Thursday, April 5, 2012

Open Policy

Two years ago I participated in a class here at BYU that reviewed policy related to OER and discussed how these open resources were making education less expensive.  Our class was divided into two groups one of which researched policies related to OER in general, and the other to institutional policies at colleges and universities in the U.S. related to the development and support of OCW in particular.

Dr. Wiley made a post to his openness blog earlier this year about the focus that we make on OER as a low cost option to increase access to learning and reduce the costs incurred by institutions and students through OER adoption.  The post to which I am referring was published soon after the announcement by Apple about the textbooks that were being made available at minimal cost (at least relative to regular textbooks) through the iBooks store.  Dr. Wiley pointed out that the proposition that OER is all about cost and that is where development should be focused puts the future of OER on unstable ground.  He argued that we need to develop OER that is every bit as well-produced and interactive as that which will be made available by traditional text publishers if OER is to continue to provide equivalent educational experiences.

Dr. Cable Green is very persuasive in the materials we reviewed under this topic regarding the money that can be saved by governments, institutions, and students when OER is given sufficient priority in funding decisions.  He cited the numbers reported by Dr. Wiley and others of the costs to produce open textbooks compared to the cost to purchase them from traditional publishers.  Dr. Green argues for the implementation of government policies that will advocate the development and maintenance of quality OER by providing funding for these efforts in lieu of having the same funds used to buy traditional texts and other resources ate much higher unit costs to the students and the taxpayers.

Dr. Green advocates mandates by governments and institutions requiring open publishing and funding for OER.  Mandates are generally reserved for instances where there is a constituency that is unwilling to adopt changes.  There is a train of thought that mandates are required when the benefits of change do not stand on their own merit and must be supported with coercion.  But in this case, the mandate may be required because of the disconnect between decision-makers and the impact of their decisions.  Instructors and faculty are often unconcerned about the motivations of students when it comes to selection of texts.

Because the government continues to increase the funds available to students in financial aid, there is little incentive for text publishers and universities to exercise pricing restraint.  There is almost a conspiratorial waltz where the government must provide more money to assist students because the cost of education is rising so rapidly.  As more money is available, those who provide the education and resources see that they can charge more because the students now have access to more funding, which in turns leads to the cost of education increasing, resulting in calls to the government to increase funds available for education, and so on . . .

There is a need for the government to be more concerned about value for the funds that they are making available for education.  Mandating access to government funded research is one way of executing policy that will provide educational benefit and reduce the costs of education.  Another is the mandating of the development and use of OER to replace more expensive resources where the marketplace is not price responsive.  The approach of mandating through policy is dictating to the marketplace a pricing mechanism that they would have been driven to consider themselves if the access to government funding would have included more consideration of expectations for pricing and competition rather than just priming the flow of funds that is always inflationary.

Dr. Green concludes his comments stating the following:
We have to think bigger and make smarter decisions collectively. Abraham Lincoln in a message to congress on December 1, 1862 said 'The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new so must we act anew. And think anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and we shall save our country.'
Our goal is that open policies be adopted by all nations, all states, all national agencies, all systems of education, institutions, departments, and individual creators when they are using public funds. The moral and the political imperative would overwhelm any opposition.
Earlier in his presentation talked about a feeding machine that would allow us to feed all of the people in the world at minimal cost just be turning it on.  He went on to say in his presentation that:
We do not have a feeding machine . . . We do have a learning machine, we simply need to turn that machine on. We have a moral and an ethical responsibility to act. If we are smart. If we share. Everybody in the world can learn.
That is a worthy objective of policy makers if they can establish policies to incorporate OER in a way that requires all stakeholders to have an investment in its effective use.  While appeals to egalitarian motives will work with many people, the funding that has been thrown into education without real accountability has resulted in non-competitive marketplaces, with little incentives to control pricing, and political chits that can be earned just by asking for more investment in order to show that you are "for education and our kids."  There is much money and power that has been accumulated as the government funding flows in education have become monolithic and monopolistic.  Mandates will be required to change this industry that has sprung up to access these funds in unaccountable and undisciplined ways.  Authors, faculty, editors, and publishers will rarely relinquish their prized place in this industry willingly.  Unfortunately, policies will be required to force change.

The $2 billion funded in 2011 to help Community Colleges and consortiums develop OER for use by their students is one policy that is being advanced in education.  Others include the open access policies that are being implemented in association with government grants.  These policies are good starts.  Conversations about policies that will consider how the savings from these open policies will affect the education market are important to maximize the impact of these access and publication policies.

Do we find ways to increase competition by mandating faculty and institutional acceptance of education credits that might be obtained in non-traditional ways through open learning.  This will introduce more competition in the education marketplace by giving value to low-cost alternatives to achieve educational competency.

I heard a caller to a financial advice radio program talk about the fact that she had just received her Ph.D. and was excited about an interview that she had with a university for a teaching position.  She was concerned about a decision she needed to make about moving and the kind of housing that she would be required to obtain.  She knew that the advisor was a proponent of buying rather than renting but she was not in a position to buy.  He was incredulous that having just completed her education, and having a job virtually in hand, that she would not be in a position to buy a home.  Her response was that she had student loans that needed attention first.  He asked the amount that she would be paid for the new position and was told the salary would be $50,000.  He asked about the student loan and was told the balance was well over six figures.  He was amazed that she had been able to accumulate that much debt.  Were she to attempt to borrow that money for any other need, the bankers who had saddled her with that debt would be considered immoral.

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