Friendly Amendment to “OER: Some Questions and Answers”

A couple weeks ago, David Wiley responded to a clever Pearson op-ed, which attempted to damn [OER] with faint praise. Among other things, the op-ed states:

“OER often shine in their variety and ability to deepen resources for niche topics.“ (emphasis added)

I have a couple of thoughts on the op-ed and David’s response.

The op-ed asserts that while OER could be high quality, few “instructional design-minded instructor[s]” would be willing to put in the required effort without “fair compensation”. The author’s implication is that OER is extremely unlikely to replace commercial textbooks.

To this point, David responds that the public good nature of digital OER refutes this:

“The nonrivalrous nature of digital resources (the technical ability to share copies of resources at almost no cost) combined with open licenses (the legal permission to share copies of resources at no cost) means that only a handful of people need to be actively involved in producing or making substantive improvements to OER in order for the public to have free and open access to resources whose effectiveness is on par with those created by commercial publishers.”

David goes on to state that the classic theory of public goods,

“lacks an account of why people volunteer for or donate their time, money, and effort to a range of charitable and other causes, including the creation, improvement, and maintenance of open source software and open educational resources.“

I respectfully suggest that the theory suggests otherwise.

A positive externality occurs when the benefits of some action accrue to people other than the consumer who pays the cost. A good example is flu shots. The rational individual will get a flu shot if the benefit he or she receives exceeds the cost they pay. But note that if you get a flu shot, I benefit also since I won’t catch the flu from you. In other words, there is an external benefit to your getting a flu shot (or to put it into economic jargon: the marginal social benefit exceeds the marginal benefit to you). But you don’t take the benefit to me into your calculations. For some people, the cost will exceed their perceived benefits. Those people won’t get the flu shot even when the social benefit (to them and others) is greater than the cost. This is the argument that private markets will under-produce goods with positive externalities.

A public good is a little different. With a good like a flu shot, the main benefits go to the consumer, while the external benefits are secondary. Or to put it more generally, the private benefits make up a substantial part of the total social benefits.   With public goods it is the opposite.

Public goods are defined as those with a high upfront cost, but a zero (or low) marginal cost for others to benefit once the public good is provided. With a pure public good, no one finds the benefit to them worth the substantial upfront cost. Thus, no public goods are provided, even though collectively the social benefits exceed the social costs.   Provision of public goods requires a mechanism for the collective decision to consume and pay for them.

“Non-rival” means that your consumption doesn’t detract in any way from my consumption. An apple is a rival good. If I eat it, you can’t. A printed text is largely rival, since if you are reading it, I can’t read it too, at least not easily at the same time. If more people want copies, they have to pay for them. This is why students generally obtain their own copy of a text, rather than sharing with someone else.

A digital text is non-rival. The cost of creating the text is substantial, but an infinite number of people can download and use a digital text at no additional charge (except for maintaining the server). Thus, a digital text is a public good, while a printed text is a private (rival) good. What about commercial digital texts? Commercial digital texts are technologically-speaking, public goods, but economically-speaking they are not. Property rights to the producer make them artificially private goods. Note that it is (near) impossible to prevent one student from benefiting from another student’s flu shot, but it is entirely possible through DRM to prevent one student from benefiting from a commercial digital text unless they pay the price. This is true even though the actual cost of an additional download is zero.

The classical public good argument is not an argument for why public goods won’t be produced by people who don’t see any personal financial benefit. A flu shot doesn’t convey any (direct) financial benefit to the recipient. There are benefits, but they are not financial. What the argument says is that the personal benefits do not exceed the personal costs. This raises a couple of questions. If this condition characterizes a major work of OER, like a complete textbook, one that could replace a commercial text, then such OER is, indeed, a public good, and by the theory requires public support (e.g. a subsidy) for the OER to be provided. Thus, the grant funding behind a lot of OER makes sense in the context of public good theory.

But there’s another dimension to OER, and this is where I think David is mistaken. When David claims that the theory of public goods can’t explain why people devote time, money and effort to creating OER, I disagree. The theory suggests that people will do this when the benefit to them exceeds the cost. I think that the benefits perceived by these individuals are the benefits their actions provide to other people. Altruism provides a benefit even though the benefit is not financial. I think that explains that why people are often willing to contribute to improvements to OER, once the OER exists. And this makes no sense to anyone who limits their understanding to the realm of commerce. To phrase it differently, new major OER is a public good, but improvements to the same are positive externality goods.

[ By the way, I’m not wowed by the Wikipedia quote on public goods that was cited in the post. Free riding does not cause private costs to exceed private benefits. Rather, it strengthens the case for collaborative action because private action is less likely to occur.]

Beyond this point, my reading of the op-ed suggests that Pearson is setting up a strawman to represent OER. The author implicitly compares comprehensive commercial text books to the single piece of OER created by a random faculty member to teach Topic X, or even an open source text written by a faculty member on his/her own with no editorial or publisher support and no extra quality control. This is not the type of major OER that David and other OER publishers like OpenStax are about. Of course, it’s in Pearson’s interest to promote this myth.

It also seems to me that the commercial publishers are trying to design products for instructors who want to minimize the amount of work they must do to integrate the text into their course–time-constrained adjuncts and lazy tenured or tenure-track faculty come to mind. An obvious example is the powerpoint slides provided by publishers to mirror the book’s content. The op-ed alludes to this when it brings up the costs to faculty of adopting OER, and the implication that these costs are less for commercial texts.

I have to admit that earlier in my career, I adopted textbooks that I had never read. I suspect that’s pretty common across academia. I simply assumed that if they were commercially published, they must be good, right?  David’s post exposes the iie in that assumption.

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One Response to Friendly Amendment to “OER: Some Questions and Answers”

  1. Don Gorges says:

    __Thank you for contributing to my understanding of OER as a positive externality. I have posted your blog to Linkedin with the comment below, and I would be grateful if you would point to any errors or gaps in my understanding. Thanks, again.
    __Steve Greenlaw, Professor of Economics at University of Mary Washington, explains Government funded new major OER is a ‘public good’, and, where Altruism provides a benefit, even though the benefit is not financial, the improvements – adaption to the same are ‘positive externality goods’.
    The Government funded program, BCcampus Open Textbooks, is a ‘public good’. BCcampus open textbook, Principles of Social Psychology-1st International Edition, is an example of ‘positive externality goods’. . . it was adapted by Rajiv Jhangiani and Hammond Tarry from Charles Stagnor’s original textbook without financial benefit, albeit these are salaried Professors, this is Altruism.

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