By Will Cross

Love on a Book by Sebastien Wiertz licensed under CC-BY 2.0

This week I had the opportunity to speak at the University System of Georgia’s Teaching and Learning Conference.  We had a great discussion about the role of libraries supporting open educational resources (OERs) as part of a daylong track sponsored by Affordable Learning Georgia, a program that connects faculty, librarians, the press, and external partners to support course redesign and open education.  ALG is a relatively new project but has already shown outstanding results, saving students more than $16 million in its first two years.  In light of these results, it’s no surprise that the university system gave ALG such a prominent role in the event.  In fact, an OER track has become increasingly common in many academic conferences, including special emphasis at this month’s CNI Executive Roundtable, a daylong event at ALA Midwinter, and sessions at most of the major library-focused conferences in 2015 and 16.

The open education community has similarly recognized the increasing importance of partnerships that connect with higher education allies such as librarians.  This month the Open Education Consortium awarded SPARC’s Nicole Allen a Leadership award and the major open education conference OpenEd is currently reviewing a record number of proposals for a third year of the “libraries track.”  I had the pleasure of being at OpenEd14 for the first libraries track and the impact was dramatic.  At the start of the 2014 meeting the keynote speaker asked first-time attendees to stand and be recognized.  Almost half the room stood up – the librarians had arrived!

As exciting as it has been to see these new partnerships developing, however, we still have some work to do negotiating the values and models for best practice.  Conversations about openness reveal deep fault lines across academic culture.  Just as open access is a response to the capture of scholarly journals by multinational for-profit publishers, OER advocates recognize that the unsustainable cost of textbooks is rooted in a system where a small group of commercial publishers leverage a broken marketplace.  The conversation about open, then, is one about the perils of outsourcing and privatizing academic practice at the expense of our public-service mission.

This conversation about public values informs much of what we do and the most successful partnerships will be those that reflect these values.  When my own institution launched our Alt-Textbook program three years ago, our campus bookstore was quick to reach out and offer to help.  Since we had the common goal of supporting student success it was easy to find common ground, sharing information and partnering so that the Libraries and faculty light_backgroundsprovided content and the bookstore picked up print-on-demand services.  My colleagues at institutions with a for-profit bookstore, on the other hand, often report an adversarial response to OER efforts that impedes their programs.  I worry that as our friends across the University of North Carolina system consider privatizing their bookstores they may not find the same support we enjoy in Raleigh.

I have no such concerns about our system press.  The University of North Carolina Press has been an eager and inspirational partner in our open education efforts, providing insight and collaborating on new models for system-wide practice.  I heard similar stories at the USG conference, and was blown away by the materials created in partnership between the University of North Georgia Press and USG faculty.

A shared academic mission provides the bridge that makes OERs work.  Presses, libraries, and campus bookstores that make academic sharing and knowledge in service of society their focus are the best partners our faculty can find.  They are focused on developing innovative ways to make education more accessible and to support student learning and retention.  On the other hand, organizations whose first priority is keeping shareholders happy every quarter may be more likely to release phony new editions designed to undercut the used market or try “innovations” that only hurt students like Aspen’s ill-fated property law textbooks that perversely robbed students of all property rights in the materials they bought. As players like Amazon throw their hats into the ring we would do well to welcome their support but also have frank discussions about what values are being advanced.

Of course, academic institutions themselves often struggle to navigate this fault line.  Some campus bookstores may be suspicious of open education because they are concerned about cutting into the support they provide for worthy projects like student scholarships.  Some faculty members are also invested in their own lucrative commercial textbooks, as in the highly-publicized case last fall where a department head reprimanded a colleague for refusing to assign the expensive textbook he had written.

Earlier this year my own institution was ground zero for some of these tensions.  At the start of 2016, comments were released on the Department of Education’s intention to require recipients of federal grants to make these taxpayer-funded materials openly licensed.  This matches the practice among other federal agencies who require open access to the fruits of taxpayer-funded research and data.  It also aligns with the values of my Libraries’ work on open education as well as our century-long commitment as a land grant to extension work.  As such, the Libraries were proud to join SPARC’s public comments praising the DoE’s commitment to public access.  We were surprised, however, to discover that our university had submitted comments with a very different point of view.

Several news outlets noted that the official NCSU response opposed the DoE’s plan, citing concerns about stifling innovation and entrepreneurship.  This was an embarrassment for the Libraries philosophically – we have very publicly supported open education and were troubled by “our” institution writing in opposition – but also strategically.  Our Office of Technology Transfer had been quicker and more effective at rallying our administration and thus the university’s position reflected a skepticism about the DoE plan that we do not share.

This also served as a powerful reminder that we need to express our values and the value of openness to our partners on campus as well as those working beyond our campus walls.  We have strong data indicating that innovation and entrepreneurship are in fact driven powerfully by openness.  Indeed, the Obama administration explicitly pointed to these values when it announced the OSTP mandate in 2013.  But our colleagues in Technology Transfer, and thus our administration, hadn’t heard the message.

When I speak about open education I often borrow David Wiley’s important insight that this is a pivotal moment for OERs since most people have heard the term but don’t have a firm sense of what an OER is.  Erin Walker at ALG talked about this in terms of moving from “awareness to knowledge.”  We’re doing great on awareness in higher education.  As we develop new partnerships within and beyond campus, however, it is incumbent on us to share the stories that will define what we mean by OER and to make sure that knowledge includes the value of the academic and public mission at the heart of our efforts.

Will Cross

Trained as a lawyer and librarian, Will provides legal and policy guidance from the NCSU Libraries and lectures nationally on digital citizenship and open culture.

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