Open Education and Artificial Scarcity in Hard Times

The sudden move to remote education by universities this year has forced the inevitable: the move to an online education. While most universities won’t be fully remote, having course materials online was already becoming the norm before the COVID-19 pandemic, and this year it has become mandatory for millions of educators and students. As academia recovers from this crisis, and hopefully prepares for the next one, the choices we make will send us down one of two paths. We can move towards a future of online education which replicates the artificial scarcity of traditional publishing, or take a path which fosters an abundance of free materials by embracing the principles of open access and open education.

The well-worn, hefty, out-of-date textbook you may have bought some years ago was likely obsolete the moment you had a reliable computer and an Internet connection. Traditional textbook publishers already know this, and tout that they have embraced the digital era and have ebooks and e-rentals available—sometimes even at a discount. Despite some state laws discouraging the practice, publishers try to bundle their digital textbooks into “online learning systems,” often at the expense of the student. However, the costs and time needed to copy and send thousands of the digital textbooks themselves is trivial compared to their physical equivalent. 

To make matters worse, these online materials are often locked down with DRM which prevent buyers from sharing or reselling books; in turn, devastating the secondhand textbook market. This creates the absurd situation of ebooks, which are almost free to reproduce, being effectively more expensive than a physical book you plan to resell. Fortunately for all of us this scarcity is constructed, and there exists a more equitable and intuitive alternative. 

Right now there is a global collaborative effort among the world’s educators and librarians to provide high-quality, free, and up-to-date education materials to all with little restriction. This of course is the global movement towards open education resources (OER). While this tireless effort of thousands of academics may seem complicated, it revolves around a simple idea: Education is a fundamental human right, so if technology enables us to share, reproduce, and update educational materials so effectively that we can give them away for free—it’s our moral duty to do so.

This cornucopia of syllabuses, exams, textbooks, video lectures, and much more is already available and awaiting eager educators and students. This is thanks to the power of open licensing, typically the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY), which is the standard for open educational resources. Open licensing preserves your freedom to retain, reuse, revise, remix and redistribute educational materials.  Much like free and open source licensing for code, these licenses help foster a collaborative ecosystem where people can freely use, improve, and recreate useful tools

Yet, most college students are still stuck on the path of prohibitively expensive and often outdated books from traditional publishers. While this situation is bad enough on its own, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the absurd and contradictory nature of this status quo. The structural equity offered by supporting OER is as clear and urgent as ever. Open Education, like all of open access more broadly, is a human rights issue.

The Squeeze on Students and Instructors

How do college students cope with being assigned highly priced textbooks? Some are fortunate enough to buy them outright, or can at least scrape together to rent everything they need. Physical books are available, they can share copies, resell them, and buy used. Artificial book scarcity has fortunately already been addressed in many communities with well-funded libraries. Unfortunately the necessity for reducing social contact during the pandemic has made these physical options more difficult if not impossible to orchestrate. That leaves the most vulnerable students with the easiest and by far most common solution for navigating the predicament: hope that you don’t actually need the book and avoid the purchase all together.

Unsurprisingly, a student’s performance is highly impacted by access to educational materials, and trying to catch up late in the semester is rarely viable. In short, these wholly artificial barriers to accessing necessary educational materials are setting up the most vulnerable students to choose between risking their grades, their health, or their wallet. Fortunately there is a growing number of institutions embracing OER, saving their students millions of dollars while making it possible for every student to succeed without any undue costs.

Instructors at universities have been feeling the pressure, too. With little support at most institutions, they were asked to prepare a fully online course for the fall, sometimes in addition to an in-person course plan. Studying this sudden pivot, Bay View Analytics estimates 97% of institutions had faculty teaching online for the first time, with 56% of instructors needing to adopt teaching methods they have never tried before. 

Adapting a course to work online is not a trivial amount of work. Integrating technology into education often requires special training in pedagogy, the digital divide, and emerging privacy concerns. Even if it falls short of these trainings, having a selection of pre-made courses to freely adapt is an age-old academic practice which can relieve instructors from this burden. While this informal system of sharing among instructors may have provided some confidence, provided they knew others who have taught similar courses online, this is where the power of OER can really take hold. 

Instead of being limited to who you know, the global community around OER offers a much broader variety of syllabuses and assignments for different teaching styles. As OER continues to grow, instructors will be more resilient and able to choose between the best materials the global OER community has to offer.   

Building Towards Education Equity

Despite the many benefits of open access and open education, most instructors have still never heard of OER. This means a simple first step away from an expensive and locked down system of education is to make sure you make the benefits of OER more widely known. While pushing for the broader utilization of OER, we must advocate for systemic changes to make sure OER is supported on every campus.

For this task, supporting public and private libraries is essential. Despite years of austerity cuts, many academic libraries have established hubs of well-curated OER resources, tailored for the needs of their institution. As just one example, OAISIS is a hub of OER at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where librarians maintain materials from over 500 institutions. As a greater number of educational materials utilize open licenses, it will be essential for librarians to help instructors navigate the growing number of options.

State legislatures are also increasingly introducing bills to address this issue, and we should all push our legislatures to do what’s right. Public funding should save students money and save teachers time, not deepen the divide between those who can and those who can’t access resources.

This is a lesson we cannot forget as we recover from the current crisis. Structural inequity and a system of artificial scarcity is nothing new, and it will still be there on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. Traditional publishers have restrained education too much for too long. We already have a future where education can be adaptable, collaborative, and free. Now is the time to reclaim it.

EFF is proud to celebrate Open Access Week 2020

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