A Funny Letter from Textbock [sic] Publishers to California Governor Jerry Brown

The Association of American Publishers, which represents college textbook publishers, just wrote an inadvertently funny letter to California Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. By misspelling common words, including some typos, and making other factual errors the publishers accidentally made a case for the very same quickly-fixable open educational resources (OER) whose use within California’s community college system their letter seeks to undermine.

It’s a classic “shoot yourself in the foot” effort. In their letter, the college textbook publishers ask Governor Brown to amend his recent budget proposal in a way that would torpedo his goal of giving every community college student in California the option to earn a high-quality, transferable A.A. degree with zero textbook costs. Brown’s proposal to create Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) community college degrees mirrors similar high-quality, lower cost A.A. degree-granting programs already offered elsewhere, including by community colleges in the state of Virginia, where students can now save thousands of dollars they used to spend on often overpriced textbooks, an expense that frequently comes directly out of the always limited state and federal financial aid provided by taxpayers.

Think about that. Money taxpayers generously set aside through their elected representatives to help needy students, billions of dollars each year, winds up instead in the pockets of a handful of big media conglomerate publishers. By contrast, in locales that offer ZTC degrees, community college students, who typically live on the margins, can now pocket the cash they used to shell out for costly textbooks and instead use it to cover other necessities, such as housing, transportation, child care, and to make up for lost wages so they can work less and study more, which is, not surprisingly, a proven path to more rapid degree completion.
 
ZTC degrees are catching on in higher education. They rely on OER to replace proprietary textbooks, which cost as much as $280 or more for books in technical fields that lead to higher-paying jobs. OER are teaching and learning materials that have been released by their authors with an intellectual property license that allows their free use and repurposing by others. Typically, students can access OER entirely free online and, oftentimes, obtain printed, bound copies that look just like conventional textbooks for little more than the cost of paper and printing. Or, if they prefer, students can print out or copy only the pages or media materials they need.

In recent years, tens of thousands of educators and scholars and hundreds of educational groups, schools and institutions have been creating and continuously improving high-quality OER for free global use and repurposing. OER now includes open textbooks, lectures by senior academic authorities, films, music, illustrations, assessments, simulations, and virtually every type of learning resource imaginable. For more than a decade, foundations such as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Open Society Foundations, have poured tens of millions of dollars into OER. In the U.S., the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) groundbreaking OpenCourseWare initiative started posting all of MIT’s learning resources online for free use in 2001. Coupled with a nearly $2 billion federal effort mounted by the Obama administration to create OER for use in community college-based job training programs, the combined efforts built momentum for what is now commonly referred to as the open educational resources movement.

Not surprisingly, the textbook publishers are up in arms. To make their case, they retained two veteran Sacramento lobbyists with deep ties to the state legislature, Jeff Frost and Dale Shimasaki (a one-time senior advisor to the legendary former Speaker of the California state Assembly, Willie L. Brown, who remains a Democratic party powerhouse). In their letter, the textbook publishers make three main objections to Governor Brown’s ZTC proposal, which would provide support to community college faculty members who want to offer a zero textbook cost degree option to their students.
 
First, the publishers ask Governor Brown to insert a requirement that OER follow federal copyright laws. “Use of content under copyright should occur if the owner authorizes its release for use to the public domain,” they declare, making a statement that gets one of the most basic facts about OER entirely wrong. Open intellectual property licenses, which are used by authors to designate material as OER, ride on top of copyright. OER is an expression of copyright, not an alternative to copyright. A person can’t designate something as OER unless that person created it or already owns it. What’s more, once an author decides to release a learning resource as free OER that does not mean it is automatically placed in the “public domain” unless the copyright owner specifically applies a public domain designation. More commonly, OER authors release the materials they want to give away with an intellectual property license that imposes certain requirements, for example, that the original author receive written credit when others reuse or repurpose the materials. It is true that open educational materials can often be found in the public domain, and all public domain materials can be used as OER, but if something is OER it does not mean it is automatically in the public domain. Had this assertion been made in an open textbook, an expert — or a first-year law student — could have fixed this error right away.

Second, the publishers assert the indisputable need to make sure OER is accessible to persons with disabilities. “Specifically, the authorized parties are able to distribute copi00es [sic] or phono-records…for use by blind or other persons with disabilities. We belie [sic] that this is a reasonable requirement…” Okay, I’m having some fun here. But the point should be obvious: closed learning materials provided by commercial publishers often contain errors and omissions like those found in the textbook publishers’ letter to Governor Brown, errors that can’t be fixed by anyone other than the original authors. OER, by contrast, can be fixed and improved on the spot by anyone. That openness is a main feature of freely available OER: teachers and students are empowered to engage in curating and improving the learning materials they use rather than be saddled with static off-the-shelf textbooks that are frequently less than perfect. As for the publishers’ request that OER respect federal disability laws, those laws are, of course, already on the books. The publishers’ argument is akin to saying OER producers should not be allowed to run red lights. Who can argue with that? While we are at it, Governor Brown could also include an amendment that requires OER producers to follow all other laws too, but that would be equally silly. Here again we see the inadvertent case the publishers’ letter makes for OER. Had their letter been open, had any expert been able to weigh in and suggest improvements, the typos, misspellings and errors of fact it contains could have been fixed rather than set in stone in what is now a permanent public document.

The publishers’ final request, however, is by far their most alarming. They ask Governor Brown to amend, or rather, completely reverse, his ZTC proposal, and abandon the idea of eliminating all textbook costs by inserting a provision that would permit the use of “digital learning platforms” where publishers would be allowed to charge students anything they want for online access to free OER. “Publishers are able,” they say, “to provide proprietary digital learning materials to enhance the final OER content.”
 
Well, yes indeed, publishers can do that. That’s why Governor Brown’s proposal leaves publishers entirely free to continue to offer commercial learning resources and platforms at any price they choose to any community college or professor or student who prefers them. What’s more, colleges will continue to be free to use any online learning management system they want as long as the costs for access charged to students are uniform and included in the basic tuition or fees paid by all students.

But the whole idea behind Governor Brown’s ZTC proposal is to cut college costs by giving community college students in California a new option, one that is already available elsewhere: the opportunity to enter an A.A. and/or transfer degree program knowing their textbook and learning materials costs will be permanently fixed at zero. We already know what happens when community college students have that option based on experience elsewhere. Armed with the knowledge that textbook costs are fixed at zero, community college students are more likely to enroll in degree and transfer programs, they take more courses when they do enroll because of the lower costs per course, they get grades as good or better than in conventional courses, they often learn more quickly than in conventional courses, every student has all the learning materials they need on the first day of class, and students can maintain free access to all their learning materials forever rather than have to sell their books back to the college bookstore or buy a new, time-expiring online password at the end of each term.

Or, we can keep things just as they are and let the textbook publishers write the rules — and that would not be funnie [sic].

The choice is up to the California state legislature.

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