Education is only truly free with open educational resources

Knowledge knows no boundaries. BCcampus has developed a strong reputation for supporting the development of open educational resources (OER), and that’s why we use open licenses for our Open Textbooks Project.

large__NeonOpenSignOther jurisdictions and institutions have pursued a single goal of keeping online textbooks at low or no cost. Recent news from Algonquin College in Ontario of an e-textbook program that will bring low cost learning materials to students is a step in the right direction to lower the cost of higher education. However, while we applaud the efforts of Algonquin College to reduce the cost of higher education for students, we feel that they have made an unnecessary tradeoff by choosing restrictive copyright controlled material over open educational resources.

Our decision to stay exclusively with Open Textbooks was a conscious one: we think openly-licensed resources keep education truly free. By mandating that our resources be open-licensed, we are offering not only free electronic copies of textbooks for students, but free knowledge, available on any platform. Open licenses put the control of education back in the hands of faculty, researchers, instructional designers, students. Open licensing allows for a community to grow: faculty can engage a broader spectrum of their peers in the creation, review, and revision process.

We don’t think education can be completely free using proprietary, traditionally-published textbooks and resources. Closed copyright means knowledge cannot be freely shared, re-used or re-purposed. Closed copyrighted materials are usually costly (hundreds of dollars each) with new editions published frequently, making texts only a year or two old out of date. Even if they are published digitally at half the cost, they are still expensive and usually come with digital rights management that means they only appear for a short period of time (4-6 months) on a student’s e-reader.

The Algonquin e-textbook program is provided through Pearson, a large, international textbook publisher. Although students are promised “lifetime access,” there are still fees, and the faculty and students are locked into a proprietary e-reading platform.

Control over the educational resources in the Algonquin e-textbook program still rests firmly with Pearson. Faculty will be restricted in what they can do to enhance or localize the resources based on the pedagogical needs of their students. Students and faculty are more than ever a captive market under this scheme. Algonquin has traded pedagogical flexibility and control for reduced cost to students.

With so many openly-licensed resources available, and more being published all the time, we think Algoniquin has made an unnecessary trade-off.

In the digital age, information is immediately copied, shared, and disseminated. There are no monks copying out books by candlelight in cloistered monasteries anymore. No one needs a printing press, a Gestetner machine, or even a photocopier to reproduce knowledge. In this environment, trying to keep education in a closed, proprietary system makes no ethical sense, and it makes no practical sense either.


Further information:

  • Update 2014.04.11: David Porter gave a keynote address to a distance learning conference of K-12 educators in Vancouver, addressing this issue of “free” versus “open.” He has made his presentation available.


Photo credit: Open/Closed by Antti T. Nissinen, used under CC Attribution 2.0 license



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