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.
Seems to me, who’s a “free rider” and who’s not is a societal question fundamental to educational access, not a corporate one. #OpenEd15— David N. Wright (@davidnwright) November 19, 2015
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.
#opened15 economics of open; shifting from open as free rider to framing open as public good. Good corporate citizenship looks like what?— JohnRobertson (@KavuBob) November 19, 2015
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.
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:
When you dismiss including folks who empower our institutions to manage our uni's own content creation w/ "interesting addition" but too many speakers, alas, no time, you are not being "provocative." You are being exclusionary, willfully and knowingly so. https://t.co/LeJMCJXHpc— Michelle Reed (@LibrariansReed) October 11, 2019
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.