Blog/20170328 Can We Afford Free Textbooks

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Can We Afford Free Textbooks (not really a response)

This article [1] by Robert S. Feldman argues that:

When it comes to student success, “new” open resources ultimately do little more than further entrench an ineffective status quo.

The article makes a number of general statements that could do with unpacking. In particular, the article mixes a few separate issues, which are often mixed up in the OER discussion. So prompted by the above article, but not as a direct response, let me draw out some of the questions.

Question 1: Are OER inherently lower quality? I can't really see what the theoretical argument for would be. E.g., while I'm not involved in the "Open Up Resources" project, I don't really see how their process (procurement of content creators) would lead to inherently lower quality resources. You might argue that publishers have more experience in procuring such resources, but then again surely people with such experience can be recruited?

Likewise, I would also argue that while OER have additional affordances, they are not inherently higher quality either. However, the additional affordances might enable important aspects of usability (peer-to-peer distribution without login) or might enable pedagogical practices (such as adaptation) that translate into higher quality (in some measure).

Queston 2: The delivery method. To caricature: Is a textbook (say as a PDF) a good way to deliver learning resources? We've problematised a related issue as "technological freedom" (being the 2nd freedom, legal freedom being the 1st freedom OER afford). I think most of us would agree that just having a PDF of an OER is not really useful, as it doesn't easily allow you to remix. While that's clear in principle, in my view more thinking about technological freedom would be good. More at:, partially motivated by the need of learners in low income countries.

I do think that the abilty of "packaging resources into instruction sequences" is important, and a book can be seen as such a package. Packages need to be downloadable (certainly for low income settnigs). Packages also need to be reconfigurable to be able to meet difference instructors need.

Question 3: Do commercial bodies have better learning management systems? I cannot really comment on that. Clearly different LMS have certain strengths and weaknesses, and one LMS may suits one application more than another. However, similar to resources, there are advantages in adopting open LMSs.

Question 4: Is the current "set of available OER" worse than what's commercially available? A lot of debate could be had about this, for sure.

However, this is also an advocacy issue. There are certainly many valuable resources that are not released as OER, but e.g. in USA policy has made great progress in ensuring OER release. So if our position now is that OER is generally poorer than commercial resources, that situation should rectify over time.

The advocacy is important: I work in international education, which is very resource constrained, and and certainly at present, very few resources are released as OER, which is problematic. However, in that space I would also add that many "commercial offerings" can have significant quality issues too.

2017-03-28 | Leave a comment | Back to blog Share on Twitter Share on Facebook