February 27, 2017

OER’s Road Ahead is Paved with Publisher Platforms | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellAcademic librarians are pleased with the progress they’ve made in leading their campuses to recognize the value of Open Educational Resources (OER). Now publishers are responding to OER with new learning platforms. It may be time for a new strategy.

Academic librarians should be proud of their progress in promoting the value of OER adoption as a benefit to students. Library-led textbook affordability projects on college campuses have grown in popularity since I first promoted, in a 2009 edition of this column, the idea of academic librarians taking the lead at their institutions to encourage a new approach I referred to as “curricular resource strategies.” The terminology didn’t catch on, but the idea of tackling the textbook pricing crisis with library-based programs to support faculty adoption of alternate learning content certainly did.

As a result, students have saved millions of dollars in textbook costs. Academic librarians are sharing information about their textbook affordability efforts at conferences and in our literature. Library consortia in states such as Virginia, Louisiana, and Utah are establishing collaborative projects to introduce and support textbook affordability at their institutions.

These successes encourage more academic librarians to start OER initiatives, but a new obstacle, in the form of a response to OER from commercial publishers, stands to create new roadblocks on the path to student textbook affordability.

We’ve Seen This Before

Textbook publishers and sellers are feeling the impact of declining sales. Owing to multiple factors, including declining enrollment, textbook rentals, and students refusing to buy costly textbooks, the market for textbook sales is shrinking. Shifting faculty attitudes toward OER solutions are having an impact as well. With support from academic librarians, faculty are adopting OER and alternate learning content in greater numbers. Textbook publishers are feeling the impact. That means publishers need a different strategy, and their plans appear to parallel what’s happening in journal publishing. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em—or at least make it look that way (see: openwashing). That’s led to many dubious open access options that are costly to authors but allow publishers to claim they offer open options. Technically true, perhaps, but a solution that exacerbates rather than tackles the actual problem.

OER… Or Not Exactly

How exactly are traditional textbook publishers seeking to capitalize on OER? Take open textbooks. They’re open. That means anyone, including commercial publishers, can reuse and redistribute them. Nothing stops a commercial publisher from downloading a book from the Open Textbook Library and integrating it into a new product that mixes open and closed. At the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting, Barnes & Noble (B&N) was a first-time exhibitor. No coincidence, perhaps, given academic librarians’ deep involvement in promoting OER at their institutions, that B&N would show up to promote an OER learning resource. The BNED courseware platform combines OpenStax textbooks with a proprietary set of learning materials that includes instructor slides, notes, videos, test banks, and more. It was described to me as “OER software” by the B&N representative, but that is somewhat of a misnomer. I suspect the 5Rs of openness (retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute) do not apply to the non-OpenStax components of the courseware. “Access code” software, as described in this alarming Student PIRG report, is a more accurate label.

But here’s the conundrum for librarian OER advocates. The BNED courseware platform, utilizing OER, is considerably less expensive than a traditional textbook. At $50 per student for the access code content (plus $15 for an optional print version of the textbook) it compares favorably to a $200 textbook. One tradeoff for students is diminished access rights (e.g., no post-course access; no resale option). Still, these hybrid platforms, part OER, part access code content, could fit under the umbrella of textbook affordability. How should those of us who promote OER, alt-textbook projects, and other affordable textbook solutions to faculty incorporate publisher OER platforms into the affordability conversation? Just ignore it? Advocate in opposition to it? That may not work.

These Platforms Can’t Be Ignored

It may be in our nature to rail against publisher platforms, and some librarians may believe it is their responsibility as social justice advocates to demonize publishers for co-opting and bastardizing OER, as some journal publishers have corrupted open access. Breaking commercial publishers’ total control of learning content with the OER sledgehammer was neither easy nor inexpensive—and despite modest success, commercial textbooks still dominate. According to open education advocate David Wiley, it took years of effort and millions of dollars to create and introduce the OER we have today. Perhaps most difficult to overcome was faculty’s own reliance on commercial textbooks, to convince them to adopt OER. As supplemental learning content has exponentially expanded—slides, test banks, self-grading quizzes, and more—convincing faculty to adopt OER has only gotten harder. As Wiley puts it:

An OER advocate that walks into a faculty office and argues for them to trade their current arrangement (which increases the speed with which students receive feedback and decreases the time faculty spend grading) for static OER is going to sound like they understand very little about the realities of teachers and students. And they’re not going to be a very successful advocate.

If We Can’t Beat It

While he admits that there is much to dislike about publisher platforms like BNED Courseware, Cengage MindTap, or Pearson’s MyLab, particularly the limited access and locked down access code content, Wiley acknowledges that they have great appeal to faculty and some undeniably beneficial learning features for students. He says that “much of the OER movement has a bad attitude about platforms” but that “these systems…can make things better for students and faculty alike” and that “if the OER community doesn’t recognize that and start providing and promoting viable alternatives to publishers’ platforms” the future of OER looks bleak.

The path to the future may require librarian OER advocates to recognize that faculty need to balance their desire for affordable learning content with their need for convenience and time-saving learning content—and publisher platforms can deliver on that. As one faculty member said to me, “I don’t want an incentive of a few hundred dollars. I want time. Give me a course release and I’ll adopt OER.” In time, academic librarians, in partnership with faculty, university presses, and organizations like the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) and the Open Textbook Network, may, as Wiley says we must, find viable alternatives to the publisher platform. But until then, we need to think carefully about how we position and present them as textbook affordability options.

From “Alternative” to “Affordable”

As commercial publishers make their way into the OER landscape, with attractively priced slick platforms that blend open and closed content, academic librarians will be challenged to clearly distinguish, for educators, what constitutes affordable learning content.

This is causing me to rethink my own institution’s efforts to advance faculty adoption of OER. Originally we offered an “alternative textbook project.” We incentivized faculty to create a set of learning materials customized to their course, using OER, licensed library content, and other accessible content. This spring it has been renamed The Textbook Affordability Project. For now, we will continue to support faculty who adopt open textbooks or create their own alternate textbook, but our conversations about textbook affordability may need to be more inclusive to incorporate publisher platforms.

Think Small Victories

If we fail to do so, ignoring Wiley’s advice to change our bad attitude about them, then faculty will learn about them anyway, from the bookstore or directly from publisher representatives. My preference would be to have a thorough grasp of publisher platforms so that I can explain to instructors how they work and where they fit into the overall spectrum of textbook affordability solutions. The platforms, however off-putting to OER advocates, may be the first step for some faculty to transition from their traditional expensive textbook to a more affordable—if not entirely student-friendly—option, and then eventually, we hope, to a fully OER solution.

Taking a small victory on textbook affordability that advances student academic success, even if it involves a publisher platform, is, to my way of thinking, a positive step in the direction of a better OER future for faculty, librarians, and our students. We may do ourselves and our academic community a disservice if we fail to take it.






Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.



  1. I agree. I learned about the benefits of affordable innovative teaching technology from for-profits for myself when I had the opportunity to learn more about Great River Learning projects (for six different instructors here at UT Knoxville) Fall 2016 from one of their representatives. GRL are providing affordable responsive technology solutions. They choose their project partners (faculty) very carefully and are an attractive alternative or compliment (?) to innovative teaching and learning projects funded here through our Office of Information Technology instruction support programs. (I have no relationship with Great River Learning).

    I don’t think librarians to be apologetic towards having a bad attitude about platforms, given what the publishers have offered libraries so far. About 5 years ago, I looked at the–then new- 7th ed. of a standard veterinary textbook over the shoulder of an accomplished senior veterinary pathologist and former book and journal editor while he exclaimed about the poor quality of the illustrations in the 7th ed. Illustrations are a specialty of his, in addition to editing. That was eye-opening. Another example of problematic decisions on the part of publishers: all the references for one standard veterinary text were not included in the paper version (to save $$??)– one has to find them on the Web. And they kept moving them. And my favorite example–in the past in Wiley veterinary books to get access to the other materials associated with the paper version of a book–assembled at great cost to authors with no plan to update or give the content permalinks– on the Web, readers were directed to a certain table on a certain page and asked to use the first word of the title of the table as the password.

  2. Barbara Illowsky says:

    As a co-author of an OpenStax open textbook and a board member of the (international) Open Education Consortium, I welcome corporate America joining the OER movement. Yes, totally free is the best possible solution for students. Yes, Introductory Statistics is totally free, meaning I do not collect royalties. Yes, I promote switching entirely to OER.

    Let industry develop the innovations that I cannot or will not create. OpenStax texts already have many resources for faculty, some of which were contributed by adopting faculty to continue the sharing movement. Faculty and students are savvy enough to not pay for what is out there for free. Organizations, such as OER Commons are making it easier for people to share the resources they’ve created. Just as it took a while for faculty to learn about and adopt OER, faculty will start finding these additional open resources.

    Still, there are some valuable technology resources that my students have the OPTION of paying for. I love the learning involved with WebAssign. I “strongly recommend” that my students pay the low fee to use as I believe the platform helps improve student learning. If students really want to do hw on paper, I let them. I love the iBook version of Introductory Statistics. For $4.99, it provides highlighting, note taking, assessments. And some students want hard copies of their books.

    For me, the key is making all these extra items OPTIONAL so that a student can rely totally on OER. I won’t have students pay for a product that serves to only make my life easier. It must make student learning better. So long as they can get the text online for free, students, hopefully, won’t be coaxed into paying for the commercial products they don’t want or need.

  3. Thanks Ann and Barbara for sharing your thoughts on the issue of OER and publisher platforms. These viewpoints reflect on the different perspectives that are going to be brought to this topic. Depending where you are on the “open spectrum” publisher platforms built around access code systems are either bad for higher education or they offer just one more option to faculty who are looking at multiple options for delivering learning content to their students.

    I think Barbara makes a good point that instructors could also present students with a variety of options and then let them decide what level of learning resources they need to succeed in the course. However, the instructor would need to be thoughtful about the use of those resources, so that a student who chose to use only the open ones would not be at a disadvantage compared to the students who chose to spend more on learning content.

    Then again, isn’t that the situation a lot of students find themselves in right now when they choose not to buy an expensive textbook because they can’t afford it – or think they can pass the course by sharing it or waiting for the library to get a copy on loan.

  4. Kyle Denlinger says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful take on publisher platforms and a reminder for the more zealous OER purists among us (myself included) to pump the brakes.

    I wonder, though, whether we ought to find a better way to frame “affordability” initiatives. You wrote recently about how the most important affordance of OER is their ability to foster open pedagogical practices; however, by focusing on affordability, aren’t we underselling OER? This is especially important when pitching OER to faculty at private institutions where affordability is less of a concern. If OER have the same pedagogical benefit whether students can afford legacy textbooks or not, and if OER free up faculty to be more creative in their approach, and if publisher platforms save faculty time and make OER adoption a little less painful, shouldn’t we be focusing instead on the benefits to teaching and learning, not the cost?

  5. Hi Kyle. I tend to agree with you. When many of us, myself included, we focus on the cost factors because it is easier to quantify. I can tell faculty how money we save students on textbook costs. Then, I make the point that it is also pedagogically sound to use OER as it levels the playing field by giving all students access to the learning materials, not just those who can afford it – and as we know from the research, when students have access to the learning content, they are more academically successful.

    I think affordability is what captures the attention – which is why we make that the focal point.

    And then what version of OER contributes best to learning. Is it the OpenStax textbook and any additional instructor materials – or that same OER that is supplemented by instructor support content. The latter is more costly than the former (but not as much as the traditional textbook) but I can’t say that it’s any more or less effective than than the free textbook with more limited support content.

    I think your question is a good one for OER advocates to discuss. What’s the best way to make the case for OER to faculty?

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