My Point of View: David Harris, Editor-in-Chief of OpenStax

October 18, 2017


David Harris of OpenStax



With publishers searching for better distribution models, and students and institutions equally determined to reduce costs and increase access to learning materials, the advantages of open educational resource (OER) content takes on even greater significance. Publishing its first openly licensed college textbook in 2012, OpenStax has been at the forefront of the OER movement, now offering a library of more than 20 books for college and AP courses, used by 1.5 million students nationwide. In our My Point of View series, OpenStax Editor-in-Chief David Harris shares his thoughts on open resource learning with Barnes & Noble College and explains how the common barriers to education and student empowerment are breaking down — and where the future of academic publishing may be headed.



Open Education

I started my career in publishing when the principal aim for publishers was access and affordability. I believed we were moving away from that model and became disillusioned with traditional publishing during the early nineties.


I now work at OpenStax, an extension of Richard Baraniuk’s Connexions, which was one of the world’s first and largest “open education” platforms. It was built under the assumption that if people contribute content to an open platform, then the community could take that material, adapt it and utilize it in an educational setting. We found it worked very well for the individual learner, but didn’t do as well in broad-scale adoption. Part of that was due to the nature of our market, and we found, for example, that faculty tend to adapt only after they adopt — not the other way around.


Consequently, OpenStax consists of materials that are more turnkey, meet the whole sequence of a course, support the full curriculum and includes the range of ancillary services the market has come to expect. That pivot for us, around 2012, has afforded the opportunity for some dramatic growth, and this fall alone, 1.5 million students are using OpenStax material.


Driving Learning, Access & Reducing Expense

Where OpenStax is different is we use technology as an enabler to drive learning and reduce expense, but without restriction — and that’s an important qualification. There was, for example, some initial feedback from publishers that students didn’t like learning from e-textbooks, but it wasn’t that they didn’t like the e-books, they just didn’t like the restrictions that went along with them: limited access periods, the inability to print out the entire book, viewing restrictions and the inability to adapt it without permission. Those types of digital rights management (DRM) restrictions curtailed the use of digital significantly, and now that we’ve eliminated them, the uptake is much more aligned to what the customer wants.


“It’s interesting that when people first experience OER, they focus on the free part and the ability to reduce costs, but they soon discover everything else they can do in their course — and what they’ve always wanted to do.”


I believe faculty are much more willing to adopt and try learning materials when they know they can make changes and add in local content, bring in their own lesson examples and, mix and match it with resources they’re using without having to go through some lengthy permissions process. It’s interesting that when people first experience OER, they focus on the free part and the ability to reduce costs, but they soon discover everything else they can do in their course — and what they’ve always wanted to do. What we then see is amazing. It’s transformational and freeing — and the level of creativity it allows makes the source material even more powerful than in its original, standard form.


Changing the Course Material Model

The number one question we get at OpenStax is: What’s the catch? What’s your business model? We spend a lot of time explaining that we’re a non-profit and that we’re supported by philanthropists who are extremely passionate about students getting access to quality learning materials, from the first day of class, forward. We’re not going to judge you on how you want that content. Frankly, our position at OpenStax is any format, anywhere, any time, and we’re going to make it available however you want to access it.


Some faculty, like their students, want a fully immersive interactive technology experience while others want a printed book or more of a blended solution, but the market is changing. For example, where resources are being made available at the local level to allow faculty to adapt and create new OER or new classroom pedagogies into their classrooms — those efforts are achieving more success than any legislative mandate or requirement, because faculty know what’s best for student learning, whatever the format.


It’s important to bear in mind all of this isn’t moving towards free, it’s moving towards affordable with 100 percent access. It’s also worth saying that OpenStax content is not crowd sourced. When talking about education materials, you need precision and subject matter experts, so we’re actually supporting a very traditional content development model with peer review, professional editing, professional development of illustrations and conformity to a very traditional, rigorous editorial process.


What OER does is spur innovation, making the market much more dynamic and competitive. A good example of that is Barnes & Noble Education’s LoudCloud, a superior product, with the best customization tools on the market — and offered at a fraction of the cost. They’re successful because they’re willing to share the customer. Those who ignore the advantages of open resources, and the access, freedom and affordability it can offer to students and faculty, are probably not going to be here to see the changes coming over the next five years in how we’ll all learn, study and succeed.




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