For-profit, faux-pen, and critical conversations about the future of learning materials

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I remember the first time I heard the term “free riders” being used in the context of the open education movement. It was at the Open Education Conference in 2015 in Vancouver when, during a presentation titled “The Economics of Open,” the Chief Executive of a for-profit player in the space was referring to those who reuse OER (including for monetary gain) without contributing anything to the commons. I remember reacting with some surprise because, as a co-author of open textbooks, I saw other people reusing my work as a measure of the impact of my efforts. Even as a relative newcomer to the movement, I know I wasn’t the only one in the ballroom to feel this way.

But the more I thought about it the more I could see how companies for which profit is a primary goal, and whose primary obligation is to shareholders and not students, could perceive differently the reuse of their resources by those who will neither compensate them monetarily or in kind.

But the CEO was also talking about good corporate citizenship, about the importance of giving more than you take, adding unique value, and being transparent around how that is happening. Heartening stuff.

Two and a half years later I witnessed a representative of the same company, Lumen Learning, giving one of the lunchtime vendor presentations at an OER conference that I was keynoting. During his presentation he shared images of home improvement disasters (think photographs of doors that are cut at obviously incorrect angles and so won’t shut). His explicit argument was that OER work should be left to the professionals and that his company were the ideal professionals to hire when you wish to create or adapt OER. This was absolutely shocking to me and this time I tweeted out my surprise, because this wasn’t a strategy I had seen from Lumen before and I had great respect for much of their work in this space (so much so that I had previously even explored partnering with them). This was quickly followed by an DM from one of the leaders of that company confidently informing me that he seriously doubted the accuracy of my characterization. But I was in the room (as were about 100 other people). And it really was what the rep said. We had a bit more of a chat about it via Twitter DMs and, to his credit, he immediately recognized the need for a company-wide conversation about framing. Good corporate citizenship requires ongoing vigilance.

Over the years I have encountered all kinds of shady strategies by for-profit players looking to capitalize on the growing interest in OER, from a marketing brochure from Pearson that touted a new digital delivery platform for leasing textbooks (but that actually cites open textbook efficacy research), to emails from sales representatives (aka “Senior Solutions Providers”) of Pearson Canada that warn my colleagues against adopting OER (email subject line to faculty: “OER Cracks Appearing”), to being on stage with the CEO of Nelson Canada while he compared OER to white rice. “It’s great!” he said. “But you don’t want to eat it everyday.” And this is all without all of the clear cut cases of openwashing that we continue to see.

So while many caution against demonizing commercial publishers, I have to say that characterizing accurate descriptions of publishers’ past and present business practices (e.g., price gouging, “new editions” of textbooks with only cosmetic changes, etc.) or the use of quotes from their own public statements as “demonization” is a form of gaslighting. They actually do and say the things that we are sometimes told shouldn’t be discussed in polite company.

“There are millions of students out there who are making very painful trade offs in the purchase of learning materials relative to paying the rent, paying for basic needs, food, etc. We as an industry have chosen for a long time to basically ignore that—or have more or less been paying lip service to them.” Michael Hansen, CEO, Cengage (2018)

Characterizing accurate descriptions of publishers’ past and present business practices or the use of quotes from their own public statements as “demonization” is a form of gaslighting.

This is why it has been fascinating to follow the discussion of the role of commercial players in the OER space over the past few years (see, for example, these posts by Barbara Illowsky and Jim Luke). On the one hand, I fully understand and appreciate the skepticism that many in our community feel when they see [Large Commercial Publisher] announce a new strategy or platform that includes OER (or even one that includes the word “Open“).

As I described during my presentation at this year’s ACRL conference, I see several phases that commercial publishers have gone through in their still-evolving relationship with OER, from largely ignoring it to disingenuously attacking it (“if it’s free, how good could it be?”), to the current strategy of co-opting it (“hey you can access OpenStax textbooks in our platform too!”). It was a strategy we could long see coming, especially when Cengage’s own research forecast that the use of OER as primary courseware was poised to triple within five years.

As an aside, I take the inclusion of open textbooks in commercial textbook publishers’ platforms as a ringing endorsement of their quality 🙂

And yet the narrative is not so simple because some of the for-profit players are making efforts to be good (or at least better) actors in open education. I believe that these efforts should be recognized and lauded. In some cases we are witnessing the outcomes of individual efforts to (slowly) change long-standing organizational culture. I believe these internal advocates need our support to engineer systemic change, to get their organizations to understand the value (and not just the price) of doing right by students. Wilde stuff, I know.

While this may seem like a tricky balance, I see it as quite straightforward to criticize openwashing by a commercial player while also recognizing positive developments from the same actor. What is more, I believe we should be clear about what we mean by openwashing so that commercial players know to avoid it (this way, if they do engage in it they are knowingly embracing their demonic side).

This is why I so appreciated the publication of the thoughtful CARE framework along with the ongoing efforts of Cable Green from Creative Commons to help operationalize what being a good actor in open education means in discussions with commercial publishers. Cable’s list includes:

  • Being open and transparent about what they are charging for (platform, analytics, all-rights-reserved content, etc) and what they are not (OER).
  • Properly marking (title, author, source, license) their OER and giving proper attribution to others’ OER.
  • Ensuring all publisher OER can be downloaded without any barriers (non-password protected) and in editable file formats.

So when Cengage followed through on one of our suggestions to give back to the commons and released three of their own titles under a CC-BY 4.0 license, I congratulated Cheryl Costantini (VP of Content Strategy), shared this news widely, and celebrated. At the same time, a month later when Cengage exploited the problem of food insecurity among students (which they have played a causal role in creating) as a marketing tool for their proprietary platform, I took issue with it. Similarly, when Lumen Learning provides open content and code to the commons, I applaud and thank them. But when Lumen does not make titles from their OER catalogue downloadable and instead suggests that people copy and paste from their webpages, I take issue with it because they know better.

I use these two companies as examples because they are very different entities, with very different origins and philosophies, very different actors running them, and with very different histories within the open education movement. However, in my view, the same standards should apply to both. Your initial skepticism of Cengage is warranted because of their past behaviour just as your initial trust of Lumen is warranted because of the immense and continuing contributions of David Wiley to the open education movement. But it is not true that nothing that Cengage could do will ever be enough. Because they could be good citizens of the open education movement (I write this knowing some of you will scoff) and open licensing is not incompatible with for-profit business models. At the same time, Lumen does not get a pass on scaremongering around OER adaptation just because David Wiley is their co-founder. I say this as someone who deeply respects David. Indeed, it was listening to David speak that triggered my own entry into this movement (I recounted this in my keynote address at the 2015 BC Open Textbook Summit, which I began with a tribute to David).

But this conversation is not about one person or one company. If it sometimes appears to be it is because the founder of the Open Education Conference (who for years took on the Herculean task of organizing this event by himself) co-leads a for-profit player in this space, one whose employees are usually seen volunteering behind the registration desk and performing other duties during the conference. This is a tension that David Wright wrote about way back in 2015.

It is true that David Wiley took heat when the Open Education conference in 2017 in Anaheim was slated to include a keynote address by an officer of the Global Education Initiative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a decision that was revisited in the face of an outcry from the community.

But these criticisms should never be personal. They should instead be structural. Everyone has blindspots positioned according to their worldview, which is why forming a program committee for the Open Education Conference was a positive step (even if one might quibble that the members are selected by David and some of their suggestions may be vetoed by him). So while the current controversy about a keynote panel at this year’s Open Education conference keynote panel is merited (see this thoughtful and articulate thread by the wonderful Michelle Reed), this criticism is still not personal.

Among other things, the criticism focuses on the elevation of this session as a keynote panel, its framing as being about the “Future of Learning Materials,” the lack of representation from library publishing programs, and the pre-screening of questions that are to be submitted in advance of the conference.

In Michelle’s words:

These are just some of the differences between the announced keynote panel at OpenEd19 and a “Hot Topics” panel during last year’s Creative Commons Global Summit in which representatives from Cengage, MacMillan, Top Hat, and Lumen were on stage together. Following presentations by the panelists, the session (which was moderated by Cable Green from Creative Commons) opened for questions. I was in the room that day and used the final audience question to list just a few of the panelists’ past (and in some cases present) misdeeds and inquired whether they (in the spirit of their newly-discovered affection for OER) would be willing to publicly commit to changing their ways. Frankly, the answers that were offered were less than inspiring and ranged from denial (e.g., “If we are doing something incorrect please do tell us”) to dissent (e.g., insisting that their fear mongering about the discoverability of OER reflected a real challenge that they do not exaggerate for financial gain).

Despite these responses and the press-release style statements issued by the panel, I appreciated that Cable organized that session. You see, I do want to have these discussions with commercial players. I am interested in a diverse and healthy commons and I take no joy in skewering for-profit actors publicly when they perpetrate harm and lie to advance their bottom line. This is why I have volunteered my time to meet with (and continue to have discussions with) both large and small for-profit players in the space.

If you read Michelle’s thread in its entirety you will see that she acknowledges several times the value of having these conversations. But a conversation it needs to be. Not a PR exercise with pre-screened questions, plastic smiles, and marketing drivel. Not a reputation cleanse. And certainly not on a platform that frames for-profit players as the future of learning materials.

If there’s a silver lining to this kerfuffle, it may lie in the number and diversity of voices in the open education community that have spoken out in thoughtful, nuanced ways against the planned panel. While some may view this conversation as “divisive” or “uncivil,” it actually gives me great hope and confidence in the future of course materials.

There are many of us who have been pushing to have more critical conversations about open education at this conference. In some cases these proposals have been rejected, but when they have been included you will note that they have typically been standing room only. This includes a dynamic hybrid session about the Ethics of Open in Anaheim in 2017 and several sessions in Niagara Falls in 2018 (yay conference program committee!) including Jess Mitchell’s keynote, Open Education & Student Learning Data by Billy Meinke-Lau and Steel Wagstaff, Dangerous Data? The Ethics of Learning Analytics in OER in the Age of Big Data  by Cristina Colquhoun and Kathy Essmiller, Open for Who? Open Practices with Remote Australian  Aboriginal Knowledge and Learning by Johanna Funk, and Power, Publishing, and A Broader Vision for OER by Zoe Wake Hyde, Jess Mitchell, Ethan Senack, David Ernst, and myself. Even if you look at other events such as OpenCon, the panels that focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion have been the most powerful and impactful. This is because the community is thirsty for these critical conversations. Not just to hear people cheer on each other’s good work within an echo chamber. But to challenge and push one another, and to try to avoid perpetrating harm with the very best of intentions (which will happen if we ignore digital redlining, accessibility, data privacy, and other social justice issues).

While some may view this conversation as “divisive” or “uncivil,” it actually gives me great hope for the future of learning materials.

Having critical conversations about open education isn’t just possible, it is essential. These are the conversations that resonate and that we need to feed into future planning. They ask tough questions. They don’t confuse inclusion with both-siderism. They bring us together and help keep us in check.

Of course the Open Education conference is just an open education conference and it certainly isn’t the only place to have these conversations. Regional events such as the Northeast OER Summit, the Cascadia Open Education Summit, Wisconsin’s E-ffordability Summit, the Statewide Colorado OER conference and others are wonderful options. Further afield, the OER conference and the Open Education Global conference are both events that welcome critical conversations. As do other events like Digital Pedagogy Lab and the many virtual conference hallway conversations facilitated by Virtually Connecting.

So let me leave you with three thoughts:

1. If you disagree with concerns that have been raised by the community, please try to refrain from the straw man argument that criticisms like those that are being made of the planned keynote panel at Open Ed 19 are made by those who are opposed to any and all commercial activity in open education. This is an inaccurate and intellectually lazy take.

2. If you have concerns, don’t be fearful of making legitimate and respectful critiques just because the people associated with the activity are kind and generous (because I assure you that the open education community is home to some of the kindest and most generous people you will ever meet).

3. And finally, if you are in a position of power please don’t engage in tone policing, especially with those from marginalized or under-represented groups. As the open education movement seeks to serve those on the margins, we would do well not to weaponize concepts such as civility in order to suppress dissent.

The open education movement is maturing and growing ever more diverse. I firmly believe that a critical open education movement is a much stronger open education movement. I hope you do too.

16 thoughts on “For-profit, faux-pen, and critical conversations about the future of learning materials

  • Thank you Rajiv for this incredible post which exactly captures all of the pieces and nuances of this confusing and sometimes upsetting discourse around #OpenEd19. This should put the conversation to rest. It is time for the organizers to decide whether they will respond to criticisms appropriately, or to continue defensively.

  • I am grateful for this work, Rajiv, as I was for Michelle’s thoughtful critiques on Twitter.

    In the last two days, I have seen a bunch of folks on Facebook (mostly my well-meaning family members) post about how Republicans and Democrats need to be “adults” and cross the aisle to be friends. These are not posts about finding compromises on policy; these are posts about how we all need to dismiss partisanship in order to get along better as people. On the surface, this seems a worthy sentiment. I know a lot of my own daily work is about understanding people where they are, no making assumptions about their motives, and trying to see things from points of view other than my own. But I can’t help but feel frustrated– and sometimes even pained– by the way such calls to friendship obscure power dynamics that make people’s lives a living hell. A family member of mine once told me that he respected gay people’s right to be gay as long as they respected his right to object to it. How’s that for an intense mind-fluck? For me right now (I won’t gloss the “right now” but if you pay attention to US politics, you probably get my drift), it’s particularly frustrating to have discussions about how vulnerable populations are targeted by violent or oppressive politics and treat these discussions as if there are just two different opinions on the table that can be debated rationally.

    Textbook publishers have not been ethical players when it comes to educational publishing. I look at the data from the Florida Textbook Surveys, and those charts have faces to me. I know a student who dropped out of school in her final semester because she couldn’t afford textbooks. I finally figured out the problem and sent her a check, but it was too late in the semester; she’d missed too much and she was too far behind and had to withdraw. The economic loss of the wasted semester pushed her way over the financial edge. That was four years ago. She had 16 credits left to graduate and she never came back.

    One of the schools in my university system is rerouting its Open Education funding– given so generously from a BOT without any extra funds to throw around– into an Inclusive Access deal with a major publisher, because that publisher co-opted the language of open and sold the administration on the idea that this would be good for students, even though plenty of data with less powerful lobbying clout tells us it’s not.

    I am not opposed to listening to just about anyone; I’ve taken meetings with many for-profit publishers, done interviews for bookstore trade magazines, and attended panels at conferences to hear what folks in the for-profit world are talking about when it comes to open and the future of publishing. But to pretend that commercial textbook publishers aren’t part of a broken system that further disenfranchises poor people struggling to attend college– that’s nuts. And to deflect attention away from these critiques, turning them into an excuse to accuse the critics of incivility: that’s a huge mistake in my opinion. We need these critiques in order to understand that the playing field isn’t starting level and that power isn’t balanced to begin with.

    “Civility” is a more complicated dynamic than it’s being given credit for by those who are throwing around accusations of vitriol. The word comes from the Latin “civis,” meaning “citizen.” Embedded there are notions of the public and notions of community. For-profit publishers have been part of the shift that moves education from a civic experience to an industry. To me, that’s the crux of the incivility here. I would earnestly like to discuss and debate the role that profit plays in open, including in our conferences, and I don’t want to be told that my concerns stem from a personal failure to be nice. To quote a famous girl in a red hood: “Nice is different than good.”

    Most of the individuals in open come to the table to talk about the future of education with a shared goal: to make learning more accessible to a wider. But the structures of power are not neutral, and when we pretend they are, we gaslight those we purportedly came to the table to serve.

    Thank you for this post, Rajiv. Sorry to carry on so much, but your work here is cogent and helped me tap a lot of my own thoughts on the issues. Grateful for you, as ever.

    • Michelle Reed

      “One of the schools in my university system is rerouting its Open Education funding– given so generously from a BOT without any extra funds to throw around– into an Inclusive Access deal with a major publisher, because that publisher co-opted the language of open and sold the administration on the idea that this would be good for students, even though plenty of data with less powerful lobbying clout tells us it’s not.”

      This worries me, for good reason.

      Since I entered the open ed space three years ago to grow OER use on my campus, commercial players have repeatedly attempted to work around rather than with me, directly emailing my provost and other administrators (in some cases after I’d already heard out their pitch and declined their services). In one case, one of the for-profits to take to the OpenEd stage visited my campus (again, around me) and led a presentation that directly resulted in upper admin questioning the need for an Open Education Librarian (me!) were they to sign a contract with Lumen. I asked David about this at OpenEd later that fall. His response was generic (we talk about how we support student success), but there is not a direct path from student success to firing the librarian. Now knowing the history of problematic framing by Lumen reps, well, I’m just thankful I had supportive administrators in the library.

      Because of my efforts and the incredible work of our early OER adopters, our uni admin invested a half million in OER this year with more to follow. Since the press release, reps from commercial publishers have swarmed, again sliding past me directly into the inbox of uni admin. I have truly tried to find the value in this keynote, but I am struggling to find the thing I stand to learn. I am well aware of the models and strategies adopted by the folks taking the stage. I have to intervene regularly to guard against the harm they cause my program: undoing educational efforts by conflating OER with things that just aren’t, talking potential adopters out of OER by exaggerating challenges, recruiting OER authors to publish with them by dangling royalties that in most cases pose a conflict of interest for the author, and so much more. We don’t share the same goals. We don’t share the same vision of sustainability. We don’t want the same things for local students. And we absolutely cannot work together when the tactics of the last three years have centered on working around rather than with me. It is terribly offensive to be urged into humility and openness under the false pretenses of “conversation” when my experiences make quite clear that most taking the stage are not my allies.

  • Thank you Rajiv. And, thank you, Robin, for your comment. The example that Robin provided – “One of the schools in my university system is rerouting its Open Education funding– given so generously from a BOT without any extra funds to throw around– into an Inclusive Access deal with a major publisher, because that publisher co-opted the language of open and sold the administration on the idea that this would be good for students, even though plenty of data with less powerful lobbying clout tells us it’s not.” is exactly why I am so skeptical of the proposed panel at Opened19.

    For-profit publishers have too often attempted to obfuscate the difference between OER and low cost. Publishers want university admins, faculty, and students to think that OER is just another ‘low cost’ option. Commercial providers of homework systems want to convince – ‘gaslight’- educational institutions into believing that they, the institutions aren’t capable of creating and sharing really good OER homework systems.

    Thank you, Robin, for calling what for-profit publishers of textbooks and homework systems too often do gaslighting. I wasn’t sure of the exact meaning of gaslighting or it’s derivation so I looked it up. Wikipedia has a great article on the term – ‘The term originates in the systematic psychological manipulation of a victim by her husband in the 1938 stage play Gaslight, .. The play’s title alludes to how the abusive husband slowly dims the gas lights in their home, while pretending nothing has changed, in an effort to make his wife doubt her own perceptions. “

  • Samantha Veneruso

    Rajiv thank you for this thoughtful post. And Robin and Dan, thank you for helping articulate dynamics in this situation further. I think the core sentiment of separating the personal (personal admiration and personal appreciation for people) from the honest critique of practices is really important. But like Robin and Dan, I am concerned about the power dynamics at play.

    Commercial publishers are for profit entities, end of story. They have the power of money, resources (people power, technology, focus, and time), and agency (voices in the boardroom, if you will); giving them equal footing at a conference where people are sharing their materials and labor, and ideas, openly, freely, in support of an educational commons seems to undermine the purpose of the conference. It creates a venue where for profit entities are privileged and can use what they learn to further co-opt the strategies, materials, and organizing work around OER materials and open teaching practices. It creates a free space to profit off the labor, intellectual expertise, and emotional investment of faculty, librarians, staff and students, and ultimately, serves to undermine the hard on the ground work to advance OER and open teaching practices. This is not an exchange among equals; it is an asymmetrical exchange.

    The OER movement should not be focused on revolutionizing for profit publishing practices- and it is clear that the work around OER internationally has challenged for profit publishers to change their business models, resources and approaches– However, we should stay focused on revolutionizing teaching and learning, making learning more accessible for more people, and supporting and engaging students.

  • Thank you so much Rajiv. I’ve been very much in the shadows these past few months focused on some major projects here at our university. My absence is not a sign of my not caring about these issues. I care deeply and with a vigorous passion.

    I thank you and everyone who engage us in these important conversations about our practices. These discussions do matter. Our students matter and so do us as educators. I hope to see you very soon and feel so fortunate to have met you.

    Also on a personal note: thank you for taking the moment to introduce yourself to me at that pub in Richmond, VA. during OpenEd16 I was deep in an introvert mode but you pulled me out of it. That meant so much and I treasure that moment.

  • Thank you all for addressing these issues here. This is definitely a power relation issue. I have been around OER for some years now and I am discouraged each year. I have not been impressed with corporate efforts – a “company-wide conversation about framing” still sounds like a critical step to continue openwashing. The corporations might get their feelings hurt, but I have seen these same companies shut out alternative voices from grants, conferences and publications just as Dan McGuire has. There is a lot at stake here and there is a big cost, not just to the students, but even to authentic teaching and learning opportunities. I work with a LOT of corporations. The difference with them and the openwashers is the levels of transparency and honesty.

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  • Alexis Carlson

    Stuff like this is making me feel like I am constantly and forever being gaslighted by the open community. I was shocked when attending my first conferences that companies I know of as for-profit textbook publishers were calling their products open and OER, but I got used to it. I have sat through many a conference targeted at various members of the college community where a publisher representative stands and gives an untruthful speech about their newest line of “OER” textbook products, I just refrain from commenting and let it go. I secretly praise and cheer non-librarians who speak up and question the veracity of the sales pitch, but I have never seen one fight to the detriment of the vendor’s sales pitch. I just silently pray that the faculty and administrators in the room really do *know the truth and are secretly being silent and polite for a speedy end to the sales pitch’s sake as well. However, when I recently presented at a student leadership conference on a topic that had nothing to do with textbooks, publishers, or OER I was aghast that a student voluntarily made a point to shout with delight how she can buy as many textbooks as she ever wants with the new Cengage Unlimited program! Wow, imagine my astonishment as the student told everyone in the room that it was such a wonderful program and did not elaborate on any of the shortcomings that we know exist! Again, I silently just said, “ok, let us ignore the crazy.”

    Lest you forget,

    “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for
    themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries
    in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of
    private corporations.” (Swartz, 2008)

    And providing those corporations a frront row seat with hand picked questions at an OPEN conference meant to celebrate and elevate the cause does not do anything to make this fight more fair, it takes away from the voices who are calling for better, fairer laws that govern everyone’s right to free, unfetterd access to knowledge.

  • Thanks to Rajiv and the commenters for this enlightening discussion! I’m reminded as I read this that to many who are not down here on the ground with us, OER isn’t that well understood. I wonder how many administrators, state representatives, and others with hands on the levers of power listen to news like Kara Swisher’s recent interview of John Fallon (Pearson CEO) and think, “wow, publishers have made an important shift and are leading the way to sustainability”. Not Kara’s fault: she didn’t know what questions to ask. But still.

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