Should OER Be Free?

This week I’ll be attending and speaking at an interesting conference on open education resources taking place in Park City, Utah: http://openedconference.org/2011/

Here’s the title and summary of my talk; after the conference, I’ll post the talk itself along with any comments from the discussion that follows.

Is Academic Recognition Sufficient Incentive to Create Open Source Courseware?

One central assumption in the OER movement is that high quality content can be developed without necessarily introducing a financial motivation for academic authors to produce such materials. Such is the view, for example, of the Connexions Consortium. Academic recognition and the ability to establish a professional reputation, the reasoning goes, are sufficient motivation among many faculty to consider contributing to the rapidly expanding pool of OER texts. Some academic institutions, moreover, will consider OER publications in the tenure review process, providing perhaps the greatest incentive to produce first rate work without additional compensation.

To be sure, there are notable exceptions to this OER content model. For-profit companies, such as Flatworld Knowledge and Textbook Media, and non-profit (foundations, government) sponsorship of OER production, provide financial incentives. The for-profit companies, however, are far more restrictive on the use and distribution of their content than is a truly open source platform like Connexions. Non-profit sponsorship of OER materials is in an early stage and it is still unclear the level of sustained backing for such projects. For the entirely unfettered OER content, then, the OER movement assumes that high quality content will be produced much like crowd-sourced projects, such as Wikipedia, with the added difference that primary authors would be recognized as such.

I would like to suggest that this is a mistaken assumption and that the OER movement would benefit by conceiving of an OER content development model that provides for ongoing compensation to its authors while also adhering to the most open form of the Creative Commons license. What’s needed, in other words, is a Connexions Consortium with a revenue component. The organization might still be non-profit but not the authors who are creating the works. The OER movement holds great promise but in order for it to be a sustainable alternative to traditional sources it must insist on the highest possible standards for academic content. In order to do this, it must incent the greatest number of potential contributors to participate.

The “recognition” model certainly inspires some authors to contribute, but if you are an author already with tenure or at an institution that does not consider introductory textbooks for tenure review, then you have to be highly motivated to contribute to the public good as an end in itself. Of course there are faculty committed to the project in this way but they are a very small group of the available talent. As great as the potential is for OER, it faces two integrally linked obstacles: convincing prospective faculty adopters of these materials on the grounds that they are equal to or better than those from traditional sources, and convincing first-rate faculty authors to produce it. The former, of course, depends on the latter. And unless the OER model is sufficiently broadened to include a financial incentive that would appeal to a large portion of prospective faculty authors, the movement will not realize its extraordinary potential.

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