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The Problem: Misconceptions and Mislabeling

Why having clear lines between OER initiatives and other affordable course material programs can support better and more productive work for each.

Published onOct 17, 2022
The Problem: Misconceptions and Mislabeling

Depending on your local definition, many different types of materials might fall under the umbrella of “affordable” course materials. For example, Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) defines them as “course resources used by faculty to meet or enhance learning needs with minimal cost to students.” To meet this definition at CVTC, materials must cost under $40 per course.

Since open educational resources (OER) are free, CVTC’s definition of affordable educational resources includes OER as well. However, while OER are certainly affordable, that does not mean that all affordable materials are similarly “open.”

When we do not clearly explain the different types of affordable learning materials and their unique benefits, the lines between them can become blurred. This blending of the two concepts can then lead to miscommunication and even conflict between open education advocates and our collaborators.

Why now?

The use of open educational resources has been on the rise over the past five years, with a particular boom in 2019 following UNESCO’s Recommendation on OER. However, this rise has come with barriers such as low awareness of OER, confusion about the difference between “open” and “free” course materials, and the rise of openwashing, wherein the language of open is co-opted by commercial entities to leverage the growing trend.1

The confusion around what “counts” as OER was further stressed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. As quarantines were being recommended in the spring of 2020, select publishers made their e-book collections and other learning materials freely available to anyone for a limited time.2 In the process, this limited duration free access further blurred the line between openly licensed and affordable content.

In light of the growing support for open education and external factors that lead to confusion around its definition, now is an excellent time to draw clearer lines and ensure that we can clearly articulate the differences between OER and other affordable course materials.

Why is this a problem?

Problems for campus partners

The easiest place to see where issues of miscommunication can cause issues for leaders of OER and affordability programs are with our campus partners: students, faculty, and administrators. Each of these groups can benefit from understanding the unique pros and cons of OER and other affordable course material options, and each of these groups can encounter challenges when they misconstrue or misunderstand these types of initiatives.

There are a lot of benefits to using OER in the classroom, one of which is the ability to adapt and remix materials which you can then share with others. Thanks to the Creative Commons licenses typically applied to OER, users can remix and adapt content legally without having to worry about getting explicit permission from the creator of a work. This becomes a problem when individuals and institutions treat affordable learning materials in the same manner as OER, which can lead to instructors modeling poor ethical behaviors for their students. For example, an instructor might overlook the reuse permissions for an all-rights-reserved copyrighted material because it is free to access online, and share an adapted version of it publicly without permission from the creator. When these kinds of decisions are made, it shows that we are not pausing to ask ourselves, “does this use of the material count as fair use?” or even, “what license is this material being shared under?” 

In addition to copyright issues, instructors who conflate free or affordable materials with OER might make uninformed choices when selecting course materials for their classes. An instructor might believe that inclusive access materials or other subscription-based electronic courseware packages are OER due to marketing rhetoric around their affordability and the use of “OER” within low-cost platforms, leading the instructor to opt their students into a system that they do not quite understand. While this kind of occurrence may come from a good place, it is better for everyone involved when instructors are fully aware of the choices they are making when adopting any new course material.

Students also benefit when they understand the nuances between course material options. As librarians, we often have to remind people that free for our students is not the same as free for everyone. It is important to remember students are still bearing the costs of materials like library-licensed content and inclusive access programs through their tuition and fees. Furthermore, after graduation, college students no longer have access to the same subscription-based services that they had before. Understanding how and why they can access certain materials can help students develop as information users, and make it easier for them to find access to free learning materials after they graduate. This is especially useful information for students who might want to leverage workforce training and professional resources such as OER funded by TAACCCT, which are shared via the OER repository Skills Commons.

On the institutional side of things, misconceptions around what “counts” as an OER can cause more systemic issues. Administrators may unintentionally prioritize two (or more) conflicting programs at the same time, funding projects to develop closed software systems when free alternatives are already in use at their institution, or cutting funding to Course Reserves while trying to develop a collection of textbooks through another campus office. When we fully understand the scope of affordable course material options on our campus and articulate those options to those in power, they can make more informed decisions about how to support students ethically and sustainably. That sustainability piece is particularly important for services like Course Reserves, which may be forced to bear an administrative burden on limited funds. 

Finally, confusion surrounding what differentiates OER from other affordable course materials can affect the efficacy of course marking initiatives, if instructors or departments mistakenly report the use of “low-cost materials” as “OER.” This can cause issues for institutions trying to keep their data accurate for Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) Policy compliance, but it is especially concerning for institutions that must report the adoption of OER and/or other no-cost course materials to their Legislature to follow bills such as HB 2380 in Virginia, which requires that 

“the registrar or another appropriate employee of each public institution of higher education to identify conspicuously in the online course catalogue or registration system, as soon as practicable after the necessary information becomes available, each course for which the instructor exclusively uses no-cost course materials or low-cost course materials.”

Problems for initiative leads

A lack of clarity between affordable and open education programs not only affects our partners and campus stakeholders — but also affects our work. When we lose clarity in our messaging, we also lose the answers to important questions like “Why are we doing this?” “Where did this initiative come from?” and “What are its impacts?” In the end, you can’t reliably say “546 students enrolled in courses using OER this year,” if the person on your team who collects that data includes articles available through your library’s subscriptions in their definition of “OER.” Making sure that your partners and peers understand your work and its boundaries can help you avoid issues reporting your work’s impact over time.

Miscommunication is a problem for all of the individuals who manage programs that support both course material affordability and OER. For those running general textbook affordability programs, it can be frustrating to explain that there is a fee required to access select materials, but not others. For OER leads, it can be difficult to explain that yes! open materials can be accessed, adapted, and reused legally, so long as you follow the requirements of the open license(s) assigned. For those who manage course schedules and lists of adopted textbooks, it can be difficult to reiterate to instructors that all course material adoptions need to be reported–not just those that must be purchased by students. 

Taken in order, these small annoyances can be handled easily enough. However, without concerted efforts to clear up misaligned messaging, tensions over affordability initiatives’ overlap can come to a head in interpersonal communications breaking down or otherwise complicating potentially fruitful partnerships.

The Impact of “Simple Miscommunication”

As we’ve shown here, conflating OER and other affordable course materials can complicate and hamper affordability initiatives across an institution by harming: 

  1. instructors, as they are making choices about what course materials to use and how to implement them in their courses

  2. administrators, as they make decisions about what programs to fund and how best to respond to requirements from local and national leaders

  3. students, as they make plans for accessing and utilizing the things they have learned in college after graduation

  4. our initiatives, as we try to educate others about our work and leverage institutional resources to support sustainable change

  5. ourselves, as we focus on combating misconceptions to the detriment of our work’s development and focus 

Tying open and affordable work together can lead to positive outcomes, but clear lines need to be drawn to support the work of both open and affordable education programs while ensuring that we are authentically representing the goals of each.

Header image for this Pub is “People Having Business Meeting Together” by fauxels on Pexels.

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