rep worked really left a poor impression. So no, we can’t just turn around and blame faculty rather than publishers, we need to consider the broader system of higher ed when considering influencing factors on commercial textbook, OER, and homework system adoption.

The final argument is about the shift of the Open Ed conversation from “Open to Free”. I hinted at this a bit with the multitude of conference presentations that talked about open textbook adoptions. Slide #2? HOW MUCH WE SAVED STUDENTS. News paper articles? HOW MUCH WE SAVED STUDENTS. I think ecampus Ontario even just had a big press release to this effect. The economic side of the open ed movement certainly plays a role, but it is really disheartening as an educator if that’s where the main focus is (or even just as far as the conversation goes). David brings up a good point about how focusing too much on the money side of things can limit the work we do, specifically by pointing out an item from California’s ZTC grant program (item 12):

12. Do fees for access to online materials disqualify a program? Do materials fees for lab classes and would it matter if they are actual materials fees or items purchased in a bookstore?

Fees for access to online instructional materials like MyMathLab are not allowed because components of these type programs [sic] include e-textbooks. Fees for materials in certain labs are allowed such as materials kits in cosmetology courses/labs.

He cautions that this type of stipulation crosses a line that OER folks said they wouldn’t ever cross. I only agree with his argument in part. In my own experience I’ve seen great courses not recognized for their work with OER via ZedCred distinction simply because something that cost students money to participate in learning activities (e.g. lab materials) exceeded an arbitrary number that was set by the awarding bodies. It’s truly frustrating because it does not acknowledge the heart of what’s happening in courses. That being said, ‘do fees for access to online materials disqualify a program’ could be read a number of ways (although the FAQ does miss the mark ). There are additional conditions and criteria that could be added for consideration and clarification. You could look at the homework system in terms of if they exploits students and faculty (monetizing their labour and selling it back to them), or you could just compare cost and features. The latter is often done, but what is often missed is that loads of the features used in homework systems are actually available via small open source tools or in many learning management systems. So yes, getting students to practice skills is super important. But it’s going to cost students more in order to participate in the course we need to deeply consider the requirements of that participation (e.g. is the HW system mandatory or preferred) and whether or not we could use existing tools in house to accomplish the same thing. For example, rather than an expensive homework system you could combine H5P activities for formative assessments and the LMS quiz engine for tests and exams.


I know it makes people unhappy when I say it, but we’ve got to stop talking about “textbooks” if we want to improve student learning.David Wiley

I wholeheartedly agree. There is so much more to teaching and learning than textbooks, but we also shouldn’t uncritically assume that commercial resources have to be part of the equation either.

“Add your own caption” by Chris Corrigan is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0