by Judith Sebesta, Ph.D., Executive Director, DigiTex
Nearly twenty years ago, I began the long, arduous journey on the road to textbook author. With peer-reviewed journal articles and a co-edited anthology under my professorial belt, tenure seemed within reach. So I turned my scholarly efforts toward a new project: the first all-digital introductory textbook in my field. Little did I know that this experience eventually would set me on a new path toward open education. Here I would like to share the story of this rather unlikely shift in course from commercial textbook author to open advocate, with some reflections on challenges that the open movement presents as well as how, nonetheless, open education is needed now more than ever.
In 2012, Pearson published the first edition of Explore Theatre: A Backstage Pass, which I co-authored with Dr. Michael O’Hara. Michael invited me to work with him on the project nearly a decade before, and my reasons for accepting likely were similar to reasons many faculty members decide to author textbooks, including dissatisfaction with existing textbook options for courses I taught, and an interest in augmenting my salary with royalty payments. Furthermore, I was excited by the possibilities of creating an innovative, interactive digital textbook with video integrated throughout. Print textbooks can never communicate the vibrancy of a visual/aural performing art like theatre. Finally, we hoped that the price of a digital textbook would be significantly lower than existing print texts on the subject. And in fact, it was, at $46.65 for access for a semester. I was glad that it was affordable, proud of the quality of the content, and pleased to see adoptions increase each semester, signaling acceptance by my peers and their students. This year, Pearson published a second edition, priced higher at $63.99 but still a relative bargain compared to print texts.
However, in the eight years between those two editions, I was introduced to the concept of Open Educational Resources. Having left a tenured job as a full professor in 2013 for a career focused on the broader landscape of innovation in higher education, I worked in several positions at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and there was introduced to OER, eventually writing a legislatively-mandated feasibility study on a state OER repository as well as the RFA for the first round of state OER faculty grants. Once introduced, I didn’t take long to “go all in” on OER.
For example, I am a member of Open Education Global, the Community College Consortium for OER, and the Creative Commons Open Education Platform. Re: the latter, last year I earned the Creative Commons Certificate, an in-depth course about CC licenses, open practices, and the ethos of the Commons. Additionally, for several years, I taught, as an adjunct instructor, a course online in my former field. Initially, I was required, by the department, to use my own textbook. Eventually, though, I had the opportunity to redesign the course using only OER. In part because this process forced me to rethink the learning outcomes, finding and aligning the educational resources with those outcomes, instead of the other way around, I thought the course was much better for it. I also am fortunate that as the leader of DigiTex, I can engage in advocacy for OER creation, adoption, and use to support our work in this area. Open education (and open knowledge in general) eliminates barriers to access to learning and training, an ethos that aligns well with the open access mission of the community colleges that we serve.
To return to Explore Theatre: my passion for open education has led me to step back from active participation in the text; I did not participate in the development of the second edition and am now an author in name only at significantly reduced royalty payments. But I also better understand the challenges faced by the open education community. For example, much of it has been built on “soft money,” like grants from private foundations, such as the Hewlett Foundation, government entities, and internal funding from colleges and universities. How can we sustain OER if/when this funding no longer exists?
Some organizations, like Lumen Learning and OpenStax, have moved, at least in part, to a business model offering ancillary resources, at a cost, to support OER. But does this merely replicate the business models of commercial publishers? We also need to ensure that we do not replicate the exploitation of the labor of subject matter experts (and others, like librarians and IDs) who develop and adapt OER. My royalties, at their highest, from Pearson were only 5% of profits, a low percentage that is not uncommon in the publishing world in general and, as with many authors, didn’t come close to compensation commensurate to my years of labor on the text. This labor should be appropriately compensated and valued. Other common concerns include quality assurance and access to technology for digital OER.
There are other challenges for the open community to overcome, but I am confident that they can be. As I have become a part of this community, I have been amazed by its members’ creativity, inventiveness, and shared belief that open knowledge, information, and pedagogy both support student access and success and promote social equity and justice. And now more than ever, with so much closed in this unprecedented age of COVID-19, students and faculty need the agency, flexibility, and openness that OER afford.
Image by Gavin Blake of a presentation by James Neil on v:Openness and flexibility. Creator indicated that image is free to use: https://twitter.com/FeverPicture/status/316517405889290240