Thoughts on Openness, Access, and Creeping Corporate Control (or, Bridges are Better than (pay)Walls)

This post has very little to do with educational technology, yet it has everything to do with educational technology.  When I post to this blog, I try to keep my thoughts and comments to strictly edtech matters and avoid any overtly political statements.  But this is 2016, and everything is politicized, so there’s little doubt that I’d eventually post something that is slightly political.

On June 3rd, Rajiv Jhangiani published a blog post called “Principles vs. Publishers” where he described his recent battle with Cengage over a chapter he’d written for inclusion in their upcoming Thematic Approaches for Teaching Introductory Psychology anthology.  Jhangiani’s chapter dealt with open educational resources (OER) and offered ideas on how faculty could adopt an open approach to teaching Introductory Psychology.  The publisher, as is their right, requested that the author alter the text of the chapter to make it less critical of the publishing industry and caution faculty to use OER materials at their peril (my words, not theirs).  In the end Jhangiani pulled his chapter from consideration for the text and published the aforementioned blog post.  Inside Higher Ed wrote a piece about it, and that’s how I heard about the whole thing.

A few days later, on June 6, EdSurge published this Op-Ed piece by a Senior VP at Pearson who encouraged community colleges to leap into bed with publishers and allow the corporate deities to solve all their problems.  Perhaps I exaggerate, but only slightly.  I read the article and promptly shared a link on Twitter accompanied by the following Dylan lyric:

“Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”

Tombstone Blues – Bob Dylan
Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music

Now, why would I say something like that? Shouldn’t I embrace the opportunity for community colleges to finally have their “Camelot moment”?  Have I become too cynical in my old age? After all, the author had only the best of intentions and hoped for nothing more than the expansion of access to education, yet here I am being all cynical, assuming there was some profit motive behind it all.

Whenever publishers or other entities declare their love for community colleges and offer up new initiatives designed to help us, the first thing they need to know is that we can’t afford their “help”.  Their “help” has contributed mightily to the problems we currently face, and the OER movement is one way that educators (and the dedicated staff who support them) are trying to clean up the mess.

Community college students are struggling, juggling jobs, education, families, etc., and when students have to choose between paying a utility bill or spending $250 for a textbook and access online publisher materials, guess what doesn’t get bought?  

As an LMS administrator for a community college, my goal is to create seamless, simple, streamlined solutions for our students, to design a system where students spend less time learning how to navigate multiple platforms and more time learning course material.   Each minute a student spends frustrated, trying to figure out how to access or navigate an external platform or trying to figure out how to make the technology work on their particular system, is a minute they’re not spending learning course content.   Every semester, without fail, we get the calls from students who are struggling to access publisher materials that are oh-so-conveniently housed outside of our LMS, and every semester, we see students drop out of courses because they can’t afford to purchase access to the publisher’s proprietary platform. Ofttimes, the answers come slowly, and by the time student issues are resolved, the student’s are already behind.

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Rodney, that’s not what that article was about.  It didn’t even mention Pearson’s web-based learning resources.  It was about something different, something innovative, something transformative.  It was about community colleges forging a strategic partnership with Pearson, a ‘public-private partnership,  with shared revenue.’ Come on man!  Get with the program.”

Sorry.  I can’t get with the program.  What I see is another attempt at the corporatization of the community college.  So please forgive me if I’m not eager to entrust retention to the very folks whose business practices have contributed so mightily to student attrition.

If publishers and other outside interests are so eager to help community colleges, they can start by embracing the OER movement.  If they want to help faculty and students, they can listen to Rajiv Jhangiani, take his suggestions, and work with institutions to increase openness and access to knowledge, not explore new ways to exploit institutions by outsourcing professional staff and corporatizing their processes.  If publishers want to help community colleges, they should help community colleges do what they do best, which is to provide affordable, accessible educational opportunities to students who have chosen to attend an open enrollment institution rather than a traditional college or university.  How can they do that?  Simple.  Stop hiding content behind paywalls.  Work with community colleges and instructional technologists to develop streamlined solutions for content integration rather than walling off content and forcing students to purchase access codes.

OER is here to stay, and if publishers are wise, they’ll accept it, embrace it, and find ways to add value to the content they market. After all, in the words of presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, “Bridges are better than walls.”

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One thought on “Thoughts on Openness, Access, and Creeping Corporate Control (or, Bridges are Better than (pay)Walls)

  1. __Thanks Rodney. Readers may be interested to read about an OER Degree project _ “Achieving the Dream Launches Major National Initiative to Help 38 Community Colleges in 13 States Develop New Degree Programs Using Open Educational Resources | Achieving the Dream” _ http://achievingthedream.org/press_release/15982/achieving-the-dream-launches-major-national-initiative-to-help-38-community-colleges-in-13-states-develop-new-degree-programs-using-open-educational-resources _

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