Academic 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.