Opening Up Education – Access to knowledge is fundamental for student learning and affordability

April 17, 2019 - 9 minutes read

By Jakob Sanderson

I would like to thank Mr. Matthew Doering for his unwitting contribution to the cause of open education resources (OER) with his article in the April 3 edition of The Manitoban, “Freedom of access versus maintenance of quality”. Mr. Doering’s piece does a commendable job of highlighting the exorbitant cost that academic publishers place on universities and students. At the same time, Mr. Doering’s take on both UMSU’s advocacy efforts and the current state of the OER movement reflects a broader lack of public awareness of how pragmatic and advanced OER initiatives have become. In fact, contrary to his argument, pushing for open access course materials is imperative towards bettering the affordability and quality of our education.

Let’s start with something that Mr. Doering and UMSU can agree on: OER is “much-needed” (his words). Another thing we can all agree on is that the cost of accessing academic knowledge and scholarship via traditional publishers is spiraling out of control. Mr. Doering rightfully points to the case of publishing powerhouse Elsevier, and its annual subscription cost of $396,622 – which, according to a U of M library official UMSU has spoken to, is rising on average 5-6% per year. He notes this has caused numerous universities in Europe and the US to drop their subscriptions.

The push towards open access is critical for university libraries to able to offer the highest level of scholarship and research to its students, at a time when these publishing costs are rising and post-secondary budgets are being continually reduced.

But open access to knowledge is equally critical to maintain affordability for undergraduate students just beginning their education. As part of UMSU’s research into the OER landscape at U15 schools we talked to student unions, library staff, and conducted a student survey on the cost of learning materials here at the U of M. Findings indicated that over 70% of U of M students pay more than $250 per year on textbooks and learning materials and a quarter of students pay over $550. Furthermore, the costs of textbooks and learning materials tend to be highest in the first year of school, and 86% of students have sunken money into buying a required textbook for a course, only to end up using less than 10% of that textbook in the course.

Meanwhile, one in five respondents noted having opted to voluntarily withdraw or avoid enrolling in a desired course altogether due to the associated cost of learning materials for that course. The financial burden that learning materials place on undergraduate students is negatively affecting their ability to complete their education.

The largest misconception put forth by Mr. Doering is in how he frames OER versus traditional publishing models as a zero-sum game. For Mr. Doering, it’s as if, in advocating for the greater creation and implementation of OER in course content, UMSU and other proponents of OER are rallying together to overthrow the publishing industry. This could not be further from the truth.

Instead, what UMSU is advocating for is what numerous other U15 schools are already doing. Namely, targeting OER implementation in first year courses, where basic concepts are taught in order to introduce undergraduates to a field and build students’ foundation for further study. This type of content tends to remain relatively unchanged year-on-year and touches the largest number of students. These courses also tend to have the highest associated textbook costs. Many high-quality OER options in this regard already exist.

Experience at other U15 schools shows that when OERs are implemented, student savings add up fast. Since January 2015, students at the University of Saskatchewan have saved $1.18 million through OER initiatives. Students at the University of Toronto saved $400,000 in the first two years of its program from 2012-2014. The student savings as a result of BCcampus – a government funded crown agency in BC responsible to implementing OER province-wide – are pegged at around $10 million. Closer to home, OER initiatives through the Manitoba Open Textbook Initiative have produced student savings of more than $370,700.

Meanwhile, traditional academic publishers will always have a role in postsecondary education given the constant advancement of upper-level knowledge across a range of fields, especially STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math). This research and scholarship will require rigid verification and peer-review and necessitate the paywall restrictions that fund those processes and maintain intellectual property rights. Indeed, far from being an industry under siege, the academic publishing industry in Canada is thriving (see article).

Mr. Doering’s other concern over the emergence of OER is in maintaining archival access and storage of content. He need not be. The Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) is already leading the way on this. They have struck a working group to examine ways to develop capacity at Canadian academic and research libraries to help develop, disseminate and preserve OERs. The U of M is already participating: the U of M is a member of CARL, and a U of M librarian is part of the OER working group.

In addition, his handwringing over government support for development of OER equating to “government taking on the role of [a] publishing house” and being subject to cuts at any given moment displays a tinge of paranoia. Established models for non-profit crown agencies promoting OER already exist in BC, Ontario (eCampus Ontario) and here in Manitoba (Campus Manitoba), even under a current government looking to cut spending anywhere it can.

Lastly, Mr. Doering appears concerned over what happens if OER movements gain too much momentum and “publishing giants revoke access to their resources as universities embrace OER” leading to “a deterioration in the quality of educational resources if they begin to become outdated”. This reveals two deeply problematic aspects of his argument. First, this is a profound misunderstanding of how businesses operate and survive in a market-based economy. If customers are finding preferable alternatives to a company’s product, that company is not going to double down on its losses by retaliating and cutting off access to their products out of spite. That’s like saying Apple would lock your iPhone on you if they found out you had a Google account. Instead, companies must adapt their products to customers’ needs if they want to continue to make revenue.

Second, even if Mr. Doering’s assertion were true, and that education quality would suffer once big business pulls the plug on institutions that have sought alternative learning materials, would that not prove in and of itself that too much academic and scholarly knowledge has been monopolized by a handful of private publishing companies?

Mr. Doering articulates it well when he says that with OER “copyright retention at this scale truly is a paradigm shift. It changes how knowledge is consolidated, how knowledge is disseminated, how knowledge is monetized”. He is exactly right. Unfortunately, his stance is one that would prefer that most public interest research and students’ quality of education remain beholden to privatized, profit-driven gatekeepers. We believe differently.