On “The Limits to Open”

Ryan Brazell recently blogged on his experience at OpenEd 2014 in which he said,

While I can see the potential short-term gains, I’m deeply concerned about the questions we’re not asking surrounding OERs and open education more generally. I agree that people are more important than assets … but which people are left out of the above narrative? “Value” is not a neutral concept. When we create it for students, who gets to decide what that looks like? “Value” doesn’t come out of thin air. When we create value for students, from whom are we extracting it? “Open” sounds, on the surface, like a noble goal. When we makes things open — whether classrooms or party invites or educational resources — who are we unintentionally excluding? In the long term, are we actually fixing higher education, or further entrenching existing inequity?

I want to respond to Ryan’s post from an economist’s perspective.  I recognize that I may be answering a different question from the one he is asking.  But I hope some of what I say helps people’s understanding.

From an economist’s perspective, value is not a zero sum game.  Successful businesses are those that create goods or services that people value, that is, successful businesses create value that wasn’t there before.

My son went to school recently with a small bag of Lay’s Potato Chips, which he likes okay.  At lunch, one of his classmates produced a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos, which are my son’s favorite and which the classmate didn’t care for.  They traded and each party was better off as a result.  Value was created, and no one lost out.

Of course, not all value creation is painless for everyone.  When Apple created the iPod, Apple created a great deal of value on balance for consumers, but producers of substitute products (e.g. Sony Walkman) lost out.   That’s pretty characteristic of how market economies work; Joseph Schumpeter described this as “creative destruction”.  But the thing is, more value gets created than destroyed so on balance consumers are better off.

When we create value for students, we aren’t extracting it from anyone (on net).   My first book (with a traditional publisher) was written for a course on a subject (introductory research methodology in economics) for which no textbook existed.  The book was of great value to the students who used it.  I know this because many students, both my own and from other institutions, have told me so over the years.  In this case since there was no previous text, the value I created, at a list price of $44, was a clear win.

With open source materials, we are privileging students with access to the internet, and clearly some students—those without internet access–are left out.  But the real question (again speaking as an economist) is, are we reaching students who were left out before?  The answer is clearly yes.  We know that between 1/3 and ½ of undergraduates don’t buy the texts for their classes.  Open source materials are either free (online) or inexpensive, allowing more students to be able to afford them.  For example, my OpenStax Principles of Economics book is available free at http://openstax.com in a variety of formats.  If one wants to buy the affiliated aftermarket product from Sapling Learning, the price for text & software is $40.

So for class resources like textbooks, the value to the student is in what the resource helps them learn.  The author writes the book, and the instructor decides to adopt it, so both have a role in defining the value.   Can you learn without a text?  Sure.  Can you learn more with the text?  Every author hopes so.

As long as the resource is free (or modestly priced), the value is almost certainly worth the price.

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