Recently, there has been a lot of fed policy activity on open ed, including the introductions of the Durbin open textbook bill and the Foster Open Source Textbook act [sic…open source applies to software, not OER, but we’ll leave that aside for now], as well as talk about an “Online Skills Laboratory” for open online courses.

These efforts have been called “misguided” by some and have received more criticism than one might expect. I mean, who can argue with initiatives to bring free, open educational resources to the masses? Many, apparently.

One of the big arguments seems to be that this is some effort to enact a government-takeover of the commercial publishing industry. I suppose this argument is to be expected with the publishers having an extremely well-funded and active lobbying effort (which is being quoted frequently in these discussions). Comparing the OER movement to the health care “public option” seems a bit absurd to me though. Didn’t most of us get into (public) education precisely because, in the U.S., education is public, free, and available to all? (See previous post on the equity agenda.)

An important sidenote is that these proposed initiatives do not aim to subsume commercial initiatives. Many, in fact, just try to assure that public funds, such as federal grants, that are already directed at materials development result in publicly-accessible materials. Public funds for the public good seems like good sense to me. And no one is forced to apply for these funds or to open license materials developed on their own dime.

Some have also claimed that it’s not clear what problem these initiatives are trying to solve, given that there are a plethora of high-quality, commercially-produced educational resources already out there. These folks are missing the most significant driver behind OER: The pedagogical demand for open resources comes from the need to differentiate instruction. Remixing content has become a vital way to reach and empower learners of all levels; however, remixing most commercially-published content is prohibited. The publishers are very invested in preserving this status quo, time and time again refusing schools’ requests to give them this ability.

Open-licensed content gives educators and students the ability to remix and redistribute educational content in the way that is best for each learner’s particular learning style. This kind of differentiation is a fundamental part of ensuring every learner’s success.

Education already has a “public option”
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3 thoughts on “Education already has a “public option”

  • Pingback: Open Textbooks and the Public Option «

  • October 10, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Karen’s excellent response leads to another issue entirely—what the digital textbook might look like. At, we hope that the growing national (and international) discussion sees beyond the familiar organizational structure of the bound book and its analogue finding aids. Open textbooks ought to take advantage of the web’s inherent strengths and allow users to organize material in numerous ways while pointing outward to high quality resources elsewhere on the web. Hopefully, these new resources will seamlessly incorporate multimedia allowing users to listen, read, watch and most importantly respond. Here is an opportunity to directly engage students, allowing them initiate or join conversations both in and outside the confines of the text. Lastly, I strongly agree that it is the faculty themselves that ought to be creating a multitude of high-quality digital resources and public policy needs to ensure this. Take a look at the award-winning site and let us know if we can help.

  • October 12, 2009 at 7:28 am

    Dr. Zucker, thanks for the thought-provoking comment and the awesome resource at This comment and our discussion on Twitter has gotten me really thinking about the balance of being innovative enough to be interesting and conventional enough to be used.

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