OER: Bigger Than Affordability

Open education resources can catalyze a much-needed national conversation about what we mean by “public” higher education, Robin DeRosa writes.

November 1, 2017

Learning about Creative Commons licenses was a game changer for me. I’d been teaching undergraduates for almost two decades when I first heard Cable Green speak about how open educational resources can allow for easier sharing and collaboration around educational materials. I sensed that a seismic shift was going to happen in my pedagogy, but it’s taken me a few years to see OER's even larger potential for my work.

When my students and I developed The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature in order to replace a commercial anthology of public-domain literature, the idea was pretty basic: save students about $86 a pop and share the work so other students and faculty could use and improve the book. When the anthology took off and students and scholars started to revise and add to it, and my own class began to develop nondisposable assignments that added texture and context to the literature in the collection, I realized that the cost-saving aspect of OER is only the beginning of their benefits.

But part of my excitement about the power of OER is tempered by my sense that we are dabbling in the trees while the forest is on fire. By now, most people involved with OER know the truly shocking statistics about textbook costs and how they adversely affect student success. The more I learned about textbook costs, though, the less I cared about them, in particular. In other words, I started to see them as just one of the prohibitive ancillary expenses that students face as they try to fund their college educations.

From there, it was just a short hop to realize that for me, OER is a larger social justice issue, foundationally related to the question of who should have access to knowledge, knowledge creation and education. That led me to this question: How can we reframe OER advocacy in a larger landscape of social justice? Because so much of my thinking has been helpfully inflected by my collaborator Rajiv Jhangiani, who lives and teaches in Canada, I have also realized how contextualized the answers to that question are, and should be.

I began considering the larger role of open in a social justice agenda targeted at public higher education in the United States, where I live and teach. First, I looked to Sara Goldrick-Rab's research on how the hidden costs of attending college make college graduation an unattainable goal for such a large portion of our nation’s population. If 50 to 80 percent of the total sticker price of college is coming from nontuition costs, as she demonstrates, we need to confront the complete set of material conditions that constrain students.

Not only can OER drive down the real cost of college, but thinking about textbook costs can propel faculty, in particular, to think about how course and program design can be adapted to make access -- more broadly writ -- a priority. Is food insecurity on the radar of your chemistry department? If OER is appealing because they can help make knowledge more accessible, then we must care about the myriad issues -- from child care to transportation -- that prevent our potential students from even coming to our classrooms in the first place.

In addition, if we care about OER from a social justice and access perspective, then we will also care about the aspects of open that can (inadvertently) reinscribe or augment inequities. Do your students have access to broadband at home so they can easily get into their online textbooks? Do they have laptops, unlimited mobile data plans, digital literacy skills to navigate involved technologies?

Is our new OER built with universal design in mind, or does it replicate commercial textbooks that need to be retrofitted for individual learners with disabilities? When we design open and connected learning assignments, are we using commercial platforms that mine and monetize our students’ data without their knowledge or consent? My thinking here is informed by Chris Gillard’s illuminating work on “digital redlining” and the problematic ways technology can invade privacy, reduce agency and augment the inequalities it purports to alleviate.

As I focused in my own academic program on driving down the real cost of college and critically considering how we could -- and couldn’t -- use technology to increase access to learning, I started to feel that open was changing the nature of my identity as a teacher and scholar. I wanted to understand more about how the work I was doing intersected and sometimes clashed with the national and institutional contexts within which I was working.

Tressie McMillan Cottom points out that we now think of college as an individual good, rather than a collective good that benefits society, which helps explain the credentializing craze that encourages learners to gird themselves against a rough labor market by accumulating certificates and degrees. Calling this “lower ed,” McMillan Cottom links the recent rise of for-profit colleges to our growing national aversion to public responses to labor market crises. Christopher Newfield explores this from inside public institutions, looking at the “devolutionary cycle” that occurs when our public universities (and their leaders, in particular) retreat from articulations of the public good and instead subsidize sponsored research, hike tuition and contract with private vendors to offset the co-occurring divestments by state governments.

In effect, both McMillan Cottom and Newfield are concerned with the increasing privatization of the terrain of higher education in the U.S., which is happening not only with the burgeoning for-profit college industry, but also with the increasingly privatized revenue streams and conceptual strategies that public colleges and universities (mistakenly) believe will help them make ends meet.

As someone who teaches at a regional public university, I confront the diction of austerity and panic every day in daily institutional operations and in the push to innovate to address our challenges. But we can’t save public higher education by privatizing it, despite our current national frenzy to do just that.

My blossoming hope is that we can use some of the tools and rhetoric of open to build a public response to the crisis in American public higher education. OER can help us conceive of how the public can generate the materials it needs to support its education, and can help us center access as a key component of any equitable learning environment. Open-access publishing can help our public institutions share research and information with the public, which would then set a logical premise for restoring state allocations and federal funding. Open pedagogies that empower learners to contribute to the shape of knowledge can assure that the labor markets they graduate into are responsive to their vision for the future of our societies.

I value the diversity of ways that people define “open,” but for me in my context as a public university professor in a country where the system seems to be privatizing rapidly, I am most interested to see how the concepts around working open can help us find a way to talk about the value -- in particular the nonmarket social value -- of public higher education, and imagine a sustainable future for our public institutions. This might mean exploring the distinctions between a knowledge commons and a public education system, and it would certainly mean becoming more concrete and coherent with all of our terms.

There is no panacea in this, but one of Newfield’s main premises is that we in public higher education have failed to articulate the value of public in our rush to embrace a private market approach to generating revenues. I am starting to see open not only as a pedagogical tool and way to make college more affordable, but also as a rhetorical strategy for catalyzing a much-needed national conversation about what we mean by “public” higher education.


Robin DeRosa is professor and director of interdisciplinary studies at Plymouth State University, part of the University System of New Hampshire. You can read more about her work at her website or follow her on Twitter @actualham.


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