Rajiv Jhangiani, Ph.D.

Open Education, SoTL, Psychology

OER, Equity, and Implicit Creative Redlining

The open education movement wants to be a force for equity. The argument is straightforward and powerful: Widen access to educational resources and those who disproportionately suffer at the hands of the exploitative business models of commercial publishers will disproportionately benefit, in both economic and educational terms. As someone who has personally benefited from generous and life-changing sponsorship of access to a high quality education, this argument is not simply theoretical for me. It is my lived experience. This is why I will never stop pushing for nor understate the importance of widening access to education. But if the open education movement holds the goal of equity as dearly as I believe we do, we need to ensure that we do not restrict our definition of equity to only those who will reuse the resources. For if we ignore the question of equity as it applied to educators who create, revise, and remix OER, we risk perpetrating harm with the best of intentions.

In my capacity as an administrator supporting open education at a public post-secondary institution with an open access mandate, I am vehement about the need to adequately support those of my colleagues who wish to engage in open educational practices. And by support, I mean through sufficient time, adequate funding, required training, and earned recognition. While this position may be construed as pragmatic or instrumental, for me it strikes at the heart of addressing equity. For if the movement relies on voluntary academic labour or severely under-compensated academic labour to create, peer-review, and contextualize OER, we are in effect perpetrating an implicit form of redlining*, one that reserves the capacity to create or adapt OER for those who already enjoy positions of privilege, such as the tenured or those who do not need the income. In such an eventuality, despite the best of intentions, the ideologies (including biases and prejudices) associated with those positions of privilege become reflected and over-represented in the available OER. And while I often describe how powerful it can be to exercise the permission to revise OER by simply changing the names that appear within a text’s examples so that they reflect the diversity of the classroom, that we have to do this at all is a subtle symptom of the types of exclusivity that can exist in OER—and something we need to work against.

Make no mistake—in highlighting this problem, I am not pitting the democratization of knowledge creation against equitable access to education. Rather, I am highlighting that access to knowledge creation ought to be equitable as well. As has been noted before, diversity is a fact but inclusion is a choice. So this is a call for open education projects, funders, and universities to become aware of the inadvertent implications of inadequately supporting OER creators and adaptors as well as to be attentive to who are given the opportunity and support to create and adapt OER. Supporting and nurturing stewards at a grassroots level and supporting the building of community across such stewards helps make open education both more sustainable and more equitable.

One of the things I love about the open education movement is that its values are those that educators largely already hold. This is why you find that even the decision of an academic department to standardize an assigned commercial textbook is usually driven by a desire to negotiate a lower cost for students and/or to avoid having students who need to re-take a course having to buy a second book. This also means that the seeds for a grassroots community have already been planted. And while the image of grass growing out through cracks in concrete may be used to signify resilience and drive, I would much rather ensure that we deliberately cultivate more fertile ground.

*For related concepts see Chris Gilliard’s writing on digital redlining and Safiya Noble’s writing on technological redlining


  1. I love so much about this post and I think it challenges a lot of mainstream thinking about OER. One way it does not go far enough, imho, is in recognizing that aside from supporting minorities and marginalized groups to join the OER movement as it currently works, we may need to do more than offer financial, technical and pedagogical support. We may need to rethink our entire processes to fit their context and needs and aspirations… Support them in imagining and creating their own table, not just invite them to our own. I don’t exactly know what these are but I know it’s difficult in Egypt to promote this. There’s a whole institutional culture. And a national culture. One small example of rethinking things regarding the naming thing, that isn’t so radical, is why can’t our books allow for versions that switch names or examples as per the reader’s preferences, or books that allow readers to contribute edits but not be responsible for the labor of Changing them. Or completely new financial models for how these work? I recently reviewed a book proposal about MOOCs and open edu in emerging economies. 3 authors white American men. One female from maybe a developing country and works in a US institution. Closed access book. Wtf? I recently saw a CfP for a journal about inclusion where both editors are white Western men (and I’m on editorial board of the journal but no one asked my opinion) and all their refs, every SINGLE one was a white man. Every F*ing one. And when we called em out on it we got a lame answer and a couple of reference changes. Sorry. Rant over.

  2. Well said, Rajiv. I would add too that a movement that is propelled mostly/often from the sides of volunteer’s desks can only grow so much before the volunteers give up or tire out. I’ve worked with many faculty authors of open textbooks who are caught off guard by the amount of work (and hence time and effort) that a quality – or even any – open textbook takes to conceive, write, and publish. I’ve witnessed these same individuals struggle to complete their projects in their free time in the evenings and weekends for months, even a year. At BCcampus Open Education we do our best to provide detailed, step-by-step guides, webinars, and other support resources. But we can’t give them time.

  3. Yes, yes, and yes. I’m one of those trying to create and share — and I’m really excited at opportunities and guidelines. I’m in the second cohort of a project to “create curricula” for adult ed — in roughly 3 hrs/ week for I forget how many weeks. Better than nothing but not satisfactory.

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