The ecosystem of educational resources

This week I am in Barcelona for the Open Education Conference and the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival. It’s been a very inspiring few days, and most inspiring so far was a talk by Hal Plotkin, Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education in the United States Department of Education. The title of his talk was “Meeting President Obama’s 2020 College Graduation Goal – The Role of Open Educational Resources,” but his focus was actually on how to foster a culture of sharing among academics, including the very important role that government policymaking has to play. I think it’s exciting to know that there is someone helping to make educational policy who thinks the way Hal Plotkin does.

The most compelling element of this talk for me was Plotkin’s framing of the market for educational resources as an ecosystem. It began with an anecdote: At Foothills De Anza Community College, where Plotkin worked for many years, he saw at the start of each term students roaming the college bookstore, course catalogs in hand, trying to figure out which courses they could afford to take based on how expensive the textbooks were. Economic considerations were often the most important factor that students used to decide what course they could take.

There was a statistics professor at Foothills De Anza who had created his own textbook, and sold it through the college bookstore. Another statistics professor came to campus, and she wanted to create an open stats textbook, one that would be available to students for free online. The college helped her do this, and then there were two statistics classes available to students, one with a free textbook and one with a textbook they had to buy. Students voted with their feet, and enrollment in the class with the proprietary textbook dropped so low that the college nearly cancelled it. It also turned out that students in the OER class did better in subsequent stats classes, probably because they could keep their textbooks instead of selling them back to the bookstore so they could afford books for the new term. Over time the faculty member with the proprietary textbook finally understood what was happening, made his book open, now there are choices between two different open textbooks and sections on campus.

This shift from closed to open happened at Foothills De Anza Community College, not by mandate or new requirements, but by the creation of an alternate OER universe, one that is so advantageous to the community that, and I’m quoting Plotkin here, “in the natural biology of things it overtakes the less useful organism that’s part of our enterprise.”

Expanding on this story, Plotkin argued that what’s most effective in changing the culture is to look for the adopters of OER and to impel or encourage our governmental entities and governance structure in higher education to support the faculty members who want to engage in OER scholarship and the OER community. We can do this without wasting any energy in trying to convince those who are not convinced. We have enough opportunity on our hands, enough interested scholars and faculty members around the world who want to participate in this alternate academic universe that we can spend all our time fruitfully engaging them and working with them without ever wasting our time on the opposition. Over time, if we continue to nurture and support the faculty who want to be a part of a different structure, an open structure, a sharing structure, these stronger, healthier practices will overtake the old, closed practices, and push them towards extinction.

This is not a new argument. Here’s the part that was new to me: We don’t need to do this by changing the copyright law. We don’t need to attack the existing structures head on. We don’t need to fight against anything. We can let the Elseviers and Cengages keep their life plus 70 copyright terms and their draconian licensing practices. All we need to do is help open educational resources flourish – on a giant scale, a federally funded scale – and soon enough, the tough old dinosaurs of commercial publishing will evolve or die out.

Plotkin’s talk focused on the role of government and higher education administrators to support open models of educational publishing, but I think it applies just as well on a micro level. Rather than trying to convert the masses of faculty who have never heard of OER, or who actively oppose it, librarians and other proponents of sharing on campus should focus all of our time finding, reaching out to, and supporting the faculty and students on our campuses who already get it. I’ve been thinking a lot about how exactly we can do those things, and I hope to write more about it in the coming weeks.