This is the first in a series of posts about my journey into OER. If you are not familiar with Open Educational Resources (OER), you should be. OER is course materials: syllabi, assignments, lecture notes, and even texts, which are available for adaptation and use for free. There is almost certainly some OER in your field. If you are like the majority of faculty that I know, you care about your students’ learning and you want them to be successful. One of the major impediments to college graduation is the cost, which has grown faster over the last few decades than nearly any other component of inflation. Textbook costs are a major part of the cost of higher education.
The strength and the weakness of OER is that it is free. One of the first principles of economics is that there is no such thing as a free lunch—everything has an opportunity cost. If the user doesn’t pay it, someone else has to or else the good or service will not get provided. Much of existing OER is craft work, interesting and useful things created as more or less one-off projects. This is not a bad thing—indeed, it describes pretty much everything I’ve done in my professional life. Until recently.
Two years ago, I helped create a free, open source principles of economics text for OpenStaxCollege. OpenStax has introductory text books in a variety of fields. You should check to see if yours is represented. The books are free in a variety of formats, but OpenStax has been challenged with the question of how to keep their textbooks current and available. Someone has to pay the bills to run the servers. Someone has to pay for updates and revisions. Or these things won’t happen. OpenStax’s strategy has been three pronged: One approach is to ask for donations. I don’t know how successful that has been, but I suspect donations alone will not be enough to pay the bills. Another approach is to work with commercial firms to provide after-market products that are not free, though they may be effective at enhancing learning and they are not very expensive compared to traditional commercial textbooks and their accoutrements. In return, the commercial firms provide a modest revenue stream to OpenStax, enough perhaps to maintain the existing collection of books. The third approach is to solicit grant funding for major projects, either creating new books or making major revisions of existing ones. Granting agencies support innovative new ideas, but they tend to be less supportive of maintenance operations, including revisions. The Gates Foundation has been this way.
One of the goals of the Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Courseware Challenge has been to develop a business model that allows for operation at scale, but that doesn’t require continued grant funding. Enter Lumen Learning. Full disclosure: I am working for Lumen on the project I’m about to describe. This means I am not an objective observer, which means I am going to tell you what I really think: Go figure!
Lumen is a for-profit company. How can a for-profit company provide OER? I had a hard time wrapping my head around this, but I may have figured it out now. Lumen is giving away its content for free. After all, that’s the way OER is supposed to be. Here is the principles of macroeconomics text. Here the the principles of micro text. Then Lumen used this OER to create digital courseware that will replace the textbooks students use in (at present) four of their courses. Lumen will sell this product to colleges and universities at a significantly lower price than students would pay for a text book (approximately 10%), something comparable to what OER after market companies are charging for their products. It will be up to schools to determine how they are going to pay for the Lumen product, perhaps by charging a course fee, but once the school opts in, the students will have immediate access to the text from day 1. Research has shown that when students have access to the textbook on the first day of class, they are far more likely to finish and succeed in the course. In short, the product is not free, but neither is it very expensive. The purpose is to allow the product to be used by a large number of schools and students, but in a way that is economically sustainable and won’t require constant searches for money to support.
(To be continued.)
Image Credit: oer_logo_EN_1 by Breno Trautwein via twitter.