If We Talked About the Internet Like We Talk About OER

David Wiley offers a provocative perspective titled If We Talked About the Internet Like We Talk About OER: The Cost Trap and Inclusive Access. Here's how he sets it up:
Imagine that – somehow – you’ve never used the internet before. A good friend and long-time internet user finds this out and begins trying to describe to you how awesome the internet is. However, for some inexplicable reason, all of his arguments for why you should be on the internet focus on cost.
He follows this with a series of images showing services such as gMail, Instagram and Wikipedia with a slogan emphasizing how it is cheaper than its alternative. "Wikipedia: cheaper than Encyclopedia Britannica," for example. He then argues,
While it is absolutely true that each of these services is cheaper than its pre-internet counterpart, cost is far and away the least interesting thing about any of them. Would these arguments actually inspire someone to want to use the internet? If you’re already familiar with the internet, the whole line of argument seems to miss the point. It omits the heart and soul of what makes the internet amazing. Who thinks about the internet this way?
I do.

I was around in the pre-internet days. I remember life without an internet. I remember when online access was granted through services like Compuserv, which would cost me (had I been able to afford it) $6 per hour. Other services were even more expensive. Remember?
When you look at what we pay for high speed Internet access now, it’s almost hard to imagine it ever being another way…but it was…oh boy, it was. In 1995 getting online was done in an almost completely different way, and access to online services were charged for, in most cases, BY THE MINUTE like a long distance phone call.
Like pretty much every other internet user in the late 1980s and early 1990s I accessed it for free through university access on campus. I was also able to dial in via modem when I lived in the city. Outside the city I incurred long distance charges, which I passed on (when I could) to Athabasca University. I ended up incurring thousands of dollars in internet debt by 1995. Fortunately I got a job in Manitoba and was able to escape the trap.

In Brandon I was determined that the scenario would not be repeated. With a group of people I worked on a project called Brandon Freenet, later called the Westman Community Network (because some jerk trademarked the term 'Freenet' and would't let anyone use it). It was part of a wider network of freenets across Canada and the United States. A lot of them don't exist any more; some of them still do, because there's still a need.

It wasn't easy, especially once commercial internet came on to the scene. In Brandon, the only internet access point was Brandon University; the college and everyone else in the city went through BU. We raised money, purchased access, and made it available at low cost (and in some cases, for free). But we ran into issues because come computer science professors at the university launched a commercial service, called Docker, and it became more and more difficult to maintain our community service. Docker eventually sold out to (I believe) Bell and the professors did just fine.

There was a time when free public access to the internet was in the balance. Many communities (and community organizations, like our own) wanted to provide it as an essential social service. Commercial internet providers did what they do best, and virtually eliminated the competition. Not though the free market; don't be silly! They lobbied and in some cases sued and made community internet access illegal. Like they did in Colorado. Like they did in Minnesota. Like they did in Tennessee.

Commercial access providers don't actually like the free market. People and governments could provide internet access for much less than it costs today. Most of the backbone is already underwritten by the taxpayer, and a lot of local infrastructure is as well. But commercial providers do everything they can to ensure limited, and often monopoly, access to the last mile.

So yeah, Dave - it's about the money.


Why does this matter? Why does David Wiley even raise the point? It has to do with textbook publishing, and in particular, something called 'inclusive access' to commercially published textbooks in university courses.

I covered this a couple of times last winter in OLDaily. Wiley is responding to an Inside Higher Ed article published yesterday called 'Inclusive Access Takes Off. The core idea of this scam purchasing plan is that
instead of buying textbooks with credit cards or cash, students can be automatically charged for course materials by the institution when they enroll.... Publishers previously lost a lot of revenue from textbooks because many students bought secondhand, rented, pirated or just skipped buying textbooks altogether. Inclusive-access programs have changed that.
The article touts savings of "up to" 70 percent. There's no reason to believe these savings will persist once the publishers have locked up monopoly access to sales of course materials. And of course they are well into the process of depicting community-based access (such as sharing or reselling texts) as "illegal".

Wiley responds as follows:
While everyone wants educational materials to be less expensive, lower costs are the least interesting thing about digital, networked learning... 
By focusing on cost, the article takes a page directly from the publishers’ playbook. Keeping the conversation laser-focused on cost is the core of their defensive strategy with regard to OER. Because when you think the problem to be solved is the high cost of textbooks, the way you solve that problem is by lowering the cost of textbooks.
This is an interesting perspective. The core issue here, argues Wiley, is one of permissions, not cost. The argument based on cost is just a distraction. It allows publishers to respond to the challenge of OER by lowering their prices, while all the while maintaining their lock on content, preventing anyone from reusing (or sharing, or whatever).

And because of this, he argues, we lose the advantages of OER (just like, he says, we lose the advantages of the internet if we're only focused on internet access costs).


Here's how he expresses the 'advantages of OER' argument:
When, o when will we turn our attention in earnest to OER-enabled pedagogy – to all the teaching and learning practices (and associated benefits) that are possible only in the context of OER adoption? When will we stop focusing on cost to the exclusion of other benefits? ... 
Every time we focus a conversation about OER on cost, we simultaneously strengthen the arguments in favor of inclusive access.
I like to keep the language clean in my posts, but it's difficult. Oh so difficult.

There are two problems with this line of argumentation. I'll deal with the easy one first: we are focused on the advantages of OER-enabled pedagogy. What do you think the whole MOOC thing George Siemens and I and others was about? Beginning in 2003 and continuing consistently thereafter I have depicted learning resources as words in a conversation, and applied the logic of language to the logic of reuse. In 2006 I described and recommended the community-based model to support sustainable OER-based pedagogy.

In the intervening years we've seen no support from David Wiley with respect to this alternative model. His focus has been on traditional institutions of learning and the traditional classroom model. When he has worked toward the production of OERs, it was to produce textbooks. I've spent years working toward a pedagogy of sharing and networks and communities enabled (partially) by open educational resources; Wiley has appeared disinterested. He says the discussion of MOOCs "has sucked the air out of conversation around innovation in education."

Now to be fair, his criticism is that "the horrific corruption perpetrated by the Udacity, Coursera, and other copycat MOOCs is to pretend that the last forty years never happened." But the problem he sees with these MOOCs isn't the pedagogical model per se, it's that they have the wrong licensing. "I believe we must ground our open thinking in the idea of open licenses. Specifically, we should advocate for open in the language of the 5Rs," he writes. And this has been his position consistently for a number of years.

And this brings us to the second problem with his line of reasoning. It's this: the reason people talk about the cost of open educational resources is because some people - David Wiley included - think it's an essential part of 'open' that the resources be commercialized and that vendors charge money from them. Of course he wants us to stop talking about cost - that would deflect the criticism of his own business model. Lumen Learning is in the same business as  Pearson, Cengage and McGraw-Hill Education: selling textbooks (directly or indirectly) to students.

That, to me, makes them, and him, part of the problem. And it makes him even more complicit in the problem when he accuses people of 'not talking about open pedagogy' when they take a perspective that is not based in the precious 5 Rs.


We've had this discussion before, at length, and some would say, ad nauseum. The debate around open pedagogy is just the latest incarnation.

At core, Wiley sees 'commercial' as good, while I don't. More accurately, I think, Wiley sees 'commercial' as the only good, while I think that public and community-based non-commercial alternatives are equally viable.

This is certainly how the debate about licensing has played out. My position is that, first, I choose to use a non-commercial license, and I tell people that they should feel free to use any of the Creative Commons licenses on their open educational resources. Wiley (and a cluster of other OER advocates) insist that creators must use a CC-by license, allowing commercial use, if they want their work to be considered open.

The difference arises essentially because I consider learning and pedagogy to be non-commercial enterprises. This is especially the case when, as I advocate, OERs are created by students as a part of their studies for sharing with and use by other students (like words in a conversation). And I see no good reason why we should require the production of educators and students to be fair game for resellers who want to pluck it for free out of the commons and charge money for it to those not lucky enough to be a part of our community.

So when I see somebody saying "you shouldn't argue about price" and "you must allow commercial reuse of OERs" I see somebody who is not only not talking about pedagogy, I see someone who is trying to destroy open pedagogy, by destroying communities and replacing them with companies. I see someone who can't get past the idea of education as something that is provided by a university or publisher or whatever, and not possibly created by people working together on their own.

You want me to stop talking about cost, David? Stop charging money for something that should be free. Return education to the community network. Help work with us together without putting a price tag on it.


  1. Thanks for this post. I've been trying to parse out the pros and cons of "inclusive access". For example, VitalSource is one of the platforms offering "inclusive access". They claim Athabasca is all in. Does anyone know if this true? (Sometimes vendors exaggerate)... I've always considered Athabasca to be a leader in open Ed in Canada. How does 100% adoption of inclusive access fit with their open practices?


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