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Truth Through Combat

The Meaning of Openness in Open Educational Resources

An analysis of openness in the area of open educational resources shows us that there is just no such thing as a truly open educational resource.

The colloquial definition of “open” varies according to the available resources. I would argue that JSTOR is an “open” resource at Erie Community College just by virtue of the fact that we purchase it. This definition is contrary to the spirit of the OER movement, which instead looks for resources that are truly “free” in some sense. However, I believe this just goes to show that there is some conceptual ambiguity in the concept of openness to begin with (and the frequent conflation with “free of charge to the end user”): the cost of JSTOR is not transparently being passed down to me or my students, so as far as an uninformed observer is concerned JSTOR is in the commons just as much as Wikipedia is in the commons.

Some will point to the obvious: that the distinction between JSTOR and Wikipedia is that one has to pay for JSTOR access. My point, however, is that the distinction means nothing to someone that has never paid for JSTOR or any other library database. Furthermore, the point can be extended to any other educational resource that an instructor might attempt to use in the classroom: there is a cost to the copies I’ll make for an OER/public domain text, and there is a cost to the instructional design of the class that will house the OER/PD text. This means that “openness” is really about externalizing the cost of publication and distribution to someone other than the institution and student. An OER in Merlot, for example, might have cost one million dollars to create, but that cost is not mine to bear. It’s therefore “open,” but only by virtue of someone else’s generosity.

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